Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, USA

4 Conversations

Alcatraz island - or 'The Rock' for the 12 acres of solid rock on it - in San Francisco Bay, California is one of the most famous islands in the United States. Its position in the San Francisco bay has given it great historical importance. Named for the Spanish word meaning Pelican, it has a great amount of history to it, as well as today being a US National Park open to the public.

Through the years, it has been many things-

  • For innumerable years, it may have served as a fishing post for indigenous peoples of the San Francisco bay area.

  • A military fortress, used to protect the bay during the California Gold Rush and Civil War, from 1859 until 1868.

  • A US military prison from 1861 until 1934.

  • A US Federal Prison from 1934 until 1963.

  • A home for Native Americans from November, 1969 to June, 1971.

  • A part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, from 1972 until the present time.

European Discovery

It is likely that for many years, natives of California explored Alcatraz, or used it for fishing. It is in fact one of the best places for fishing in the area, and presumably was for many years prior to its discovery by the Europeans.

This island of the pelicans had a major role in preventing explorers from discovering the bay it is in, and in effect, the island itself. The unique position of it hides the entrance to the Bay (or the 'Golden Gate'), as from a great enough distance at sea Alcatraz appears to simply be part of the California coastline. This, along with the natural fog of the area, resulted in a masking effect, and it prevented the bay from being discovered for many years.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo passed it by. Sir Francis Drake failed to notice it. Sebastián Rodriguez Cermeo, who indirectly named San Francisco, also went right by it. Finally, Gaspar de Portolá, who sailed to California to establish colonies, discovered the bay in on 31 October, 1769, incorrectly identifying it as the bay that Cermeo had named San Francisco (which is how the name came to be).

Not long after this, the Spanish explorer Juan Manual de Ayala set out to chart and explore San Francisco Bay, and on 11 August, 1775, he noted in his log:

The boat was launched and I set out to search for better anchorage for the ship. I went out toward the island I named de los Angeles, which is the largest in this harbor, in search of proper moorings for making water and wood; and thought I found some good ones, I rather preferred to pass onward in search of another island, which when I reached it proved so arid and steep there was not even a boat-harbor there, I named this island La Isla de los Alcatrazes1 because of their being so plentiful there.

This appears to be the first European discovery of the island of Alcatraz (the name was originally Alcatrazes, or sometimes Alcatraces, but was shortened to Alcatraz over time). Less than a century after this, the island would serve its first practical purpose...

Military Fortress

On 8 June, 1846, Mexican California Governor Pio Pico gave the land of Alcatraz to Julian Workman, the first known owner of Alcatraz. He was allowed to own it as long as a lighthouse was established on it. Workman never appeared to get around to it though.

Later that year, John C Fremont, a leader of the Bear Flag Revolt that freed California from Mexico, purchased the island for only 5,000 dollars under the name of the United States Government. Eventually, after the Mexican-American War and the Bear Flag Revolt, California became a territory of the US government, and with it Alcatraz.

After a legal battle, the US Government acquired the island from Fremont, as he had used the name of the United States Government in buying it. Though he did not own the island for long, Fremont noticed that Alcatraz had a useful strategic position and could be used as a fort to guard the growing city of San Francisco.

The Gold Rush

Alcatraz was quietly mapped and explored to survey its feasibility as a fort. But the building of the fort at Alcatraz was only really spurred on by the Gold Rush of 1849. With the Gold Rush, millions poured into California in search of gold and San Francisco boomed. It became one of the richest cities in the world, and the chief port of the West Coast. Naturally, the United States wanted to protect the rich city from the attacks of other countries, and so the idea of a fort on Alcatraz seemed a very good one indeed. A lighthouse was also established in 1849 to aid the busy San Francisco harbour.

Construction of a fort began in 1853, with a great deal of difficulty. Men altered the rough terrain of the island at great expense. Supervised by 2nd Lt James McPherson, construction ended in 1859, ten years after the onset of the California Gold Rush. Alcatraz became an important symbol of military might in the west for the US, and was in its time a very powerful fort. The lighthouse helped to guide in friendly ships - the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the US.

During the US Civil War, California was a free state. Alcatraz was considered a key fort in the west, possibly protecting San Francisco from the Confederate army or from foreign nations who could have otherwise found a window of attack while the US was busy fighting with itself. Neither of these things ever happened, which is especially lucky, as the technology of the fort at Alcatraz became obsolete not long after its construction. Throughout its history, the Fort of Alcatraz never engaged in any battle, and only once fired a cannon (that missed) in a misunderstanding, and once on 3 June, 1876.

