California: Alcatraz Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This was the site of the first U.S. fort on the Pacific coast. It was used as a federal maximum-security prison between 1934 and 1963, occupied repeatedly by Native American groups between 1964 and 1971, and absorbed into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a National Park, in 1972.

Site Office

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Fort Mason, Building 201

San Francisco, CA 94123

ph.: (415) 556-0560

Web site: www.nps.gov/alcatraz/

It is nothing more than a desolate island, a chunk of rock jutting out of the San Francisco Bay. It is frequently shrouded in fog, buffeted by strong winds, and surrounded by icy water. For the most part, it is inhospitable to life, be it plant, animal, or human. Yet it has always been coveted by one group or another, serving as a fort, a military prison, a federal penitentiary, a haven for renegade Native Americans, and a National Park site. Known to all who have occupied it as the Rock, Alcatraz Island has played a significant and rich role in U.S. history.

Discovery

Who exactly discovered the island is a mystery, but it was named by a lieutenant in the Royal Spanish Navy. As he sailed into the bay, he observed that the island was covered with pelicans, so he aptly named it Isla de los Alcatraces (island of the pelicans).

The earliest American interest in the island came in 1853, when the U.S. Congress appropriated half a million dollars for the defense of the San Francisco Harbor. Despite the harsh conditions, Alcatraz was a natural harbor barrier and thus was chosen as the site for the first U.S. fort guarding the Pacific coast. During the fort’s construction in 1854, a lighthouse was built to help ships navigating the dangerous waters. By 1858, the fort was completed, and although it was modern and strong for the times, it would never be needed to repel an enemy. Gradually, Alcatraz began receiving military prisoners, acting as a stockade and sometimes a sanitarium. It would serve as a military prison for many of the years from 1860 to 1933.

An Island Prison

During the 1930’s, America was feeling the effects of a wave of gangster-run crime. Criminals such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly were at the height of their influence, and prison breaks were common and often deadly to guards and prisoners caught in the cross fire. U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings needed a way to control the crime wave and the deteriorating conditions in the penal system. His solution came when he heard about Alcatraz.

Cummings believed that by converting the island into a maximum-security federal prison, he could move the worst of America’s criminals out of other U.S. jails and right the failing system. So, the Bureau of Prisons assumed command of the island and poured $260,000 into the renovation of the facility. Additional guard towers were built. Fences were erected and looped with barbed wire. Extra metal detectors, gun galleries, and checkpoints were added, making Alcatraz the most state-of-the-art prison of its day. Alcatraz’s strategic position made it virtually escape-proof, according to new warden James A. Johnston. Even if a convict could make it through the fortress, swimming against the strong current in the ice-cold bay would be impossible. Escapees, if not caught, would either freeze or drown.

Johnston, a lifetime prison man who was known for his humanitarian side, did a complete about-face in his preparation of Alcatraz. The plan for prisoners’ lives was extremely harsh. Convicts were not allowed newspapers, magazines, or radio. There was no prison store for candy, playing cards, or other diversions. Only one visitor was allowed per month, and that visit was limited to a two-hour phone conversation through a heavy pane of glass. Finally, an order of silence was imposed–convicts were not to speak to one another. (By 1939 the order of silence was repealed, as it was too difficult for guards to enforce.)

To land in Alcatraz, convicts had to earn it. No man could be sentenced directly to the Rock; only those who had caused trouble in other prisons were sent there as part of an additional sentence. Neither could prisoners be paroled from Alcatraz; good behavior merely returned them to the normal prison system. Alcatraz was truly a place for the hopeless.

The Inmates Arrive

Alcatraz was ready to receive prisoners by the late summer of 1934–among them were Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Capone’s arrival was eagerly awaited by the media, their interest fueled by stories that he ruled his notorious criminal empire from his cell at the Atlanta Penitentiary. In time, the papers would learn that the Rock could handle even Capone. He was relatively docile during his imprisonment there, in part, perhaps, because his syphilis had entered its final stages. He was transferred off the island in 1939.

When prisoners arrived, they found a fortress. There were three levels of singular cells, broken up into B, C, and D Blocks. (The fourth block of cells, A Block, was never renovated and was rarely used.) The prisoner rose at 6:30 a.m., and during the day ate three meals and served two work details. Lockdown occurred at 5:30 p.m., and lights-out was at 9:30. Monotony was the way of life.

