Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is one of San Francisco’s most infamous and most visited tourist attractions. Yet, in all the years I’ve lived in San Francisco or visited San Francisco, I’d never gone to Alcatraz. Until now.

After it was closed in 1963 Alcatraz became a museum administered by the National Parks Service. The only way to visit island is via a commercial ferry service from Pier 33 near San Francisco’s Fishermans Wharf district. Entry to the Prison’s various museums and audio tour are included with the ferry ticket price.

The ferry has a snack bar and food for sale but no food or beverages are available on Alcatraz island. No food or drink is allowed to be consumed within the Prison museum but you can consume food and drinks onboard the ferry or at the dock waiting area on the island. In front of the Pier 33 entrance, there are numerous street food vendors vending sausages and hot dogs.

Arriving on the island, we disembarked on the dock which has restroom facilities, information displays, and a gift shop. There are Park Service Rangers who give talks at various times and locations on the island. Visitors can choose to follow these rangers or explore on their own. I and the majority of visitors chose the later.

Walking up the main road from the dock up to the prison, you pass through administration buildings, staff barracks, and facilities, some of which date from when Alcatraz was a coastal fort. Civil War-era coastal battery canons are on display in various parts of the park. It is a reasonable walk uphill to the prison but those with disabilities can take a free tram up to the prison.

The prison’s former laundry building has been converted into a museum hall containing an exhibit on the 1969 occupation of the island by Nativist protestors. Their protest graffiti is still present (or reproduced) throughout the park on signage and on the island water tower.

In a morbid reminder, on the walk up to the former Maximum Security Federal Penitentiary, all visitors must pass the prison’s Morgue, a small building just outside of the main prison complex. Entering the prison, all visitors enter a large intake room where everyone is issued a complimentary headset and a digital audio player to listen to an Audio Tour.

The audio tour was well-produced and informative. It was narrated by guards and former prisoners of Alcatraz who gave personal insights as to life in the prison. Sound effects and ambient sounds created an immersive experience. The only issue was a poor user interface and faulty equipment maintenance that didn’t allow me to reliably pause, rewind and forward sections of the audio.

The prison interior was creepy and oppressive in a way that only old run-down brutalist 20th-century buildings. I knew prison cells were small but the 5ft x 5ft cells looked even smaller in real life. Most of the cells were closed to the public except for “The Hole”, the isolation cells in D-block where rule violators were sent as punishment.

The most unsettling part of the whole prison tour was at the end: the gift shop. The large gift shop was filled with Alcatraz logo wear, replica eating utensils, and table wear. Why anybody would want to make another human’s incarceration, even if that human was a criminal, something to “enjoy” in their home is disturbing.

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