20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island

Steve - March 31, 2019

Situated a little over a mile in picturesque fashion off the coast of San Francisco, California, Alcatraz Island stands as one of the most internationally recognizable cultural icons in the United States. Home to the most famous prison in the world (and claiming to have been escape-proof), the notorious Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary immortalized the island in American history and captured the imaginations of successive generations. Today serving as a tourist destination and endemic in modern popular culture, the history and importance of Alcatraz Island goes beyond merely serving as a prison for adverse members of society.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island as seen from the East. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 20 important facts and events regarding Alcatraz Island that you should know:

 

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
John C. Frémont, in between serving as U.S. Senator from California and Governor of the Arizona Territories (c. 1856). Wikimedia Commons.

20. Bought for the United States by John C. Frémont, the Californian Governor was defrauded by his own Federal Government and not compensated a dime.

First documented by explorer Juan Manuel Diaz, who also charted the San Francisco Bay at large, Diaz named one of the three islands in the body of water “La Isla de Los Alcatraces”. Loosely translated as “The Island of the Gannets” or “The Island of the Pelicans”, over the following decades, as with many names, it became shortened into simply “Alcatraz”. Meaning pelican in an old dialect of Spanish, this moniker is most apt, with Captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly describing the island in August 1827 as “covered with a countless number of these birds. A gun fired over the feathered legions caused them to fly up in a great cloud and with a noise like a hurricane.”

Building a few small structures on the island, Alcatraz changed hands several times before being bought by the Military Governor of California, John C. Frémont, in 1846 for $5000 in the name of the United States Government. Expecting a significant compensation for securing the strategically important island by the American government, Frémont was, in fact, duped by Washington. Declaring the sale invalid, the U.S. government took possession of the land without paying Frémont a dime. Despite Frémont and his heirs suing persistently into the 1890s, their cases were unsuccessful and they received nothing for their costly troubles.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
View of Alcatraz Island in 1895, showing the lighthouse and prison buildings. Wikimedia Commons.

19. Entering into active use as a military fortress to protect the newly acquired Californian territories, the Alcatraz Citadel was completed and garrisoned in 1859

Decreed by President Millard Fillmore in 1850, following the end of the Mexican American War in 1848 and the acquisition of California under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Alcatraz Island was set aside for military purposes. Starting in 1853, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began construction work fortifying the island with a budget of $87,689. Completing the Alcatraz Citadel, also known as Fort Alcatraz, in 1859, the structure took great advantage of the natural defenses of the island itself, using the steep rocky outcrops and rock faces to create an encircled and highly impenetrable fortress.

Entering into operation under the command of engineer James B. McPherson, the three-storied citadel included gun positions, roads, and even a moat and draw bridge. Enjoying the capacity to house a total of two hundred soldiers, with enough storage to outlast a siege of many months, in late-1859 the first soldiers were deployed at Alcatraz. Commanded by Captain Joseph Stewart, eighty-six men of Company H., Third U.S. Artillery, became the first garrison to inhabit the island, terminating their stay with the onset of the American Civil War two years later.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
A model of the Alcatraz Citadel, 1866-1868. Wikimedia Commons.

18. Starting its transition into a penal facility, due to its impregnability Fort Alcatraz became a prominent prison for captured Confederates during the Civil War and later held disruptive Native American dissidents

Believed to serve as an important line of defense during the American Civil War, capable of instilling order upon conflicting Union and Confederate elements within California, Alcatraz’s batteries were enlarged to a peak of 111 cannons encircling the small island. Becoming perhaps the most impregnable site in North America, designed to deter any Confederate plans to seize San Francisco, ammunition flowed like honey with 10,000 muskets and 150,000 cartridges delivered to the fort. Due to this impressive defensive capacity, Alcatraz was designated a military prison camp in August 1861.

Adding claustrophobic cells to the basement of the fort, Alcatraz became home to Confederate prisoners of war and disruptive sympathizers. Failing to see action throughout the conflict, the closest Alcatraz came to combat was in March 1863, when a group of Confederates were intercepted by the U.S. Navy en route to the island in an attempt to free the prisoners held within. Continuing to serve the function of an internment camp in the years following the Civil War, Alcatraz shifted from Confederates to Native Americans. First imprisoning Paiute Tom in 1873, dozens of indigenous persons, notably Hopi males in 1895, were incarcerated on the island.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Hopi inmates of the Alcatraz Citadel (c. the 1890s). Wikimedia Commons.