Johnston did provide the convicts with one amenity: good food. The food at the Rock was known as the best in any prison. Johnston believed a well-fed convict was a good convict, less likely to stir up trouble. If a convict did misbehave, he would wind up in D Block, better known as the Hole, for a period of time determined by his offense. Each cell in the Hole was windowless, with nothing but four walls and a cold concrete floor to sleep on. If a convict was held there, he was given only four slices of bread per day and had no outside contact with anyone else for any reason. As elsewhere in the prison, offenders held in the Hole had to work their way back into normal prison life with good behavior.

The life of guards at Alcatraz was also difficult and monotonous. The prison was designed to be staffed by 110 people, but the figure was usually held to 100 to keep costs down. Because of other factors such as days off or sick days, only 75 men on average worked at any one time. To cover the numerous checkpoints, towers, and gun galleries, officials were forced to work long and lonely hours and make frequent counts and searches, which took place every time a large movement of prisoners occurred.

Escape Attempts

The prisoners’ monotonous lives bred attempts at escape, while the guards became more lax, believing over time that no man could ever escape the confines. Prison rules eased as well; convicts were allowed to subscribe to magazines, see films four times a year, and check out books from a nine thousand-volume library. The relatively relaxed atmosphere spawned fifteen recorded escape attempts in the twenty-nine-year history of the prison. Of those, all ended with the convicts’ deaths or their return for a long stay in the Hole, with the notable exception of one attempt that has become a legend.

Frank Lee Morris was a convicted bank robber who earned himself a place on the Rock with a series of unsuccessful escape attempts from the Atlanta Penitentiary. Brothers John and Clarence Anglin came to Alcatraz after stowing away in bakery boxes to be shipped out of Leavenworth, Kansas. With Morris’s brains (he had a tested IQ of 133) and the Anglins’ brawn, they devised and executed an escape that has never been solved.

The Morris-Anglin escape was the culmination of a year of planning involving many facets and the cooperation of other convicts. More notable was the lax security that allowed the three to smuggle tools past metal detectors to their cells. Spoons, files, and a sort of mechanical drill made out of a fan blade were all sneaked past the guards. The men used the tools to chip away at the concrete holding the air grates in their cells in place. To drown out the chipping sounds, other prisoners played their musical instruments; after the allotted one hour of instrument playing, the conspirators filled in their new holes with a plaster substitute made from wet cardboard.

On June 12, 1962, the full plan was ready for action. The grates had been removable for some time; roughly once a week, the three would leave their cells and climb up to the roof to prepare other necessary items. To fool the guards who walked past the cells hourly, they had made human-like heads out of papier-mâché with real hair collected by one of the Anglins, who worked in the barber shop. For flotation, they constructed water wings out of raincoats that the other Anglin had collected from his stint in the clothing shop.

Following the 9:30 p.m. guard check, the men left their cells for the final time. They made their way through the catwalks and up to the roof to get the rest of their gear. Somehow, they then avoided the searchlights and climbed two fences without being discovered. The men paddled away, never to be heard from again.

Their escape was not discovered until 7:15 the next morning. Their ten-hour head start was enough for them to reach shore, if they had not drowned. An area-wide manhunt began but yielded little in the way of hard evidence. Five days after the escape, an army boat found the only clue traceable to the trio, a small plastic bag containing photographs of Clarence Anglin and his relatives. Prison officials claimed the men must have drowned, but rumors circulated through the prison that they may have survived. No one is sure to this day.

Six months later, doubt about the security of the Rock again surfaced when two more convicts escaped out a basement window and walked across the island. One was recaptured immediately, but the other, using water wings made of rubber gloves, was able to paddle across the bay. Though he passed out from exhaustion upon reaching the shore near the Golden Gate Bridge and was also recaptured, his experience proved that someone could make it across the water to safety, fueling even more speculation about the possible success of the Morris-Anglin escape.

Alcatraz Prison Closes

Though no one could prove or deny that Morris or the Anglins survived, the Bureau of Prisons made it clear that their possible success signaled the end of Alcatraz as a prison. There had been rumors of the closing of Alcatraz for years due to the high cost of running the prison and its limited capacity. In January, 1962, it cost $5.27 per day to keep a prisoner in an average prison: In Alcatraz, that figure rose to $13.81. To guard a prisoner at an average prison ran $4.00; at Alcatraz, $9.69. Everything cost more at the Rock–food and even fresh water had to be brought in on a daily basis. The salty sea air had taken its toll on the prison’s structural soundness as well. The diesel plant was giving out, the pipes were corroding, and the walls were crumbling–a factor that had contributed to the ease with which Morris and the Anglins chipped through. In 1961, the Bureau of Prisons spent $300,000 to do needed repairs, but a report said it would take nearly $4 million to restore the prison fully.

