The History of Alcatraz Island
1. Alcatraz Island (known simply as Alcatraz or commonly as “The Rock”) is located in San Francisco Bay, California and can be reached only by a short ferry ride from Pier 33 at Fisherman’s Wharf. Alcatraz Island served many purposes over the years. Today, it is an historic site, operated by the National Park Service, and the former prison is open for public tours. Audio headsets guide visitors around the prison and provide a fairly colorful narration by former inmates and correctional officers of the prison’s history and a peek into the prisoners’ daily lives.
2. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 created an urgent need for a lighthouse as an influx of ships made their way to San Francisco Bay. The lighthouse began operating in 1854.
3. In 1853, the U.S. military began fortifying Alcatraz as a coastal battery to protect against invasion through the bay. During the U.S. Civil War, cannons were mounted, but never used. Eventually, Confederate sympathizers were held prisoner on the island during the war.
4. Alcatraz Island became a military prison when the fort was decommissioned in 1907. In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed “United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch.” It wasn’t long before conscientious objectors to WWI joined the inmate population.
5. In the 1930s, the War Department transferred Alcatraz to the Department of Justice. The newly created Bureau of Prisons was interested using the island as a maximum-security facility to house the proliferation of criminals arising from the violent crime wave created by Prohibition and the Great Depression. In 1934, Alcatraz reopened as a federal penitentiary. Prison guards and their families lived on Alcatraz Island. The lore is that Alcatraz families rarely locked their doors as it was considered a safe haven from urban crime. The children who grew up there took a ferry to and from school. Due to increasing maintenance and operating costs, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy closed Alcatraz in 1963.
6. In 1969, Alcatraz was home to a Native American occupation. Political activists arrived on Alcatraz, claiming it in the name of the “Indians of All Tribes,” which was considered a landmark event in intertribal cooperation. The Native Americans claimed that they were entitled to Alcatraz Island under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 between the U.S. and the Sioux, which conceded all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land. The location of the protest and growing national awareness of Native American issues lent itself to mostly positive media support. However, as time passed media attention began to erode and with it the money required to keep the occupiers of the island (lacking in modern facilities) supplied with food and water. The full-scale occupation lasted for nineteen months until federal agents removed the Native Americans. Graffiti from this time can be seen on Alcatraz today.
The Federal Prison
1. The prison consisted of several cellblocks. B and C Blocks were for the general population, and were stacked on three floors. (The A Blocks were rarely used.) Prisoners were allowed out of their cells only for work, meals, and brief periods of daily exercise. The main cellblocks contained row upon row of tiny cells, three levels high, all of which were occupied by a single prisoner (these "private" cells were considered by inmates to be one of the “perks” of Alcatraz), and were furnished with only a toilet, sink, and cot.
2. D Block, or solitary confinement, was where prisoners were segregated for violent behavior. In D Block, the cells were slightly larger than in the main prison, but prisoners in those cells were not permitted to leave or to have books or other such materials. D Block was also the location of “the hole” where those cells contained nothing but a cement ceiling, walls, floor, and a solid door, leaving the punished man in total darkness.
3. After the shower stalls were removed to create one large open space, the dining hall was then considered the most dangerous place in the prison. It was the one place at which all of the inmates (except the D Block inhabitants) were gathered three times a day and “armed” with flatware.
4. Although they did not get to go to there to read, prisoners who were not on D Block had access to books from the prison library.
5. The prisoners (except the D Block inhabitants) had use of an outdoor yard, which provided taunting views and sounds from the city of San Francisco.
1. Robert Stroud (known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz”) spent seventeen years at Alcatraz (six of them in D Block) beginning in 1942. Although he was called the Birdman of Alcatraz, he actually kept his birds in Leavenworth while serving time there.
2. Al Capone (known as “Scarface”) arrived at Alcatraz in 1934, where he was said to have continued his racketeering ventures by paying off guards.
3. George Kelly (known as “Machine Gun Kelly”) was a bootlegger, bank robber, and kidnapper. As the story goes, Kelly took a pee on his arresting officer. He came to Alcatraz in 1934.
4. James Joseph Bulger (known as “Whitey”) served three years on Alcatraz beginning in 1959. He is now a fugitive wanted on drug trafficking and other charges. He currently holds a place on the FBI’s Ten-Most-Wanted List. Bulger’s story inspired a “ripped from the headlines” Law & Order episode.
Comings and Goings
1. In the twenty-nine years that Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary, 1545 men arrived on the island to serve their sentences. The average sentence served on Alcatraz was eight years.
2. Fourteen federal prison-era escape attempts have been documented. The best known was in 1962 when Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin used raincoats as floatation devices, believed bound for San Francisco. Although they were never found, neither were their bodies. The official finding was “missing, presumed drowned,” arguably leaving Alcatraz’s escape-proof reputation intact.
3. No prisoners were ever executed on Alcatraz. Eight people were murdered on Alcatraz, five prisoners committed suicide, and fifteen men died of natural causes.
4. There were no women prisoners or guards on Alcatraz. The only women living on Alcatraz were the wives and daughters of guards. At any given time during the federal prison-era history some 300 families lived on the island.
5. Prisoners were allowed one visitor per month, and such visits had to be approved in writing by the warden. Visits took place only through a small glass window.
1. Many movies have been made about Alcatraz and its inhabitants, including Birdman of Alcatraz (with Burt Lancaster), Escape from Alcatraz (with Clint Eastwood), Murder in the First (with Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater, and Gary Oldham) and The Rock (with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage).
2. Alcatraz is the setting, basis for, or playable level on video games such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, San Francisco Rush, Yuri’s Revenge, Shadow Hearts, Tibia, and Guitar Hero III (the venue “Shanker’s Island” is said to bear very strong resemblance to Alcatraz).
3. On television, shows such as Charmed, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Lost all have episodes “on” or referencing Alcatraz. In a 1988 television special, illusionist David Copperfield escaped from an Alcatraz cell.
4. Numerous books, nonfiction and novels, have been written about Alcatraz and/or its inhabitants (prisoners, guards, families, and wildlife). An Amazon.com search using the keyword “Alcatraz” reveals over 6,000 titles.
Random Thoughts and Feelings
Alcatraz Island today retains its beautiful natural history and continues to be an evolving ecological preserve. The island is home to mice, salamanders, and insects. Hawks, ravens, geese, finches, and hummingbirds are frequent visitors. Western gull and black-crowned night heron colonies actively breed there, and the National Park Service closes parts of the island during breeding season to protect them. Cormorants and other birds roost in more isolated spots on the island’s rocky cliffs.
In stark contrast to the peaceful natural history and remaining wildlife, is the remaining physical evidence of man’s less-than-peaceful history. The tiny cells that housed the misery of the men confined for the violent acts that they perpetrated on each other still contain their ghosts. It is a solemn and sad place to visit, really. You cannot help but feel the weight of the human condition in its most wretched form when you first walk into the prison, much like you feel the humidity when you first walk out of a hotel in Orlando, Florida. I walked through the souvenir shop and barely looked around, without making a single purchase. I did not want to carry home any reminders.
Although revisiting certain periods in history can be a weighty effort, it is important that we make opportunities to learn about our shared human story, whether it is maintained in national parks, museums, or books so that we learn from our mistakes and do better in the future. Although Alcatraz made me feel sad and contemplative, I was fortunate to go there surrounded by my loving family, and that we visited the island on a warm and sunny day, with just enough of a breeze to carry off my thoughts in a positive direction.
2 years ago