The Story and History of Alcatraz Island

The Rock; United States Federal Penitentiary: Alcatraz Island, one of the most famous and legendary maximum-security prisons of the 20th century. A Pacific hideaway for America’s most hardened criminals, and possibly the most famous prison in the entire world. What else could be more fascinating than a big house on an island in the middle of a bay surrounded in fog, that’s filled with the meanest, hardest, most dangerous men in the entire country? A place accessible only by boat, which cross the San Francisco Bay where man-eating sharks swim through the waters, to deter escapees?
The History of Alcatraz Island
Located a bit more than a mile off the coast of San Francisco, California, is a small island. The Spanish who arrived in California in the 18th Century gave this island the name ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’: The Isle of the Pelicans.
From almost the very day it was discovered, Alcatraz was used for protective purposes. When California joined the United States as its 31st state in 1850, the US Army started taking a very big interest in Alcatraz. Considering that the island was right in the middle of the bay, the most obvious first action was one of shipping safety. The first lighthouse on the US West Coast was erected on Alcatraz in 1854. It lasted just over fifty years until the 1906 earthquake put it out of action. It was torn down and was replaced by another lighthouse on Alcatraz in 1909 (which still stands and operates today).
Initially, the US Army decided to make Alcatraz an island fortress, building barracks on the island and setting up gun-batteries along its perimeter. A total of 108 cannons were placed around the edges of the island, to protect the San Francisco Bay Area against naval attacks during the Civil War. The guns were never fired, and soon, soldiers began to find a new purpose for Alcatraz…a military prison.
Throughout the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers and the crews of privateer vessels were locked up on Alcatraz and from 1861, when the war started, until 1865, when it ended, hundreds of captured Confederate soldiers were housed here. In 1868, Alcatraz was officially turned into a military prison, and it was soon to recieve even more inmates. The Spanish-American War of the 1890s swelled the prison’s inmate-population from twenty-six, at the start of the war, to over 450 by its end.
In 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire levelled the famous coastal city, destroying several houses, public buildings and…the city’s prisons. Desperate to find somewhere to house these criminals, the city’s government shipped them to Alcatraz where they could be locked up in the military prison there, until further notice.
The Birth of The Rock
The 1906 earthquake levelled San Francisco, and the famous city by the bay was razed to the ground by the fires that started shortly after. With the city’s prisons destroyed, the local government had its criminals sent to Alcatraz to serve out the rest of their sentences, and so the island got its first taste of what it would soon become most famous for: housing hardened criminals.
The 1920s and the 1930s saw a dramatic rise in crime throughout the USA. Prohibition, followed by the Great Depression, had sparked an unprecedented crimewave, and gangsters, bootleggers, confidence-men, pimps, bank-robbers and the owners of illegal gambling dens were popping up like mushrooms. In the 30s, the American government started sitting up and taking notice, and all kinds of law enforcement agencies, from the FBI downwards, started rounding up all these crooks and shoving them in jail.
Unfortunately, these guys were too hot for jails to hold them, and time and time again, they busted out and went on the rampage all over again, or, they managed to bribe prison guards and get special priveliges inside prison, which allowed them to run their criminal empires, even from behind bars…Al Capone did this, and bank-robber John Dillinger managed to bust out of jail twice! It soon became painfully obvious that a new, super-prison, a real, hardcore maximum-security prison, was needed to lock these guys away for good. Enter Alcatraz.
The idea of building a prison on Alcatraz Island first emerged in the early 1930s. The United States Department of Justice acquired the island and its facilities in 1933 and were determined to make it a super-prison. Unfortunately…this was the Depression, and the money, which was desperately needed to upgrade the island’s aging military facilities into a working prison, was nowhere to be found. The Department appealed to Congress for help and funds, but were refused. But then, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, stepped in. Having a super-prison to house all the guys who were giving him ulcers, was something he liked the sound of, very much indeed. With his…persistence, influence, pestering…call it what you will…the Department managed to get the funds to start renovations.

The Main Cellhouse on Alcatraz was renovated, fences were repaired, guard-towers were put in, barracks for guards, prison staff and even their families, were either constructed or fashioned out of existing buildings, and the latest security-devices, such as mechanically-operated (later, electronically-operated) doors and metal-detectors were put in. Watch-towers had powerful searchlights and the guards up the top were all armed. Around the inside perimeter of the Main Cellhouse, an enclosed, metal walkway known as the Gun Gallery was constructed. From here, armed guards could stare down into the cellblocks below, and keep an eye on the prisoners.
