From San Francisco Chronicle:
SAN FRANCISCO BAY
Upgraded Alcatraz breaks out the excitement
Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
It is springtime on Alcatraz, and for the first time in years the flowers are blooming in a garden once tended by some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country.
The new garden is part of a general overhaul of facilities on the island, which has been part of the national park system longer than it was a federal prison housing inmates the government thought were "the worst of the worst.''
Alcatraz is a strangely fascinating place -- its site in the center of San Francisco Bay is unmatched. Yet it is the "Rock," an island of dark legends. Every year it draws 1.3 million visitors for a 12-minute boat ride, followed by a tour.
This spring the island has gotten new exhibits and a new bookstore, and the prison gardens have been replanted. There is also a new audio tour where ex-inmates and former guards and their families offer sometimes chilling descriptions of life and death on Alcatraz.
"We wanted to tell the human story of Alcatraz,'' said Ricardo Perez, supervising ranger at the island, a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
He said the park service wanted to show visitors what prison was like, "so they could learn the difference between rights and privileges that could be taken away, between incarceration and freedom.''
To do this, the new path to the main cell house leads up a long concrete road to a shower room where new inmates were stripped, searched, issued numbers and given uniforms and a book of rules. There were 53 rules in all, and the only way out was to obey every one of them.
This exhibit is all new: Lockers hold the prison uniform jackets, caps and shirts, sheets and pillowcases issued to the inmates. Some of the material had been locked away in storage for years and is on public display for the first time.
The audio tour uses prison voices to tell of a revolt, put down by U.S. Marines in 1946. Visitors can stand in front of cells in D Block and hear how inmates shot guards in cold blood.
They are directed to another part of the cell block where scars made by Marine hand grenades are still visible.
At one point, an inmate describes hearing the sound of New Year's Eve parties at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood drifting across the bay.
At another, visitors are asked to imagine how it felt to come out of the big, concrete cellblock and see San Francisco, glimmering in the sunlight.
"It's only a mile,'' the voice says, "only a mile and a quarter. There is everything you ever wanted over there.''
"These are not talking heads,'' said Katy Olds, assistant director for visitor programs for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which paid for the new audio tour.
"We used actual voices,'' she said. "You know, time has gone by since Alcatraz was shut down, and they are passing into history.''
The audio tour and the new exhibits are endorsed by a member of Alcatraz's original cast. He is Darwin Coon, who served four years, and was on the last boat out when the prison was closed in 1963.
Coon, a reformed bank robber and prison troublemaker, said the revised exhibits and audio tour are "really great.''
He is one of several ex-inmates or others with island connections who sell books on the island. His is called "Alcatraz: The True End of the Line.''
Back in the 1930s, when Alcatraz really was the end of the prison line, Freddie Reichel, who was Warden James Johnson's secretary, talked the warden into allowing inmates to grow flowers in rocky soil near a gun tower on the east side of the island. "I kept no records of failures, for I had many,'' he wrote.
The inmates grew cut flowers, which were given to the guards' wives; the wife of the warden always got the pick of the crop for her table.
"It was very surprising to see gardens,'' said Perez. "It would trigger a measure of freedom by a garden assignment. They could escape, in a way, through the flowers.''
The garden went to seed and weeds after the prison closed, but came back this year. The flower project is managed by Carola Ashford of the nonprofit Garden Conservancy and tended by volunteers. Just now, roses, iris, calla lilies, fuchsia and a white flower Ashford called "candytuft'' are in bloom, a strange contrast to the cell block behind and the ruins of the old prison officer's social hall.
The overhaul cost $3.5 million, privately raised by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that assists the Park Service.
The overall effect of a tour of Alcatraz was "unbelievable ... one of the best in national parks I've seen,'' said Bill Dawson, who was visiting from South Bend, Ind. "After years of hearing about Alcatraz, here it was."
Dawson's wife, Joan, was born and raised in the Bay Area and had never visited Alcatraz. "I had to move to South Bend to see it,'' she said.