17. Continuing the transformation from military fortification to a prison facility, Alcatraz Island begun incarcerating military personnel before ceasing to serve as a defensive structure entirely in the early 20th century

As a result of technological advancements, soon after the end of the Civil War Alcatraz was rendered strategically obsolete as a military fortification. Constructing a brick jailhouse in 1867, the following year Alcatraz was designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. Using slave labor from incarcerated military personnel and Native Americans during the 1870s and 1880s, Alcatraz Island underwent a dramatic transformation. Altering the topography of the landmass, the citadel was enlarged to offer greater accommodation for military families whilst also increasing inmate capacity.

In 1898, the outbreak of the Spanish-American War prompted an explosion in the island’s prison population, increasing from 26 to over 450. With new buildings continuously under construction to enlarge the prison, Alcatraz, miraculously suffered little to no damage during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, served to house relocated prisoners from the decimated surrounding mainland. By 1904, with the addition of the Upper Prison, Alcatraz enjoyed a capacity in excess of 300 prisoners and, ceasing to function at all as a military fortification, was formally renamed the “Pacific Branch U.S. Military Prison” in 1907. Developing a reputation for harsh treatment and torture, its use for housing foreign prisoners of war continued until 1946 and the end of the Second World War.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
The lighthouse and citadel building on Alcatraz Island (c. 1893). Wikimedia Commons.

16. In spite of its future reputation as “the most secure prison on Earth”, the beginnings of Alcatraz as a prison were plagued with escape attempts including at least one confirmed escape by inmates

The site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, in 1908, in no small part due to the constant building works on the island undermining its foundations, Alcatraz Citadel collapsed. The following year a replacement building began construction which today dominates the island’s vista: a huge concrete cell block. Amassing an enormous budget in excess of $250,000, the building, completed in 1912, was at the time of construction believed to be the largest reinforced concrete building in the world. Comprised of four cell blocks, with a total of 600 cells, the new prison site was chiefly employed during World War I to house German prisoners of war.

Beginning to introduce civilian prisoners with minimum offenses to the island, despite still being operated as a military enterprise, this period of Alcatraz’s history observed a sustained problem of escapes. A total of 29 escapes were recorded, involving 80 convicts. Of these 80, only 62 were recovered by the authorities, although it is presumed some drowned. The only confirmed successful prison escape in the history of Alcatraz Island, on November 28, 1918, four prisoners departed the island on rafts. Identified at Sutro Forest, one was recaptured, whilst the remaining three successfully eluded the authorities.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island and lighthouse at sunset. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Formerly opening as a federal penitentiary in 1934, Alcatraz was designed to house the worst of the worst and relieve pressure upon the overburdened prison system

Transferred from the United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz to the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, a $260,000 conversion project begun to redesign the prison to serve as a federal penitentiary. Designed as a “last resort prison” to punish and incarcerate the worst of the crime epidemic of the 1920s and 1930s, expressly holding the most disagreeable prisoners continually wreaking havoc at other federal prisons, the newly designed facility housed a potential capacity of 336 inmates. This population was never reached, averaging between 1935 and 1960 – the prison’s peak years of operation – only 263 and never surpassed 302.

Opening for business as Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on August 11, 1934, the first consignment of 137 prisoners arrived by railroad from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Escorted by 60 FBI agents and U.S. Marshals, these individuals, mostly bank robbers and murderers, were handed over into the custody of Warden James A. Johnston and the 155 members of staff at Alcatraz. Joined by a further 43 from Atlanta Penitentiary and 10 from Northern Eastern Penitentiary on August 22, in addition to a further 103 from Leavenworth the following month, by June 30, 1935, Alcatraz enjoyed a prison population of 242.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
From left to right: Warden James A. Johnston, Associate Warden E.J. Miller, and Alcatraz Island District Attorney Frank J. Hennessy. Wikimedia Commons.

