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Is There Room Service in Prison?

Rule No. 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations, 1934: "You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege." Welcome to the Rock, the most notorious federal prison in America's history. Through a special program, I was part of a group of 35 that agreed to perform a few hours of work on the island in exchange for a private tour and an overnight stay in Cell Block D.

Escaping the island is famously difficult, but getting there is easy-- it's a 10-minute ferry ride from San Francisco. After a tour of the cell house, we start trail-clearing and doing other odd jobs. Unlike, I imagine, in the federal-prison days, the warden is extremely accommodating, encouraging us to break for lunch at noon. Once the work is finished, around three, we visit the restricted areas behind the Officers' Club, an old cell house, and the Industries Building, where convicts once manufactured brooms. The buildings are either gutted by fire or crumbling from the salt air. Back in the main cell house, we head to the kitchen and the theater, where prisoners watched Shirley Temple movies, of all things. Our daytime tour ends on the roof, painted a blinding silver.

Down below, we kill a couple of hours with a barbecue dinner at the docks. The island is a sanctuary for western gulls, and they swarm by the thousands. The barbecue is a tense affair as we, like the ancient Greeks, look to the skies for our fate.

Our evening guide, Benny, leads us into the old infirmary, where Al Capone spent his last years on the island, suffering from late-stage syphilis. Above the cells on the second floor, forbidden to day-trippers, we visit the old operating room, the pharmacy, and the psychiatric confinement cells. The building has grown darker, and it's harder to see into corners. Ghosts vaporized by daylight are beginning to rematerialize, and I notice that our group is becoming less and less spread out. The tour ends back on the roof, only by now it is well into night. From no other vantage can you see such an amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge, its amber lights spanning the curve more than a mile away.

The cots have narrow foam mattresses-- lockdown is more comfortable than I would have thought. We sit on the second and third tiers with our legs hanging over the edge, talking about life in the cells, looking through the barred windows to the lights on the coast. After a good night's sleep in our solitary cells, we catch the staff boat back to Fisherman's Wharf, paroled from one of the Bay Area's most unusual experiences.

To sign up-- the project is available only to organized youth groups and adult volunteer groups of between 15 and 35 people-- contact the Golden Gate National Recreation Area-Special Park Uses Group (415/561-4300). You must register in November for the annual lottery held December 1. Overnight stays are offered year-round. Permit fee per group is $640; applicants must be ages nine and up.

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