Rockin' Through the Night

The Alcatraz Night Tour is fascinating and beautiful. Then it's cold and eerie. And then it's -- let's get outta here!

"It is very beautiful," says 26-year-old Selma Lindgrid, a Swede dressed in a light cotton shirt, "but I want to go inside now. To jail, please."

Inside the cold, austere cell house, I manage to cut myself off from the nighttime tour group, which is only 10 percent as large as the usual daytime gaggle, losing myself in the award-winning audio tour. The clang and squeal of thick metal bars sliding along metal tracks fill my headphones as the craggy voice of a former correction officer leads me down "Broadway," a lane between Cellblocks B and C, which rise three tiers high. From their 9-by-5 cells men call to me, offering taunts and jeers as I walk the gauntlet. Humiliation is part of the introduction to the Rock. Former inmate No. 1465, Leon "Whitey" Thompson, describes the hatred that burned in his heart during those years, and, staring at a photograph of his vacant face, there is little reason to doubt his sincerity. I am invited to step inside a cell, sans bed, toilet, or sink. Even without furnishings, it is fewer than three paces back to front; my hands can touch either wall. Too small to imagine.

"One inmate told me the longer you sat in there, the smaller it got," says Kennelly during her lecture, "Sanity and Survival on the Rock." "Inmates sat in their cells 18 hours a day if they were privileged enough to be allowed out on work detail, 23 hours if they weren't."

By today's prison standards, Alcatraz seems almost humane.
Brandon Fernandez
By today's prison standards, Alcatraz seems almost humane.

Jim Nelson, who has worked for the GGNRA for five years, remembers sleeping in No. 107 while friends and co-workers did the same in the surrounding cells.

"It was really, really hard to get used to," says Nelson. "You can hear everything. Someone coughs, and it's as if it's right next to you. You can hear everyone breathing, snoring. The noise is horrible. I prefer the isolation cells in D-block. Of course, there, you've got the creaking and groaning of the building. That can get to you as well. The tunnels leading to the morgue ... now, those are pretty spooky."

In the "hole," where men were kept without light for months, I listen as an inmate describes the specks of light that flicker behind your eyelids after you've first closed them.

"I'd just concentrate on that light," he says. "I'd hold onto the light and put a TV in there and go on trips." Another inmate describes pulling buttons off his shirt and throwing them in the air while he spins in the darkness, then dropping to his knees to search for the buttons by touch. And doing it all over again.

Through it all, the sounds of the city -- laughter, music, women singing, the chiming of clocks -- and the aroma of chocolate from Ghirardelli Square wiggle through the walls, along with frigid fingers of wind, reminding the convicts of an unreachable world. Thirteen suicidal escape attempts and the bloody battle of 1946, which lasted three days and cost the lives of two guards and three inmates, seem paltry sacrifices, considering the isolation that spawned them.

"OK, OK," says tour member Lindgrid. "I've done my time on Alcatraz. We should go now." She is not alone in the sentiment. By the time we leave the island, the crowd is exhilarated but very eager and very grateful to be going home, and I can't imagine anyone but Melmoth crouching in the darkness of an isolation cell for fun.

The head count is faithful; our ferry heads for the twinkling lights of Fisherman's Wharf.

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