14. The first warden, James A. Johnston, ate his meals amidst the prisoners unguarded in a show of strength which earned him the respect of his charges despite his ruthless governance of Alcatraz

Described as “the great garbage can of San Francisco Bay, into which every federal prison dumped its most rotten apples”, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was unique in the prison system of the United States in that the courts did not possess the authority to sentence an individual to directly serve time in the institution. Instead, Alcatraz was only open to those already sentenced to incarceration in an existing penitentiary. As a result, all those imprisoned on “The Rock”, as Alcatraz came to be colloquially known, were already well-versed in prison life and consequently required a distinct strategy to enforce discipline among the prison population.

Previously serving as warden of Folsom and San Quentin – both maximum security state prisons in California – James A. Johnston was instrumental in organizing Alcatraz into a functioning operation. Bearing a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, Johnston served as Alcatraz’s warden from its opening in 1934 until 1948 – nearly half of its lifespan – during which time he earned both the respect, and to a degree affection, of its inmates. Attacked in 1937 by Burton Phillips in the Dining Hall, Johnston continued to attend meals unguarded and unafraid amidst the prison inmates, earning the nickname “Old Saltwater”.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Mug Shot of Alvin Karpis, the longest-serving resident of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Wikimedia Commons.

13. Becoming famous for its celebrity criminal inmates, including legendary mobster Al Capone, the longest-serving prisoner on “The Rock” was Alvin Karpis who endured twenty-six consecutive years

As the popularized saying dictated: “if you break the rules, you go to prison. If you break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz”. Due to the unique selection of Alcatraz’s inmate population, aided by the island prison’s distinctive style, the federal facility quickly garnered a reputation for holding a range of high-profile criminals. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, numerous notorious criminals garnered cult appeal as celebrities in wider American society, including Al Capone, George, “Machine Gun Kelly”, John Dillinger, and “Baby Face” Nelson among others. The incarceration of several of these individuals at Alcatraz, including Capone and Kelly, focused public attention and transformed the penitentiary into a cultural icon.

Housing, if only briefly in some cases, many of the most infamous men in America, legendary mobsters, such as Capone, political revolutionaries, like Rafael Cancel Miranda – responsible for the attack on the United States Capitol in 1954 – and murderers including Robert Stroud, Alcatraz rarely escaped press attention. The longest-serving inmate of Alcatraz was Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz. The only Public Enemy #1 to ever be captured alive, Karpis resided on the island for twenty-six years between 1936 until 1962, leaving the island only when the prison was being decommissioned.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Guards of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary; date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

12. Designed as an inescapable prison, Alcatraz possessed a ludicrously intense security protocol that included the placement of tear gas above the dining hall in case of riots

Designed to house the worst from the federal prison system, security procedures on Alcatraz were intensely strict. Constantly checking at random the bars, doors, locks, and other fixtures for potential tampering, prisoners would be counted thirteen times during the average day. The recreation yard possessed a 25-foot-high barbed wire fence, whilst the front door was made of impenetrable solid steel. Enjoying the highest ratio of guards-to-prisoners of any prison in the United States, guard towers sat atop each building, manned by armed snipers throughout the day, whilst all doors used state-of-the-art locking mechanisms to preclude escape.

The experience of prisoners in the Dining Hall provides an example of the authoritarian conditions of life on the isolated island. Meals were permitted to take no longer than twenty minutes, after which forks, knives, and spoons were laid out on the table and counted to ensure nothing was missing. During the earliest years of the prison’s operation, talking was strictly forbidden during meals. Metal detectors screened prisoners entering and exiting the room, whilst tear-gas canisters adorned the rafters in the event of a riot. Providing over-watch, a gun gallery mounted the exterior wall of the hall to permit guards to open fire upon prisoners instantly should trouble erupt.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Cell 181 in Alcatraz. home to Al Capone during his imprisonment on the island. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Whilst many inmates compared Alcatraz to Hell on Earth, declaring they would have preferred the death penalty, others actively chose to reside on the island

Quickly becoming feared as a nightmarish punishment, known colloquially as “Hellcatraz”, simply surviving a sentence at Alcatraz proved a psychological challenge that broke many prisoners. The cells, measuring just 9 feet by 5 feet by 7 feet, were highly primitive and provided zero privacy. Meanwhile, years passed in near-silence, with conversations between prisoners banned under the tenure of Warden Johnston. The first prisoner to commit suicide, Edward Wutke killed himself on November 13, 1937, after slicing through his jugular vein with a pencil sharpener. He would not be the last, with at least five known suicides occurring despite the close attention of the guards.

