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Just imagine: it’s a clear and sunny day on the waters of San Francisco Bay. A boatload of tourists is headed out to one of the area’s most popular tourist destinations. Most have their phones out, snapping shots of the picturesque scenery on their way to the secluded island. But their destination is not a market, a resort, or even an amusement park but rather a former prison – and an infamous prison at that.

What is now a popular tourist locale in one of America’s most beautiful cities was once one of the most severe prisons in the United States. Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious criminals in the country, and it was perhaps the nation’s most difficult prison from which to escape. Alcatraz Island itself is a natural base, a fact that was recognized early on by the United States Government.

Alcatraz Island’s Pre-Prison Years

Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spaniard, was the first European to explore the island in 1775. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces or “Island of the Pelicans.” The word Alcatraces became Alcatraz, hence Alcatraz Island. In 1850, the United States Army built a fortress on the island. The purpose of the fortress was to protect San Francisco but as it turned out, there was no need to protect the city, so the U.S. Government turned Alcatraz into a military prison in 1868.

Alcatraz Prison

In 1909 much of the old military fort was torn down and re-built as a prison. Much of the construction work was done by the prisoners themselves. During this time, the prison gained its nickname of “The Rock” because it was so isolated and such a hard place to live.

 In 1933 the U.S. Government took over Alcatraz and turned the prison into a federal penitentary. The reason for this change was that, since it was so difficult to escape from Alcatraz, the island would be better served as a home to the country’s most dangerous criminals. In 1934, the first batch of criminals arrived in handcuffs, escorted by a legion of US Marshals and FBI Agents.

A look inside one of the cells at Alcatraz Prison

James A. Johnston was the first warden of Alcatraz Prison, and he ruled with an iron fist until 1948. While Johnston was the warden, newspapers and radios were forbidden, and the prisoners were required to be silent most of the time. The prisoners lived alone in tiny cells that were 9 feet long by 5 feet wide by 7 feet high. There were about 250 prisoners at any given time. The prison staff numbered around 150 people, and the staff and their families lived on the island.

A Roster of Dangerous Criminals: Alctraz’s List of Inmates

Al Capone was certainly the most famous criminal to be locked up at Alctraz. The notorious mobster stayed on the island from 1934 to 1939. Among some of the other criminals to have been locked up at Alcatraz were George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, nicknamed after his favourite weapon, who was at Alcatraz from 1942 to 1959; Robert Stroud, the ‘birdman of Alcatraz’, a psychopathic murderer who had reared sparrows and canaries at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, was not allowed birds at Alcatraz in his time there from 1942 to 1959; Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis, a Public Enemy Number 1, from 1936 to 1962.

An old guard tower at Alcatraz overlooks the San Francisco Bay

Just how hard was it to escape from Alcatraz? Well, “impossible” might be a more appropriate word. From the time the prison first opened to civilians until it closed in 1963, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 men. Of these men, 23 were caught, six were shot dead, two were drowned, and the other five were unaccounted for – it is believed that they either drowned or were swept out to sea.

Alcatraz Prison Closes: the End of an Era

In 1963, Attorney General Roberty F. Kennedy made the decision to close Alcatraz. The cost of transporting food, water, and other supplies to the island made it a much more expensive prison to run than other federal prisons. In 1972 Alcatraz was included as part of the new Golden Gate Recreation area and the following year it was opened to the public.

Alcatraz Prison Fun Facts

  • Al Capone played banjo in the inmate band
  • It was possible to swim to shore. One prisoner greased himself with lard, squeezed out of his cell window and swam to shore. This prisoner was so exhausted from the swim that he was found unconscious by police on the beach.
  • Alcatraz was home to the Pacific Coast’s first lighthouse
  • Native American activists occupied the prison for two years, from 1971-1972.


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