– Sign on the wall of Alcatraz Prison

ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CALIFORNIA—There are places you don’t expect to be entering for the first time with your children: Prison is high on the list.

But here we are, on our way for a tour of the infamous Alcatraz penitentiary off the shores of San Francisco and already wondering whether we’d be able to answer the questions that two boys under the age of 10 might muster.

Granted, the decision to take the kids to the prison that once housed gangsters like Al Capone and “The Birdman” Robert Stroud wasn’t a well-thought-out one. On a visit to California we’d known that we wanted to visit the highlights and somewhere between planning tours of a jelly bean factory and riding electric boats we had slotted in a visit to Alcatraz Maximum Security.

Entering the building through the long shower room where prisoners wouldn’t have had any suggestion of privacy, my husband and I realize our folly. We share a look and switch into parent mode, scanning the room for things kids shouldn’t see and anticipating stories that will get back to the teachers at home in not quite the fashion we want them delivered. (“Mom and Dad took us to prison this summer. It was AWESOME!”)

As we pass the “Welcome to Alcatraz enjoy your stay” sign, we decide to make the best of the situation, talk loudly about the perils of breaking the law and move forward.

We aren’t the only ones doing the tour with kids, but ours are among the youngest. As it turns out, while I wouldn’t quite equate it with Jelly Belly University on the scale of family-friendly attractions, it is an educational experience that if monitored well could be enjoyed by kids of all ages.

While you’ll need to decide for yourself if your kids are ready to see it, it would be a mistake to make that decision without doing a bit of research.

For us, it turns out to be relatively easy. We purposely start our audio tour headsets before the kids so we’ll hear what they’re going to hear before they actually hear it. (I’m sure that there were several people touring that day that wondered why I periodically darted over to my son to hit the fast-forward button.) The tactic worked and the strange looks are a price I’m willing to pay to ensure he doesn’t have nightmares about body-less heads (a ploy used in the infamous June 1962 escape) or walk around repeating “Keep your mouth shut and keep your back to the wall.” And for similar reasons, we also declined to be “locked in segregation.”

For the most part, though, the kids questions are easy to answer. They’re middle-class kids who find it hard to imagine anyone can live in a 5-foot-by-9-foot cell. “But where do they sleep?” one asks, and when it’s explained both their eyes grow wide as they contemplate the harshness of prison. “No, son they went to the bathroom right there, too. No door.”

On the plus side, nothing says behave yourself quite like a 45-minute tour of the continent’s most notorious prison. You can hear sounds drifting in through windows and see San Francisco from the yard and chat about how hard it would’ve been to be so close to the city but unable to access it. As one prisoner notes on the audio tour, “There was never a day you didn’t see what you were losing.”

All in all the kids hold up well. They are curious to explore, never ask a question we can’t answer in an age appropriate way and get the general idea that prison is a bad place. At the mess hall we let them run around for a bit headphone free as we listen to descriptions of how the room was the “most dangerous” in the building: More than 200 men, all armed with a fork, knife and spoon. The kids are giggling and playing tag oblivious to the teargas ducts in the ceiling or the riots over spaghetti that once happened in this very spot.

Many of the adults are visibly shaken as we file out and head for the gift shop (which I’m pretty sure is a post-working prison addition). Despite the horrible nature of what life here must’ve been like when it was open, the sarcastic signs throughout continue to keep me entertained right to the end.

As we’re exiting, this doozy: “All audio equipment is electrically protected against theft and will trigger an alarm. Thank you for visiting Alcatraz.”

Anyone who’d consider stealing after that tour, deserves to stay.

This article first appeared on thestar.com. Our visit was subsidized in part by www.visitcalifornia.com.

Just the Facts

GETTING THERE: Alcatraz is best accessed via a Hornblower Cruise from Pier 33 in San Francisco.  www.alcatrazcruises.com

TICKET PRICES: Purchase a timed ticket from the booth at the pier or online (Web prices: Adults (12+) $30; children 5-11 $8.25; children 4 and under free. All prices U.S.).

TIPS: Take your time walking the grounds, which in addition to the jail hold other buildings, historic gardens and walking trails to explore. Families with young children who might need strollers or people with difficulty walking will need to be extra cautious given the uneven pavement and steep inclines.