The events of 3 June, 1876, are known as the 'Great Sham Battle', and were an embarrassment to the military. The fort was supposed to celebrate the centennial of the nation with a show of military power. This involved having Alcatraz fire on a floating old schooner that had a great deal of explosives on it, but after an awkwardly long amount of time, none of the cannons could hit the schooner. A soldier had to be sent under cover of smoke to set fire to the ship, to help the military avoid embarrassment.

Military Prison

As it became more and more evident that Alcatraz was not a very useful fort, the military found another use for it while it was still a fort - as a military prison. The Military found that, because of its complete isolation from the mainland, Alcatraz would be a good prison, and in August, 1861, some Civil War military prisoners were sent to the island. Having no prison to speak of, prisoners were held in the basement of the guardhouse. Conditions were awful for the few pioneer prisoners that the basement could hold.

In time, more and more soldiers would spend time in Alcatraz, until in 1868 when it was designated as an official prison for soldiers serving long sentences. Many 'troublesome Native Americans' were also allowed to be imprisoned in the island's facilities. A brick jail building was completed in 1867. Later, a completely unsafe temporary wooden cell house was built, to help cope with the large population on the island. Inmate labour did much of the work to build and tear down new and old jails.

On 21 March, 1907, Alcatraz was established as the Western US Military Prison. In 1909, Major Reuben Turner designed a cement structure that would enclose all of the elements of the prison, making escape nearly impossible. This was built by convict labour2, and so what many people now know as the escape-proof Alcatraz came to be3. The inmates were also subject to tough discipline and harsh conditions in the prison - another modern image of Alcatraz.

The image of Alcatraz became a problem, and San Franciscans didn't like having a cold and sterile military prison in the middle of San Francisco bay, an area that they took pride in. The island was slightly brightened up with flowers that were planted, which continue to sit throughout the island today. The gardens were tended by inmates as one of the work assignments, which was one of the most well-liked jobs given to the prisoners.

In the 1930s, the Military decided it had to close the prison because it could no longer afford such a large expense. However, a new use for the island and its facilities came before the military prison officially closed.

Federal Penitentiary

Break the rules and you go to prison.
Break the prison-rules and you go to Alcatraz.

The 1920s are forever remembered in the US as a period of a great amount of crime from gangsters. Prohibition brought great wealth to gangs in New York and Chicago who sold alcohol illegally. Because of this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other crime prevention offices became more aggressive. After 1924, the famous (and infamous) J Edgar Hoover became FBI director, and planned the establishment of a 'super-prison', which would become a threat to gangsters, and could rehabilitate even the toughest prisoners. This was part of his plan to crack down on organized crime.

At around the time that the Military found that it could not use Alcatraz, Hoover grew in power and fought for his 'super-prison' idea. Before the military officially abandoned the island, on 12 October, 1933, the Justice Department announced plans to make Alcatraz a federal prison. The island changed hands, and became a federal prison officially on 1 January, 1934.

The Building

Alcatraz Prison, during its time, had some of the cleanest prison facilities in the world. Inmates took pride in assuring that their specific jobs were carried out well. As a result, laundry was done well and floors were well polished. Each inmate was also expected to keep his cell spotless, which generally is exactly what happened.

Alcatraz was remarkable for its level of high security. Layers of security piled on one another, forming redundancies that ensured prisoners would have to be very creative if they wanted to escape from Alcatraz. Besides the mechanical and design features that made Alcatraz almost escape-proof, it was an island with a mile swim to land (with a current that made the swim much harder), there were 12 counts a day, and it had a guard to inmate ratio of one to three.

The Cell House

There were many rooms and areas in the building. The main cell house had four cell blocks-

  • A Block was not used often after the construction of D Block. Some cells in A Block were used for storage, or as offices. Usually, A Block was only used in certain circumstances. If the prison population had ever grown large enough, A Block would probably have been used.

  • B Block was generally the first place that new inmates were sent to - specifically the second tier of the block. Generally, an inmate would stay in B Block for three months. The cells facing the 'Broadway' hall (see below) were considered by inmates to be some of the worst to have.