Equally falling into insanity as a result of the mental torment induced by life on Alcatraz, Rufe Persful sliced off his fingers on his right hand before requesting a fellow inmate to cut off his left fingers for him. In spite of these insufferable conditions, a minority of prisoners positively elected to reside at Alcatraz rather than other prisons due in part to this severity. Better protected than at other institutions by the high ratio of guards, inmates at Alcatraz, provided they obeyed the rules, enjoyed greater than usual comforts, including better food, access to a library consisting of ten to fifteen thousand books, and the opportunity to play musical instruments.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, in 1951. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Despite being known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, Robert Stroud did not keep any birds during his seventeen-year residence at the federal penitentiary

Robert Franklin Stroud (1890-1963) was a convicted murderer and one of the most notorious men in the United States. Sentenced to twelve years in prison at the age of 19 for the murder of a bartender, Stroud quickly developed a reputation for violence inside as well as out. Frequently engaging in attacks upon other inmates as well as staff, in 1916 Stroud stabbed to death a guard at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Sentenced to death, later commuted to life in solitary confinement, Stroud was incarcerated at Leavenworth. During this time, Stroud began caring for local birds and with his collection grew to more than 300 canaries.

Infuriating the staff, with Stroud sending constant letters concerning ornithology that required staff screening, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. Allegedly provided with just ten minutes warning of his transition, Stroud, under Alcatraz’s strict policies, was not permitted to keep birds during his stay on the island. Rarely permitted to interact with the general inmate population, Stroud spent his seventeen years at Alcatraz in near-total isolation. Despite this blatant inaccuracy, Thomas E. Gaddis, author of The Birdman of Alcatraz, allegedly chose to call Stroud by his now-famous moniker rather than Leavenworth because of the greater attention his pro-prison reform novel would garner by association to infamous “The Rock”.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Members of the Alcatraz prison band, open only to those sufficiently well-behaved (c. the 1950s). Wikimedia Commons.

9. Like most federal prisons, a day in the life of an Alcatraz inmate was a long way from a walk in the park

Throughout its lifespan as a federal prison, Alcatraz held a total of 1,576 unique prisoners. In line with the stated purpose of Alcatraz as an institution, these individuals endured a rigorous daily routine specifically designed to dehumanize, break down, and reform the disruptive prisoners so that they could rejoin and continue their sentences at other federal facilities. Upon arrival, inmates were provided with a copy of “the Rules and Regulations for the Government and Discipline of the United States Penal and Correctional Institutions”, informing them that they were entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention, but that everything else was a privilege to be earned.

Woken at 0630, with breakfast at 0650, inmates would subsequently tidy their cells until 0730. Reporting to work, for those permitted the privilege of leaving their cells, those likewise behaving might be allowed to smoke during their labors. Lunch was served at 1120, followed by a half-hour rest, before continuing work until 1615. Dinner would be served at 1625, before prisoners retired to their cells at 1650 for the remainder of the day. Lights were turned off at 2130. Failure to maintain cleanliness, to adhere to the rules explicitly, or even whistling, would see one lose his privileges and condemned to spend days at a time within the tiny confinement of his cell.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary’s D Block, also known as the “Treatment Block”. Wikimedia Commons.

8. In contrast, for those who decided to not follow the prison rules, life on Alcatraz’s “Treatment Block” became unbearably bleak and capable of breaking even the most hardened criminal like Al Capone

Whilst those inmates following the rules typically inhabited B and C Blocks, D Block garnered notoriety as the “Treatment Block”. Housing the worst of Alcatraz in solitary confinement, residents of D Block typically spent between 3 and 19 days before returning to the general population; some impossibly disruptive and dangerous inmates spent longer, with Richard Stroud, for example, inhabiting cell 42 on D Block for six years. The nicest level of treatment on the block, prisoners were held in their cells around the clock, with meals eaten in solitude and no exercise allowed, permitted only to leave twice a week to briefly shower.