One of the two-tier gun-galleries that run all around the inside of the main cellhouse.
Open for Business
In 1934, Alcatraz was opened for business, and the warden sent out an ‘open invitation’, so to speak, to all his other warden-buddies, inviting them to send to Alcatraz, all their hardest and most dangerous criminals. He would take care of them. The other wardens jumped at the idea, and soon prisoners were being shipped to Alcatraz in boatloads.
Getting to Alcatraz was quite an ordeal. When you arrived in San Francisco, you were put on the prison ferry. What followed was a choppy, mile and a half boat-ride across the San Francisco Bay towards the island. Once on the island, you were dumped into a prison truck and driven up towards the Main Cellhouse. When you arrived there, you were given a body-search, you were ordered to have a shower, you were given your blue, prison jumpsuit and then you were led to your cell.
There were four cellblocks on ‘The Rock’, as it came to be known. They were called A, B, C and D blocks. They were set out, side by side, lengthwise. A, B and C blocks were for the general prison population; D block was the Solitary Confinement block. The majority of the prisoners were housed in B and C blocks (one prisoner to each cell) and a few in A block. Only prisoners who misbehaved were locked in D-block.
A typical cell on Alcatraz. Not much space, huh?
One of the renovations made to Alcatraz in the 1930s was the introduction of ‘toolproof’ bars. These bars were specially designed to be untamperable. Originally, the bars on the cell-doors were just flat, steel bars, welded together. Unfortunately, these, with enough persistence, could be filed through, bent open and rendered completely useless as a form of imprisonment.
D Block, solitary confinement on Alcatraz.
The newer, ‘toolproof’ bars were specially designed to make filing through the bars almost impossible. They worked like this:
Instead of the ordinary, flat, steel bars, the doors had tubular steel bars in them, instead. The tubular steel bars were stronger and harder to saw through, but with enough persistence, again, you could cut through the bars. To remedy this defect, the new bars were filled with lots of iron rods. This gave the bars extra strength, and there was more metal to file through! But apart from that, the rattling of the iron rods inside the bars, when someone tried to file through them, was very loud. Once someone started filing…everyone and their brother knew what was going on…especially the guards. Only B and C blocks were upgraded with toolproof bars, however. This being the Depression, there wasn’t enough funds to also upgrade A-block, which is why it was not very much used.
“Broadway”, the main corridor of the Main Cellhouse, between B and C blocks.
The prisoners had their own names for certain parts of the prison. The main corridor between B and C blocks was called ‘Broadway’; the area at the end of ‘Broadway’, in front of the prison’s dining-hall, was called ‘Times Square’. The cellhouse dining-room was called the ‘Gas Chamber’. This was an apt name; as the dining-hall was one of the places where prisoners could harm other prisoners, or prison-guards (because they now had knives and forks!). The prison officials built canisters of tear-gas into the ceiling of the dining-hall. In the event of a riot, the gas could be released, to aid prison-guards in their attempts to restore order.
A closeup of one of the tear-gas canisters inside Alcatraz’s dining-hall.
The Daily Grind
Once you were on The Rock, one thing that immediately got to you, was the Daily Grind. This was the boring, slow, monotonous daily routine which happened seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, with almost no exceptions.
7:00am. You woke up, roused by the cellhouse bell. Your cell was tiny and cold. How tiny? Five feet wide, nine feet long, about six and a half feet high. You could barely get up and stretch your arms!
7:20am. The cell-doors were opened (by a special set of levers). Prisoners stepped outside their cells and waited. They were not allowed to talk and they were not allowed to look anywhere except directly across the corridor.
7:30am. Breakfast. Prisoners were allowed to talk (quietly!). They were allowed to eat as much as they liked, but were not allowed to waste food. All silverware was meticulously counted by the guards. A stray fork or knife could be fashioned into a deadly weapon.
7:50am. Breakfast finishes. Prisoners on work-details line up. Prisoners not on work-details are led back to their cells. Work-details included working in the laundry, the woodwork shop, the metalworking shop, cleaning the cellhouse or working in the prison library.
8:00am. Prisoners are led to the buildings where they will work. They have to pass through the metal-detector (called the ‘snitch-box’ by the inmates) on their way out of the cellhouse.
8:20am. Prisoners started work.
10:00am. Prisoners are allowed a short break.
10:08am. Work recommences, until 11:35am.
