About Alcatraz Island
From "America's Devil's Island" to the top tourist site of everyone's favorite city, Alcatraz Island has played many roles in its long history.
The Spanish expedition of Portola named it La Isla de los Alcatraces in 1775, after a breed of cormorant common to both Spain and the newly found island. It was a huge limestone rock long before it became "The Rock", and, because there is no fresh water on the island, went largely unused by both the Native American population and the early Spanish settlers. The Alcatraz of the history books got its start in 1853, when the United States Army began work on a fort; the island, right in the middle of the bay, was a natural vantage point to observe, and potentially engage, any ships entering The Golden Gate.
Alcatraz first opened as a military fortress in 1859, but its cannon were never fired in anger. The remote and forbidding character of the place soon served another purpose, however, as it began receiving prisoners shortly after the Civil War began in 1861, and for the next seventy-two years the island’s principal function was as a military prison.
The leading role of the island's history, and what made it a star in American popular culture, began in 1934, when the army pulled out and the Bureau Of Prisons converted Alcatraz to a maximum-security penitentiary for federal prisoners. By 1934 Prohibition had been repealed, but much of the Roaring Twenties continued to roar. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis, Bonnie & Clyde, and many others were all household names in a country that, with the Depression making everyone poorer and radio making everyone better informed, had the occasional guilty vicarious thrill at the latest news about people who were among the first stars of the new mass communications age.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was built to do two things. It was first meant as the rotten-apple holder of the federal penal system, the idea being that it was essential to the maintenance of good order for inmates in other prisons to know that things could always get worse. And the way the prison performed its first function had a lot to do with its second one: criminals who had been the subject of countless radio and tabloid newspaper accounts, and who had gotten used to hearing and reading about themselves, vanished when sent to "The Rock." Newspapers were forbidden, visits were few, anything past food, shelter, and medical care was a privilege that could be easily withheld, and opportunities for mischief, corruption of staff, and escape were reduced to near zero.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary itself operated from 1934 until 1963, and housed roughly 1500 inmates in its twenty-nine years. The usual inmate population at any one time was a little under 300, each prisoner in his own 5'x8' cell. Because the greatest difficulty in doing long periods of hard time was the grinding day-in, day-out monotony of it all, and because prisoners who did not work in the prison industries spent twenty-three hours of the day in their cells, most wanted to work and tried to stay in good standing in order to keep the privilege.
Routine life was usually a matter of three meals a day, work in one of the prison industries, and most of the rest of the time in the cell. Prisoners in good standing were permitted musical instruments, drawing and painting materials, books from the prison library and, perhaps best of all, time in the exercise yard. Activities in the yard included softball (and yes, there were incidents involving the bats), handball, dominoes, chess, and especially bridge.
Escapes? No one ever made it, and don’t let anyone tell you different. There were fourteen escape attempts in the period 1936-62, most of them more acts of desperation than calculation.
Two are famous. The so-called "Battle of Alcatraz" occurred in May of 1946, when the plans of six inmates went sour, leading to the taking of guards as hostages, a three-day siege, and ultimately the deaths of two guards and five of the six inmates (three in the siege and two in the gas chamber).
The most famous attempt, depicted with a few stretchers in the Clint Eastwood film "Escape From Alcatraz," is the one that still has people speculating about whether the escapees really got away. Three prisoners actually made it off the island and into the water on June 11, 1962 and… have never been seen since. There have been many theories as to what happened to the men, but by far the most plausible is that they drowned. In fact, guards frequently cited the temperature of the Bay and the strength of the currents and undertow as being the main reason no one ever escaped from Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed in March of 1963, in part because it was increasingly difficult to maintain and in part because the needs of the federal penal system had changed. The famous Native American occupation of the island occurred from late 1969 to the summer of 1971, in the middle of a decade-long debate about what to do with a place that, although rocky and arid, still held a prominent geographical and historical place in America's Favorite City. The problem was solved when Alcatraz became the jewel in the crown of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and began admitting visitors in 1973. Over one million people annually tour the cellhouse, walk down the main corridors called Broadway and Michigan Avenue, and gaze across the Bay in the same sense of “so near and yet so far” that was the most poignant aspect of inmate life on "The Rock."