  • C Block was one of the main blocks. One side ran along the main corridor, facing B Block and the other side facing D Block. However, one part of the side facing D Block sat facing a set of windows, and were considered the most desirable cells for an inmate to have, because of the view and sunlight. This was nicknamed 'Park Avenue'.

  • D Block was constructed in 1941, and was the last block constructed. Although they were the roomiest, these 42 cells were used as punishment for infractions of prison rules, segregation and as a treatment unit. D Block included the solitary confinement cells, known as the 'hole'. There was one 'Strip Cell' (also known as the 'Oriental') which was the worst cell for a prisoner to be in, reserved for inmates that were a major problem.

There was a maximum occupancy of 336 men, but the prison never reached full capacity and usually ran with about 270 men.

There were a number of corridors in between the cell blocks, all of which were nicknamed by the inmates. The main hallway was nicknamed Broadway, which ran in between C and B Blocks in the centre of the prison. At the west end was an area known as Times Square, because of a large clock above it. The hall in between B and A Blocks was known as Michigan Avenue. The hall facing A Block and a wall was known as Sunset Alley, because the windows let in sun. In between C and D Block, there was a hall called Seedy Street (because C-D sounds like Seedy), and at the east end was the row of desirable cells known as Park Avenue. The hallway in between D Block and the south wall was called Sunset Strip.

Other than the cells, there were several rooms and areas that the prison used.

  • The Auditorium, above the cell house, was the centre of religion and education in Alcatraz. It was also where films were screened to inmates. The religious and educational aspect of Alcatraz was overseen by the prison Chaplain.

  • The Hospital was on the second floor above the mess hall, where sick inmates were held, operated on and observed. It was also where inmates complained about illness. Many of these complaints were completely fabricated, to get drugs or find some way to make an interesting moment or two in the day.

  • The Library stocked over 15,000 books which were delivered to inmates in their cells by an inmate assigned to this task. Reading took up much of the daylight time for inmates, and many of them became very well read.

  • The Barber Shop was a largely open area where prisoners had their hair cut once a month. This area is notable for its part in a large number of stabbings, attacks and escape attempts - as many of the scissors or razors could be smuggled out relatively easily.

  • The Recreation Yard was a large enclosed, open-air area open to prisoners at certain times. From this area, prisoners had a good view and inmates had a chance to stretch their legs. Prisoners loved their time in the recreation yard.

  • The Dungeons are a famous part of the myth of Alcatraz. Officially, they were called 'Lower Solitary', and they were primarily below Cell Blocks A and D. These areas were known to be damp and poorly ventilated.

  • Solitary Confinement in D Block is one of the pictures that a mind conjures up at the mention of Alcatraz. Solitary confinement consisted of a few cells used to discipline inmates who disobeyed the rules. There were two parts to a solitary confinement cell - a solid front cell door and a second door that let light through it. If the first door was open, light was allowed into the cell. If the first door was closed, the cell was completely dark and in many cases unbearable4.

  • The Dining Hall, or 'Gas Chamber' as it was called5, was the most dangerous part of the prison. Utensils could be used as weapons, and as all of the prisoners (except prisoners in D Block, who were given their meals in their cells) were in the same room for this part of the day, many protests and attacks happened in this room. Unsurprisingly, many protests happened when the quality of food dropped. Despite this, food in Alcatraz was considered to be among the best in the US Prison system. Prisoners were allowed as much food as they wanted, but no waste was ever permitted.

  • The Visiting Room, (with the area in front of it nicknamed 'Pekin' Place' by the inmates), was an area where inmates could speak with guests during visiting time. They were separated by bullet-proof glass.

  • The Gun Galleries were where guards (with guns) could observe the cell house. There was a West and East Gun Gallery.

  • The Shower Area was in the basement, where inmates showered.

The Wardens

There were four wardens in the history of Alcatraz.

  • James A Johnston was the first warden of Alcatraz, known as a strict disciplinarian and a devout reformist. Johnston was relatively popular among inmates and guards. He ran the prison from 1934 until 1948, and was nicknamed the 'Golden Rule Warden'.

  • Edwin B Swope was appointed as the second warden of Alcatraz after his predecessor reached the mandatory retirement age of 74. Swope was less popular than Johnston, because he was more firm and stubborn, but was also a strict disciplinarian and a believer in the value of reform. He was warden from 1948 until 1955.