At the same time as Alcatraz’s demise, a new maximum-security facility was being constructed at Marion, Illinois. The new prison would be less costly to run, hold more prisoners, and not involve the same day-to-day hassles of operation. Alcatraz was deemed a waste of money and time and was slated to close in December, 1963. Following the escapes in 1962 and 1963, the date was moved up; the last prisoners left the island on March 21, 1963, and the prison was officially closed and abandoned in June, ending more than one hundred years of prison history on the island.

American Indian Occupations

About a year after the abandonment of Alcatraz by the federal government, perhaps the most unusual period in the history of the island began. Local groups of various Native American tribes began landing on the Rock, trying to take it as their own in the hopes of constructing a cultural and learning center. Four landings in all took place, one resulting in the occupation of the island by “Indians of all Tribes” for nineteen months from 1969 to 1971.

The first landing was designed by a local group of Sioux Indians who primarily wanted to prove a political and legal point. In the 1860’s, the Sioux had concluded a treaty with the American government that permitted nonreservation Native Americans to claim any land that the government had taken for its use and later abandoned. The treaty remained to that day, and local Native Americans wanted to see if it was still valid. A forty-person party set out for the island in 1964 by boat and landed on Alcatraz. Although the island’s caretaker allowed them to land, the acting warden showed up soon after with federal marshals who escorted the Sioux off the island after only a four-hour stay. Some saw the landing as nothing more than a bizarre stunt, but it was covered by the local media as yet another example of broken promises by the government to the Native Americans. The Sioux had accomplished their goal.

No further landings were attempted by Native Americans until 1969, when the local Indian cultural center burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Without a home, the groups turned to Alcatraz as their new site, determined to make the government keep its promise. On November 9, 1969, a large group of Native Americans attempted to land on the island, but when the captain of the boat discovered their motive, he refused to approach the docks. A few tried to swim for it, and one actually made it, but all were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard.

A second try was launched a few days later, with a little more success. Fourteen Native Americans were able to land on a night mission to the island and successfully hide from searches conducted by U.S. Coast Guard and other federal officials for nearly twenty-four hours. The visitors eventually surrendered and were returned to the mainland.

The third and final attempt on November 20 was the most successful. Nearly ninety Native Americans set sail for the island at 3 a.m. from Sausalito, California, and successfully reached the dock. Previous attempts had been covered extensively by the media, and by this time public sentiment had swung toward the side of the Native Americans. With a larger group landing this time, local officials were under pressure to find a good reason to remove them.

Over the next nineteen months, government officials tried everything they could to drive the Native Americans from the island. A water barge that traveled back and forth between the mainland and the island was taken out of service; with it went the largest source of fresh water for the residents. When electrical power failed, the U.S. Coast Guard sent men to fix the backup generators, but these men instead removed vital parts from the generators, rendering them useless. Another generator was supplied, but it burned to the ground mysteriously, with both residents and officials blaming each other. Still, the Native Americans would not leave.

The reason the government gave for finally ejecting the Native Americans was itself bizarre. Throughout the occupation, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents kept the island under surveillance from the shore. When the Bureau of Prisons had abandoned the island, they removed everything of value, except for large bales of copper wire that were left buried. When the Native Americans found this wire, they dug it up and sold it as scrap to make six hundred dollars. Government officials classified this act as theft of federal property and sent armed marshals to the island to escort all residents off on June 11, 1971. The Native Americans would never return again.

Alcatraz Today

In 1972, the island was absorbed into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a National Park. Visitors ferried from the San Francisco shore can examine what remains of the old prison and grounds as well as learn about prison history and some of the famous convicts who lived in the cell blocks. The site is an extremely popular tourist attraction, continuing the mysterious fascination with what has always been so much more than just a forbidding chunk of rock.

For Further Information
  • Babjak, Jolene. Eyewitness on Alcatraz. Berkeley, Calif.: Ariel Vamp Press, 1988. Told from the point of view of a prison official’s daughter living at the prison during its heyday.
  • Fortunate, Adam. Eagle in Alcatraz! Alcatraz! Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 1992. Examines the Native American occupation of 1969 to 1971 and other attempts.
  • Godwin, John. Alcatraz, 1868-1963. New York: Doubleday, 1961. An overview of prison history, paying special attention to the prisoners who were incarcerated at Alcatraz.
  • Presnall, Judith Janda. Life on Alcatraz. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2000. Discusses the prison on Alcatraz Island, otherwise known as “The Rock.” Describes the cell house, the routine of prison life, inmates’ leisure time, breaking prison rules, employee and family life, closing Alcatraz prison, and the island’s future roles.
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