A friend is visiting this week from DC, and thus I’ve been able to be a San Francisco tourist again. Last night, I was finally able to check off the last of the major SF tourism things that I’ve always wanted to do: an Alcatraz night tour. While it hasn’t been a working prison since 1963, this is the closest I hope to ever get to spending a night in jail.
One of the advantages of the night tour is that they open areas of the prison that aren’t open to the day tour folks, like the hospital upstairs. There you can see the room where Robert “Bird Man of Alcatraz” Stroud spent 11 months. (Fun fact: He didn’t have birds at Alcatraz, only at his previous stint at Leavenworth.) It sounds like if you take on of the day tours, you spend more time exploring the island itself as less of the prison is open. While checking out all of the birds that roost on Alcatraz Island might be fun (they roost there because there are no predators), if I had been on a day tour, I would have missed the other highlight of the night tour: the demonstration of the prison cell doors. I took some video, but unless you have a good subwoofer hooked up to your computer, you’re probably not going to get the thunderous vibrations that rumble through every time the doors are opened and closed. Alcatraz was probably not a good place for prisoners with PTSD.
Of course, everyone knows that Alcatraz was a prison and then became a National Park. What I was surprised to learn (and quite frankly, disappointed in myself that I didn’t already know) was that from November of 1969 to June of 1971, Alcatraz was occupied by a pan-tribal group of American Indians as a protest against the proposed Termination Act, which would give the US government the power to dissolve reservations and relocate tribal members across the US. Nixon, dealing with the fallout of Kent State and other protests of the time, decided to let them stay. For nearly two years, they lived on the island, receiving food and supplies from donors. Some of their graffiti is still visible, which you can see in one of my pictures below. After an unknown arsonist burned down a number of the buildings, including the warden’s house, things started to become unstable and the occupation ended soon after. But the Termination Act was dropped and the occupation is seen as one of the first pan-tribal movements of the 70s which led to a number of improved laws for Native Americans.