  • Paul J Madigan was the only warden of Alcatraz who had worked his way up from the bottom of the ranks of the prison staff hierarchy. He had at various times been a guard, Captain, Lieutenant and an Associate Warden. He was less firm than Johnston or Swope, and was seen as more kind and soft. As warden, he reigned from 1955 until 1961.

  • Olin G Blackwell was an associate warden under Warden Madigan. He was the most relaxed and the least strict of any warden on the island. His brief administration was faced with problems - a lack of funding and the prison aging. In his term, from 1961 until 1963, he saw the closing of the prison and helped in closing it.

Wardens on the island had two noticeable privileges - they had the largest and nicest home on the island, and the ferry that brought people to the island was named after the warden during his term in the office.

Life as an Inmate

Privileges. You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege. You earn your privileges by conducting yourself properly.
-From Rule Number Five in Inmate Regulation Handbook.

There were many prominent differences between Alcatraz prisoners and regular prisoners. There were a dozen counts per day, a ratio of one guard per every three inmates (a very high proportion compared to other Federal Prisons) and the fact that no one was ever sentenced directly to Alcatraz. To reach The Rock, you would have to be transferred to it through another prison, and to be paroled, you would have to be transferred out to another prison. Alcatraz was no ordinary prison.

Each inmate was subjected to a rigorous schedule, unwavering in regularity. Each prisoner would wake up in unison, eat in unison, go to their work duties and retire to their cells before lights out. This, added to the strict rule of silence6 in the early years of the prison, weighed heavily on each prisoner.

A regulation cell (in A, B or C Block - D Block cells were slightly roomier) was only nine feet long and five feet wide. Each cell had a bed, a toilet, a ventilation system, a sink and a table with a Bible. Each prisoner had his own personal cell.

Most prisoners submitted to the rules of Alcatraz, and in fact, some former inmates claim Alcatraz to have been the best penitentiary to be in if you played by its rules. If you didn't, it could be a truly miserable experience.

Famous Inmates

Essentially, there are three enduring figures that are the best examples of Alcatraz prisoners - Al Capone, 'Machine Gun' Kelly and Robert Stroud. Other include Henri Young, Roy Gardner and Morton Sobell (accomplice of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).

  • Al Capone, or 'Scarface' was possibly the most famous and notorious gangster of the Prohibition Era. He was known as the King of Chicago underlife, and the man behind the St Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. His reign as a gangster ended though, as he was sent to jail for tax evasion in 1931... or so one might think. Capone manipulated the system of the prisons he was sent to so that he could run his empire from inside prison. However, he was transferred to Alcatraz as the 85th prisoner and was unable to manipulate the system, as he had before. He was treated as a number, just like any other prisoner, even though he was arguably the most famous criminal in US history. Occupying cell B-206, he occasionally got in fights, and was once stabbed, but his spirit as an incorrigible criminal was eventually broken. He was transferred out of Alcatraz in 1938 because of an advanced medical condition, which he died from in 1947.

  • George 'Machine Gun' Kelly was another notorious and enduring criminal of the gangster ages. He masterminded the St Valentine's Day Massacre, and carried out a range of illegal activities, from kidnapping to bank robbing. His wife cultivated his image, and along with wanted posters of the time, he was known to be an expert machine gunner. He was arrested for kidnapping in 1933, and arrived in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he claimed he would escape. Because of this, he was sent to Alcatraz as AZ-117. He initially resisted the conditions, but became a model inmate and even took a job as an altar boy. He died in Alcatraz in 1954.

  • Robert Stroud is the inspiration behind the classic book 'The Birdman of Alcatraz' and the film it inspired of the same name. He was sent to jail when he turned himself in for killing his mother's ex-boyfriend, who he said beat her. He was transferred around the prison system, eventually reaching Leavenworth in Kansas, where he killed a guard and was put on death row. Only through a large campaign led by his mother was Stroud allowed to live (by order of President Woodrow Wilson). He still had to face life imprisonment though (not in Alcatraz yet), and had to spend most of his sentence in solitary confinement. Around this time, Stroud developed an unusual obsession with birds, and experimented on them, writing notes, and keeping cages. He became quite an expert on the subject of birds, and became a bird entrepreneur - breeding and selling birds, bird medicine and bird food from prison. He also wrote many articles about birds in magazines. The privilege of bird keeping and writing was soon revoked, but through public support, it was reinstated - and Stroud became a well-known figure in the process. He wrote a book entitled 'Diseases of Canaries', which was not particularly successful. In 1942, Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz, and was sent to D-Block, where he would remain for almost all of his time there. No birds were allowed in Alcatraz, and his only privilege was that he was allowed to finish writing a book. In 1943 this book, 'Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds' was published. After this, Stroud did not have much to do, and became a major problem, until he was sent by Warden Swope to a cell in the hospital wing, where he would remain for 11 years. He was considered a very unusual, very intelligent, homicidal maniac by many on the correctional staff. He was transferred out of Alcatraz in 1959 and died on 21 November, 1963.

