Alcatraz Island, AKA “The Rock”, has been many things over the past couple of centuries- from a Native American territory to a tourist destination. This small island located in the bay of San Francisco was initially developed with a lighthouse, which is considered the oldest lighthouse on the west coast. It was also a military fortification, and a military prison from the mid 1800s until 1933. A year later in 1934, Alcatraz became a federal prison for which it is most famous for.
As a federal prison, “The Rock’, had incarcerated many of the most notorious American criminals in history; such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. Alcatraz was intended for prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons, and would be a “last resort prison”. Alcatraz was to hold the worst of the worst, who had no hope of rehabilitation.
Although this island housed many of the most violent murders and bank robbers during the first half of last century, Alcatraz also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families. At one point, there were 52 families living on Alcatraz, including 126 women and children. When I had visited Alcatraz and learned about this, I did some thinking while on this small secluded island. I could not imagine raising a family or living on Alcatraz, simultaneously with a federal prison. I would have been an anxious wreck the whole stay, with little or no sleep.
— Prison Life on Alcatraz —
The prison cells were purposefully designed, so that none adjoined an outside wall. The cells were small and typically measured 9 feet by 5 feet and 7 feet high. They were basic and very primitive with only a bed, a desk, a washbasin, and toilet along the back wall. A blanket was provided, as well as a copy of “The Rules and Regulations for the Government and Discipline of the United States Penal and Correctional Institutions”.
Alcatraz’s inmates were basically entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything other than those basics were considered privileges. For clothing, the inmates were given a blue shirt, grey pants (which changed to blue and white in later years), cotton long underwear, socks, and a blue handkerchief; the wearing of caps was forbidden in the cellhouse.
Alcatraz had created a naming system of their corridors after major American streets and landmarks; such as Michigan Avenue, Broadway, Park Avenue, and Sunset Strip. Broadway was the central corridor, and prior to each meal the inmates would assemble on Broadway. There they would pass through Times Square, which was an area with a clock on the wall.
For meals, prisoners would be awakened and sent to breakfast by 6:55 am. An Alcatraz breakfast menu is still preserved on the hallway board, which was dated March 21 of 1963. The breakfast menu listed assorted dry cereals, steamed whole wheat, a scrambled egg, milk, stewed fruit, toast, bread, and butter.
Above is a photo of Alcatraz’s kitchen. If you look at the wall by the frying pans, you will notice the knife stencils on the wall. This was to assure that all knives were accounted for, if not being used.
— The Escape from Alcatraz —
On the night of June 11, 1962 four prisoners Frank Morris, Allen West, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who were brothers, attempted to escape Alcatraz. All escaped except Allen West who was left behind, and aided in the investigation with the FBI. Morris and the Anglin brothers carefully planned their escape over time.
They had chiseled away the salt-damaged concrete from around an air vent, which lead to an unmanned corridor. These inmates used tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime, and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. They chiseled during music hour when the noise was disguised by accordions. The chiseled wall was then concealed by a false walls, which were never noticed by the guards. The inmates escaped through a fan vent, one at a time.
To fool the guards even more, the three escapees had placed paper mache dummies which had human hair that was stolen from the barber shop. Additionally, over several weeks the inmates made an inflatable raft from over 50 stolen raincoats. They made this raft while being concealed from the guards with sheets that they had put up on the top of the cell block.
For many decades, the three were considered dead by drowning after an extensive FBI investigation. Interestingly enough, in the early 2010s there was circumstantial evidence uncovered to suggest that the men had survived. Contrary to the official FBI report of the escapee’s raft never being recovered, and no car thefts being reported, a raft was discovered on nearby Angel Island with footprints leading away.
Also, a 1955 blue Chevrolet had been stolen on the same night of the escape by three men, who could have possibly been Morris and the Anglins. It seemed that officials had then engaged in a cover-up.
The Anglin brothers’ relatives then presented further circumstantial evidence in support of a longstanding rumor that the Anglin brothers had fled to Brazil following the escape. In addition, there was a facial recognition analyst concluded that the one piece of physical evidence, a 1975 photograph of two men resembling John and Clarence Anglin, did support that conclusion.
— Closing of Alcatraz —
In 1963, a year after the escape from Alcatraz, the islands federal penitentiary shut down. The costs to operate the prison were exponential. The harsh damp weather caused quick deterioration of the buildings, and the operating expenses were costly.
Additionally, since the location was on an island this meant that all food and supplies had to be shipped in. It was the most expensive federal prison of its time.
— Native American History —
Prior to Alcatraz Island’s military fort and lighthouse history, it was long recognized by the Ohlone, Native American tribe. The beliefs of the island was that it housed many evil spirits and was avoided. Alcatraz was used to isolate and banish tribe members for violating tribal laws, which was also a form of imprisoning. I found it very interesting that from the start, this small island off the coast of San Francisco was used as a form of imprisonment.
On November 20, 1969, Alcatraz Island was occupied by the IAT, Indians of All Tribes, until June 11, 1971. This group of Native Americans had held Alcatraz Island as Indian Land, due to an old treaty that had stated any government land no longer being used would essentially be returned to the Native Americans. After 14 months of occupation, the Indians were forcibly removed by the federal government.
Strange Fact: Alcatraz Island is known as California’s top five most haunted places. There are many ghost stories from Alcatraz including the mysterious strangulation of a prisoner who was left in “the hole” in cellblock D. From the moment he entered the cell, he was screaming, but ignored by the guards who thought he was upset about his surroundings. The next morning he was found dead with a horrified look on his face. The autopsy found him to be strangled, but it was not self-inflicted. No one for sure knows how he had died, whether by a guard or an evil spirit, it is still a mystery today.
— Tours of Alcatraz Island —
Today, Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s top tourist attractions, and is part of the Golden Gate National Park Recreation area. Since this is very popular with the tourists, it is recommended to purchase your tickets well in advance. We had purchased our tickets about a month, out and many of the scheduled times had already been booked.
To book a tour of Alcatraz, you can find current information through the National Park Services – Plan Your Visit – Alcatraz Island (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
There are also several online tour companies that will book a tour for you, which is what we did. If you google “Alcatraz Tours”, you will find different companies that will set you up with a scheduled time for a ferry to the island.
Every window in Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco…– Susanna Kaysen
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