For those still non-compliant, these inmates faced D Block cells 9-14. More commonly known as “The Hole”, these cells housed prisoners in total darkness. Forced to sleep on the concrete floor, wearing nothing but light garments, guards cruelly controlled the flushing of the toilet. For those even worse, these few inmates were chained in the dungeons below, provided a diet of bread and water, and forced to stand for nine hours each day with their hands tied to the ceiling. Upon returning to the general population, inmates were closely monitored by a tag system: a red tag, for instance, restricted a prisoner for leaving his cell for a parole period of 30 days.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
“Broadway” – The Main Corridor of the Cellhouse on Alcatraz. Wikimedia Commons.

7. Whilst not housing those sentenced to death, Alcatraz was home to more than a few murders including, most famously, that of Rufus McCain in 1940

Notwithstanding the notoriety of Alcatraz, the federal prison did not possess a death row, nor the facilities to conduct an execution. Consequently, Alcatraz rarely housed inmates convicted of capital offenses and instead such individuals commonly resided at San Quentin. In spite of this, and the immense levels of security surrounding inmates, Alcatraz was the home to several murders within its own walls. In total, it is believed eight murders took place within the penitentiary, the most famous of which was the murder of Rufus McCain at the hands of Henri Young on December 3, 1940.

A convicted bank robber and murderer, Young, McCain and two others attempted an escape from Alcatraz in 1939. Captured and sentenced to three years in solitary confinement, just eleven days after the pair returned to the general population Young charged downstairs into the tailor’s shop and violently murdered McCain. Defending his actions at trial as a product of the harsh conditions on Alcatraz, detailing the brutal life in solitary confinement and alleging “cruel and unusual punishment”, Young was nevertheless found guilty. Released on parole in 1972, then-aged 61, Young jumped parole and his whereabouts and ultimate fate remain unknown.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz’s cellhouse being shelled by mortars, May 3, 1946, during the Battle of Alcatraz. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Lasting from May 2 until May 4, 1946, the Battle of Alcatraz began when a group of prisoners escaped their confines and took guards hostage in an ill-fated escape attempt

Planned by Bernard Coy, an inmate serving a sentence of 25 years for bank robbery, Coy, observing flaws in the prison’s security, gathered a team of similarly long-serving convicts to attempt a breakout. Springing their plan on May 2, 1946, whilst co-conspirator Marvin Hubbard was being frisked upon re-entry to C Block by William Miller, Coy attacked and overpowered the officer. Releasing two others, Cretzer and Carnes, from their cells, Coy climbed to the gun gallery and, having starved himself for weeks, used a makeshift tool to spread the bars sufficiently to squeeze through. Armed and with hostages, the team proceeded into D Block gathering force.

However, in their rush to reach the outdoors, the lock to the yard door was jammed by the wrong key. Trapped in the cellhouse, with a total of nine officers captive, the would-be escapees resolved to fight rather than surrender. Opening fire on the guard towers, the alarm was raised. After a failed attempt to storm the building, with one guard dead and four wounded, Warden Johnston called up the Marines. After two days of bombardment, on May 4, soldiers stormed the building to discover the bodies of Cretze, Coy, and Hubbard along with two officers. Two prisoners, Thompson and Shockley, were executed in 1948 for their role in the failed escape.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island from San Francisco, (c. March 1962). Wikimedia Commons.

5. Contrary to popular belief, swimming across San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island was not only possible but today forms the basis of an annual triathlon

Undoubtedly perpetuated by prison authorities to deter any attempts by prisoners to engage in escape attempts, several myths regarding Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay remain abundant in modern popular culture. Highlighting the supposedly dangerous nature of the waters surrounding the island, including an over-exaggeration of the propensity for great white sharks to visit the San Francisco Bay, as well as the sharp rocks, strong currents, and inhospitable temperatures, a narrative was carefully constructed to make escape appear more daunting than it practically was.

