We'd been bandying jail talk the night before when I'd said I was planning a trip to Alcatraz. Now the fog across the bay made the island invisible. "It'll lift," says Jerry, saluting, clicking the heels of his liveried uniform. "Happy tunneling."
The F-line streetcar takes me direct to the waterfront. There, queuing at Pier 33, I see the tips of the Golden Gate Bridge and the first hint of sunlight bathing the city. The Alcatraz Cruises boat loads quickly. "The Rock", as Alcatraz is known, is a smear of grey in the mist. It takes 10 minutes to make the crossing "from heaven to hell" – a diatance of less than a mile and a half.
The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened its doors to the scum-de-la-scum of American crime in the summer of 1933, an escape-proof gaff for notorious mobsters, home to Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, "Machine Gun" Kelly and Al Capone. Most cells have uninterrupted views of San Francisco. "Five-bar luxury," Jerry had jested.
We step ashore, craning our necks at the massive prison block, water tower and chimneys, shuffling up the hill to the tunnelled entrance. "Greetings from Jailhouse Rock," says one of the rangers. Everyone laughs. You can follow a ranger, or take the self-guided audio tour, with its stories and reminiscences from former inmates, reaching reception and the entrance hall, as the prisoners did.
The grounds of the 12-acre island are not unattractive. Buildings rise up in tier after tier. Over decades favoured inmates were given garden lots to cultivate. Around us are maps and notices giving the history. "There was never running water here," explains the ranger. "Until 1853, no-one lived here. Then they built a military fortress for Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. There were dozens of cannons on the ramparts. None of them ever fired a shot." We enter the shower room. Here, rookie prisoners were given convict uniforms and ushered under spigots of rushing warm water. "The cons were never allowed cold showers," the ranger explains. "They wanted to soften them up. That way the freezing currents of the bay would be a deterrent to anyone planning to swim to escape."
The gaol was never more than half-full, with an average of 260 prisoners in 450 cells. "The nightly cost was more than you'd pay at the Waldorf Astoria," says the ranger. "If they kept their noses clean, life was cushy."
In truth, the cells appear bog-standard, with narrow beds behind heavy bars. We picture prisoners slopping out, or doors being slammed at lights out. A couple of cells have what appear to be occupied bunks, huddled figures under blankets. "Those are dummies of the Anglin brothers who got away with Frank Morris in 1962."
In Clint Eastwood's Escape from Alcatraz, the Anglin boys and Morris paddled to freedom on a raft. This is officially not the case. "There were no escapes. Thirty six inmates made attempts over the years, six were shot, two were drowned, 23 were caught. The other five (including Morris and the Anglins) were posted as 'missing presumed drowned'. None ever washed up."
A shaft of sunlight bursts through a window. "Let's look at the solitary block," the ranger suggests, "where they held the Birdman, Robert Stroud." The solitary cells, on a higher level, are grim and foreboding. "Stroud served 17 years here. I'm catching him up – I've done 13."
We finally make it into the sunlight, high on the island. And there it is: the smack of blue ocean, the sparkling, clustered, high-rise city. "What a view those prisoners had," someone says. The ranger nods. "They hated New Year's Eve. Locked in their cells, they had to listen to the fireworks, the cries of merriment caught on the breeze."
Today the breeze has dispersed the gloom and a cat's tail of mist curls around the Golden Gate Bridge. When the cells shut, on March 21, 1963, Alcatraz died. American Indians held a two-year occupation. The protestors left and then the parks department decided to open it up.
I wonder if the Anglins or Morris ever returned, bought a ticket and took the tour? "That's quite a theory," says the ranger. "Return To Alcatraz? ... hmm - maybe Clint will make a sequel."
United Airlines (united.com) flies from Glasgow via Newark to San Francisco from £674 return. Where to stay
The Grand Hyatt (grandsanfranciso. hyatt.com), centrally located at Union Square, has doubles from £128 per night.
Alcatraz Cruises (alcatrazcruises.com) operates frequent daily trips from Pier 33. Adult $30 (£20), children $18.50 (£12).
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