11:35am. Work finishes. Prisoners stand to be counted.
12:00 Noon. Lunch, for 20 minutes.
From 12:20-1:00pm, prisoners are locked in their cells and counted again. After this, they’re led back to work.
At 4:40pm, the prisoners have dinner. Dinner ends at 5:00pm. Prisoners are sent back to their cells and locked in for the night.
5:30pm. Another head-count.
11:30pm. A final headcount. Lights out.
Famous Prisoners and Escapes
Alcatraz boasted some very famous prisoners in its 29 years of operation. Al Capone, Robert Stroud, Alvin Karpis and Machine-Gun Kelly, to name but a few. Al Capone had a job cleaning the cellhouse and was known as the Wop with the Mop.
Alcatraz was often toted as being ‘escape-proof’. It was said that the one and a half miles from the island to San Francisco was too cold to swim, that the currents were too strong and that the bay had man-eating sharks in it! Well…the bay did have sharks…but they were harmless, sand sharks, but the guards encouraged the ‘man-eater’ rumors to scare the prisoners, anyway.
Despite all this, despite all the security measures, there were escapes from Alcatraz. A total of thirty-six prisoners tried to escape from The Rock, in fourteen separate attempts. Only a handful of these were ever successful…although how successful is still debated.
The two most famous escapes were the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’, from the 2nd-4th of May, 1946, in which two guards and three prisoners were killed by gunfire and grenades, and the 1962 escape involving the Anglin brothers.
In the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ of May, 1946, it took several prison guards, plus two platoons of US Marines to regain control of the cellhouse. The botched escape-attempt, in which the prisoners hoped to escape to the exercise yard, scale the wall and make it to the sea, was foiled when the key put into the lock of the door to the yard, proved to be the wrong one. The lock jammed and the men found their escape-route cut off. A furious gun-battle ensued between prison guards and the prisoners who had managed to obtain firearms from dead prison officers. The prisoners who had started the ‘battle’ were eventually killed by grenades, thrown into the space where they were holed up, by prison guards and the marines who were sent to storm the cellhouse.
The other famous escape-attempt happened in 1962, when three men, the Anglin Brothers, John and Clarence, and their friend, Frank Morris, busted out of the cellhouse by chipping away at ventilation-grills under their cell sinks and finding their way through the utility-corridors to the roof of the cellhouse. Once on the roof, they climbed down the outside of the building and made it down to the sea without being spotted. Here, they fashioned a raft out of raincoats and managed to paddle away from the island and were never seen again. This daring escape was depicted in the film “Escape from Alcatraz”, starring Clint Eastwood. The popular science show “Mythbusters” carried out a similar escape from Alcatraz to see just how plausible such an event was. They concluded that a successful escape from the island-prison like this, was plausible, and that the men might really have managed to escape from the most famous prison in the world!
The end of The Rock
Rising maintanence costs, combined with the bad publicity of all the escape-attempts, meant that Alcatraz was beginning to become a big burden on the US government. One of the biggest problems with Alcatraz was that it cost so damn much money to run! Nothing grew on Alcatraz. It didn’t even have any soil! Everything that the prison officials wanted for Alcatraz, from building materials to topsoil for plants, to food, all had to be shipped to the island. This made it a very expensive prison to run. To add to this: cost-cutting measures taken during the Depression, when money was tight, meant that the prison was in desperate need of repair by the early 1960s. Corrosion caused by the salt-water used to flush the prison toilets (just one of the several cost-cutting measures), meant that the plumping and the structural integrity of some of the buildings, was greatly compromised.
The escape attempts from Alcatraz had proven to the US public that people could escape from their legendary ‘inescapable prison’ and that even jammed on a rock in the middle of a bay, wasn’t enough to stop hardened criminals. People lost their confidence in Alcatraz, and in 1963, after 29 years of operation, the prison closed for good.
The Legend of Alcatraz
Even though it was only used for barely more than two dozen years, Alcatraz remains the most famous prison in the world. It recieves over one million tourists a year, who, like so many thousands of prisoners before them, took the ferry across the bay towards the island, only this time, they go there to explore, and not to be locked up. The prison has been the location of at least three films and when J.K. Rowling wrote her “Harry Potter” series, her maximum-security wizarding prison was very similar to Alcatraz. It was in the midde of the North Sea, it was considered inescapable and it even had a similar name: Azkaban. And just like Alcatraz, it was considered the scariest prison in the world.

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