Escape Attempts

One of the reasons why Alcatraz Island was an ideal location for the Federal Bureau of Prison's toughest penitentiary was because it was on an island - more than a mile away from the mainland. If one would attempt to escape from Alcatraz, they would have to find a way through prison security (which was designed not to have any holes, and so inmates would have to be creative) and then through a mile swim against the current in cold water.

There were 14 events generally considered to be escape attempts - with 36 would be escapists7, with the tenth and 13th being the most famous. Whether there has ever been a successful escape from Alcatraz depends on the fate of the escapees of the 2nd and 13th escape attempts.

  1. 27 April, 1936 - The first attempt was made by Joe Bowers, though some doubt that this was an escape attempt, and rather a suicide attempt. While working on his job assignment at the incinerator, he tried to climb over the fence around Alcatraz, and he was shot from the guard towers.

  2. 16 December, 1937 - Inmates Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe were known as being good at escaping from prisons, and were good friends at Alcatraz. They worked in the Mat Shop during the day, and over time, sawed through a steel window grill. On 16 December, they punched out the glass while a correctional officer was away, and bent the bars so they they could drop to the ground below the window. They made their way over the fence, and went into the waters, never to be seen again. The currents were fierce that day, the waters cold and the fog dense. It seems unlikely that they made their way to the mainland, but rather drowned in the bay. Eventually, after a long and thorough investigation, it was concluded that the inmates died that day in the water, but the thought that Alcatraz was escape proof was forever tarnished.

  3. 23 May, 1938 - Inmates Thomas Robert Limerick, James Lucas and Rufus Franklin launched an escape attempt that was one of the most violent in the history of the island. In the Model Industries Building, they bashed in the head of a correctional officer Royal C Cline, who was overseeing them in. Then they found a way to the roof, and threw metal objects at Junior Officer Harold Stites, who was on duty at the tower on top of the Model Industries building. After a short bout of violence, Limerick was shot in the head, Lucas surrendered and Franklin was shot. In the end, Limerick and Cline died as a result of this failed escape attempt.

  4. 13 January, 1939 - The fourth escape attempt involved five inmates, Henri Young, Rufus McCain, William Martin, Dale Stamphill and Arthur 'Doc' Barker. Barker was the mastermind behind the scheme, which was rather simple in design. He had a bar spreader and a hacksaw blade. They slipped out of their cells late at night in D-Block (where the bars were less modern), after one of the head-counts. They had previously taken out one of the bars in the windows with a wrench, and so they walked out of their cells after 3:00 AM and climbed through the window, dropping down into the land below the cellhouse. From there, they attempted to construct five rafts for each of them, to make their way to the mainland. Around 3:45 AM, a guard found the empty cells and soon a search was made for the missing inmates. They eventually found them all in a cove. Young and McCain were found first, with minimal injuries. Then Stamphill, with a couple of gunshot wounds (from the guards firing into the cove) and Barker, also with several serious wounds. Finally, Ty Martin was found, nearly frozen and with several small wounds and cuts. Barker would die from his wounds.

  5. 21 May, 1941 was one of the most unnerving escape attempts that Alcatraz ever saw. Four inmates participated in it - Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle and Lloyd Barkdoll. After lunch, Clyne E Stoops, a correctional guard, went into the Mat Shop in the Model Industries building, where the four inmates worked. From there they attacked Clyne and overpowered him. Another guard entered and a couple of captains, one at a time, and each were overpowered and bound. They freed Captain Madigan, because it would be time for the officers to call the Administration building, or else the other guards would become suspicious. The inmates could not make any progress at their goal, which was to break through the bars which preventing them from reaching freedom. They were apprehended without a fight and sent to solitary confinement.

