Alcatraz prison, situated on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay off the coast of California, has had a storied past. It opened in 1861 as a military facility for detaining Civil War prisoners. At that time the island was used exclusively as a ground troops fortification, and the prison was just part of a larger military installation there. It also held prisoners of war during the Spanish-American conflict in 1898. In 1933 it was transferred to the United States government for use as an all-purpose federal incarceration facility, and in this capacity it housed a number of famous — and infamous — convicts. There is a lot of lore surrounding both the prison and the island, including myths about dungeons and the island’s impenetrability, but most are little more than exaggerations. The prison closed in 1963, but remains a popular tourist attraction.
The island, which was named for the Spanish word for “pelican,” was a military fortification soon after it was discovered by Spanish explorers. It was first claimed by Mexico, but the Mexican governor reportedly gifted it in its entirety to an American named Julian Workman in 1946, and he later sold it to the U.S. government for use as a military installation. At first the island was used as a fortification, presumably to guard the bay and the city of San Francisco from water-based warfare, but the military also built a prison there in 1861.
The first inmates were captured Confederate sympathizers during the American Civil War. That war pitted the northern states, known as the “Union,” against those in the south, which were known as the “Confederacy.” California and the west were not directly involved in the conflict, but generally aligned with the ideologies of the north. These prisoners were usually captured in the west and were often accused of being privateers.
War prisoners were also detained here during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Spanish nationals and those fighting for control over Cuba and other regions in the Caribbean were held as prisoners of war, and caused the population of those incarcerated to more than quadruple.
Transfer to Civilian Control
The first civilian prisoners came from the main San Francisco prison in 1906, when a massive earthquake rendered that building severely damaged. The island, by contrast, was more or less untouched. The military ultimately closed its fort and relocated its prison in 1933, at which time it transferred the island and all of its facilities to the United States for use as a wholly civilian installation. From that point on, it was used as a federal penitentiary that housed prisoners from all over. Almost any inmate could be sent to Alcatraz, but lore holds that only the most dangerous and devious were ever transferred there.
Capacity and Conditions
On the whole, the prison had the capacity to hold 336 prisoners but was at no time filled. Many of the prisoners claimed that the conditions in the prison as good as if not better than to other prisons. Alcatraz held only males.
One of the myths surrounding prison was that it was inescapable. Although the waters surrounding the island are extremely cold and full of strong currents, there are no man-eating sharks or other life-threatening terrors, things often portrayed in films. It also sits only 1.5 miles (about 2.4km) from the harbor. In recent years two 10-year-old children actually swam to the island from the wharf in San Francisco to prove that it could be done. The difference for them, of course, is that there were no prison guards actively watching during their jaunt.
There were a number of escape attempts from the federal prison. In total 36 men attempted 14 separate escapes. Twenty-three were caught, two were drowned and six were shot and killed during their escape attempts. There are still five prisoners who escaped who are listed as "Missing Presumed Drowned."
In sum, the prison housed 1,576 prisoners before it shut down in 1963. Much of the popular history of the island showcases the most famous or notorious criminals who served time there, and indeed some well-known individuals were incarcerated behind its walls. Most of the prisoners, however, were just ordinary criminals.
Some of the most talked-about inmates included Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Arthur "Doc" Barker. One of the most famous films made of Alcatraz's history was The Birdman of Alcatraz, which starred Burt Lancaster as real life prisoner Robert Stroud, who was rumored to have raised birds in his cell. Scholars and researchers are often quick to note that Hollywood took liberties with the actual story, however. In real life Stroud did breed and study sparrows and canaries, and he did write two books about canaries and their diseases while he was incarcerated. However, some of the birdcages and equipment in his cell were eventually discovered to be part of a still for brewing alcohol, so the story didn’t have quite as happy or wholesome an end as the film seemed to suggest.
Native American Claims
The prison was closed in 1963, largely as a matter of cost. It was an expensive facility to maintain and its proximity to the water resulted in extensive salt erosion over the years that proved very costly to maintain and restore. It wasn’t left abandoned for long, though. A group of Native Americans sought to occupy the island, including the prison structure, in 1969; some of them claimed that the island was rightfully theirs, but most just wanted to make a larger statement about how the United States’ policies were negatively impacting indigenous peoples. They stayed for nearly two years, and many of the buildings on the island still show damage from the fires and vandalism that occurred as that conflict wore down.
In 1986 the island and the prison were listed as National Historic Landmarks, and the facility opened its doors to tourists shortly thereafter. The island is open to the public, but is managed by the National Park Service and the prison is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The only endorsed way to get to the prison is by chartered ferry, and a number of companies run boats out of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, a well-known tourist area. People can usually walk around the island freely, but entering the prison usually requires a guide. Some parts of the building are still in workable order, but others are in various states of disrepair. Tours typically also include ruins of the original military garrison and viewings of some of the underground cells.