Demonstrating that it is indeed possible to successfully reach the mainland and beyond, the “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlon is a yearly athletics event held in June. Beginning in 1981 as a private event for members of the Dolphin Club, today it has morphed into a popular public event garnering thousands of participants. Consisting of a one and a half mile swim from Alcatraz Island to Marina Green, the race transitions into an eighteen-mile bike stage before concluding with an eight-mile run. Whilst participants are, admittedly, in greater physical shape and levels of preparedness to inmates, the triathlon, like the ultra-marathon “The Spartathlon”, serves to verify a widely disputed historical belief.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island from San Francisco, (c. March 1962). Wikimedia Commons.

4. In spite of said theoretical plausibility of escape from Alcatraz Island, there were no confirmed escapes from the prison during its lifespan as a federal penitentiary

Earning its reputation as an “escape-proof” prison, throughout Alcatraz’s 29 years of operation there were no confirmed successful escapes by inmates. This was not due to a lack of effort, however, with 36 prisoners making 14 separate attempts, resulting in 23 being recaptured, six shot and killed, two drowned, and five “missing and presumed drowned”. Beginning with a spontaneous attempt by Joseph Bowers on April 27, 1936, the inmate, assigned trash duty, suddenly made a run for the exterior fence. Climbing the barrier, Bowers’ desperate effort was unsurprisingly noticed and, defying orders from guards to desist, was shot by his captors.

The first planned effort to thwart Alcatraz’s security came a year later, when Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe cut the iron bars of a window in one of the prison’s workshops. Leaping into the bay, the stormy weather on December 16, 1937, is believed to have rendered their survival impossible. Reflecting the limited available means to attempt an escape, the final effort, taking place in December 1962, involved a similar approach. Cutting the bars of a kitchen window, John Paul Scott and Darl Lee Parker sought to swim to the mainland. Parker gave up just 100 yards from the island, whilst Scott reached Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge where he was discovered unconscious and almost dead from hypothermia.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
One of the escapee’s prison cell, with a chiseled and widened vent opening beneath the sink leading into a utility tunnel. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Believed by many to have been the only successful escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, the June 1962 attempt made by three inmates was one of the most intricate and ingenious escapes ever conceived

Carried out on June 11, 1962, three inmates – Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin – housed in Cell Block B executed their carefully planned escape. Using improvised tools, including a modified spoon soldered with silver from a coin, the trio had chiseled moisture-damaged concrete from air vents in their cells, exposing a utility corridor behind. Concealing their nightly departures across a six-month period with a false wall, in addition to leaving papier-mâché dummies made from human hair in their beds, the trio gradually assembled a makeshift raft constructed from fifty stolen raincoats in a secret workshop on top of the cell block.

Climbing through a ventilation shaft onto the roof, the trio carried their gear down a 50-foot kitchen pipe and over two 12-foot barbed wire fences to the shoreline. Identifying a blind spot in the searchlights, the inmates departed Alcatraz and set sail for Angel Island two miles to the north. Although the FBI determined the trio never made it, likely drowning in the Bay, no conclusive evidence has been found either way. Recent evidence has indicated a cover-up to protect the integrity of the prison, with a raft discovered on Angel Island, followed by the report of a car theft, and the men remain on the FBI’s wanted list despite the insistence of their demise.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary’s C Block. Wikimedia Commons.

2. Due to changing public perceptions and increasingly expensive costs to maintain the island prison, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963

By the mid-1950s, despite the relaxation of the prison’s earlier harsh treatment of inmates, the institution continued to garner controversy. Regarded by many as epitomizing the social failures of the contemporary prison system, Alcatraz became increasingly unpopular within wider American society. In 1952, James V. Bennett, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons called for a centralized institution to replace the barbaric and outdated model of Alcatraz. In 1959, a report into the prison’s finances revealed that Alcatraz was three times more expensive to operate per prisoner than the average in America, costing $10 per day per prisoner instead of the average $3.

With major repairs costing as much as $5,000,000 on the horizon, with exposure to the salty air causing structural damage to the facility, by 1961 the prison was facing closure under the auspices of reformist Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. With planning underway for a new institution in Illinois, the 1962 escape merely served to reinforce the opinion that Alcatraz was no longer fit for purpose. Closing on March 21, 1963, with the remaining prisoners transferred to alternative penitentiaries to serve the remainders of their sentences, the island became open to the public soon after as a tourist attraction.

20 Mind-blowing Facts About Alcatraz Island
The prison cellhouse, lighthouse, and ruins of the Warden’s House on Alcatraz Island. Wikimedia Commons.

1. Becoming a focal point of the American Indian Movement, Alcatraz Island was occupied by Native American activists multiple times after the prison’s closure to protest against indigenous treatment at the hands of the United States

Occupied for the first time on March 8, 1964, Alcatraz Island quickly became the center of the Indian Rights Movement in the late-1960s and early-1970s. Demanding the end of and reparations for the Indian termination policy – a series of laws during the 1940s and lasting through the 1960s seeking to compel indigenous persons to abandon their traditional heritage and become “more civilized” – these programs included the forced relocation of native communities from reservations into American cities. In response, many of those forcibly consigned to San Francisco took up residence on Alcatraz Island in protest of the U.S. Government’s actions.

Claiming the island by “right of discovery”, as well as under the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) which required all out-of-use federal lands to be returned to indigenous peoples, on November 20, 1969, the United Indians of All Tribes initiated a prolonged occupation. Attracting national attention, the small community of Indians maintained their vigil until June 11, 1971, when President Richard Nixon formally rescinded the Indian termination policy and established a new policy of tribal self-determination. Graffiti dating from the nineteen-month occupation imparting messages proclaiming native rights can still be seen on parts of the island.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A Voyage to California, the Sandwich Islands, and Around the World in the Years 1826-1829”, Auguste Duhaut-Cilly, University of California Press (1999)

“The Rock: A History of Alcatraz Island, 1847-1972”, Erwin N. Thompson, United States Department of the Interior

“A History of Alcatraz Island: 1853-2008”, Gregory L. Wellman, Arcadia Publishing (May 28, 2008)

“Alcatraz”, James Barter, Lucent Books (September 2000)

“Alcatraz: History and Design of a Landmark”, Donald MacDonald, Ira Nadel, Chronicle Books (February 15, 2012)

“Forts of the West: Military Forts and Presidios, and Posts Commonly Called Forts, West of the Mississippi River to 1898”, Robert W. Frazer, University of Oklahoma Press (April 15, 1975)

“Alcatraz Preservation Project: Exposing the Layers of An American Landmark”, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (2003)

“Forts of the United States: An Historical Dictionary, 16th Through 19th Centuries”, Bud Hannings, McFarland and Company (March 2005)

“A Brief History of Alcatraz”, Federal Bureau of Prisons

“Alcatraz Island”, Encyclopaedia Britannia Online (2009)

“A History of Alcatraz Island: 1853-2008”, Gregory L. Wellman (2008)

“Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island: Experiences of a Conscientious Objector in American during the World War”, Block P. Grosser, A.S. Blackwell, and A. Berkman (1933)

“Alcatraz Prison in American History”, Marilyn Tower Oliver, Enslow Publishers (1998)

“Former residents remember their days on Alcatraz Island”, EXAMINER STAFF, San Francisco Examiner (Mar. 21, 2013)

“Last Guard Out: A Riveting Account by the Last Guard to Leave Alcatraz”, Jim Albright, AuthorHouse (March 30, 2008)

“Birdman: The many faces of Robert Stroud”, Jolene Babyak, Ariel Vamp Press (July 1994)

“Alcatraz”, Richard Dunbar, Casa Editrice Bonechi (January 1, 1999)

“Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years”, Michael Esslinger, Ocean View Publishing (May 1, 2016)

“Alcatraz”, George Linda, Turtleback Books (March 1, 1999)

“Alcatraz Screw: My Years as a Guard in America’s Most Notorious Prison”, George H. Gregory, University of Missouri Press (April 28, 2008)

“Alcatraz Unchained”, Jerry Lewis Champion Jr., AuthorHouse (April 26, 2012)

“Mysteries Unwrapped: The Secrets of Alcatraz”, Susan Sloate, Sterling Publishing Company (April 1, 2008)

“The Escape from Alcatraz”, Stephanie Watson, ABDO (January 1, 2012)

“Return to Alcatraz”, Tine Westbrook, Trafford Publishing (September 2010)

“Alcatraz: The Gangster Years”, David A. Ward, Gene G. Kassebaum, University of California (May 19, 2009)

Advertisement