  6. 15 September, 1941 was the first solo escape attempt since the first one, by Joe Bowers. John Bayless worked on the garbage detail at Alcatraz, and on the 15th of September, suddenly decided to escape, when the fog was especially thick. He jumped into the water, and quickly realized that the water would be too difficult for him. He was captured without incident, and sent to D-Block.

  7. 13 April, 1943 was one of the most intricate and interesting escape attempts from Alcatraz, courtesy of James Boarman, Fred Hunter, Harold Brest and Floyd Hamilton. It took place principally in the Mat Shop (which was being used to make concrete blocks to weigh down submarine nets, to help with the US effort in World War II). The escapists managed to capture Officer George Smith, and later Captain Henry Wienhold. The inmates had sawed through the window bars earlier, and simply climbed through it. At this point, they had few clothes on, as they had put them into a few small canisters which were intended to be flotation devices. They couldn't fit the canisters through the window, and so the inmates were half-naked for no particular reason. Hunter was injured, and made his way into a cave, and the other three began to swim into the fog, though Hamilton couldn't swim very far and stopped at a small rock nicknamed 'Little Alcatraz'.

    One of the bound officers loosed his gag and began to yell for help, and was not heard. Around this time, an officer assumed his post at the tower on top of the Model Industries building, and saw three figures in the water swimming. Soon, one of the bound officers managed to get his mouth around a whistle, and used it. The guard on the tower heard this, and began shooting. Boarman was shot in the left ear, and the prison launch McDowell found the prisoners in the water. Guards attempted to lift the limp body of Boarman into the boat, but dropped him and he fell into the sea. Prison officials confidently assumed that Hamilton was killed at sea along with Boarman, but searched for Hunter along the shores of the island, quickly finding him. They didn't find Hamilton, and he remained in hiding on the shoreline for three days, after which he went back to the Model Industries Building exhausted and hungry, where he was, of course, discovered.

  8. 7 August, 1943 - In 1943 Alcatraz was understaffed because of World War II, and Huron Ted Waters took advantage of this. Outside of the supervision of the guards, Walters ran to the shore, and attempted to cut through the fence. This would not work, and so he had to try to get over on his own, and on the way back down, he fell and injured his back. As he was on the water's edge, the alarm sounded as he was reported missing. He did not attempt to swim towards the bay, and was found by the Coast Guard, with a couple of flotation devices and half-naked.

  9. 31 July, 1945 the 9th attempt was made by John Giles and is considered one of the most ingenious escape attempts ever made in the prison's history. In Alcatraz, he kept to himself mostly, and used his time alone to observe the habits of the laundry delivery (at the time, laundry from the Army was regularly sent to Alcatraz so that the inmates could clean it, and ship it back out). Part of his work assignment involved sweeping near the area where the laundry was delivered. Over the course of about ten years, Giles stole parts of an army suit, and accumulated a complete Technical Sergeant uniform. On 31 July, 1945, Giles successfully boarded a military vessel, after slipping into his uniform. Once onboard, Giles was questioned and no one knew who he was. Meanwhile, at Alcatraz, his absence was questioned, as he was not found during a routine count. Giles was quickly found out, and arrested as soon as he arrived at the next stop, Fort McDowell.

  10. 2-4 May, 1946 - The 10th attempt was known as the 'Battle of Alcatraz', where six inmates seized guns from the West Gun Gallery and killed a number of officers. They tried to walk out of the cellhouse by force, but after taking a pair of keys, they accidentally locked themselves in because of a mechanism in the door that locked when the wrong pair of keys are used. They had to take hostages, and eventually, after a long standoff between the escapees and the military and police, were killed fighting. It would be ten years before another inmate attempted to escape.

  11. 23 July, 1956 - The 11th escape attempt was the effort of Floyd Wilson. Working on the Dock Crew, Wilson disappeared between counts on 23 July, 1956. The island was scoured, and after about 11 hours, he was found in a brilliant hiding spot behind a rock, with a few materials to make a raft.

  12. 29 September, 1958 - The last escape attempt using force was the work of Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson. They worked on the garbage detail, under the supervision of Officer Harold Miller. Miller was new to Alcatraz, and this was one of his first times supervising the garbage detail. At some point, the inmates pulled out a knife and taped over the eyes and mouth of Miller, and tied him to a tree, but did not harm him. Burgett and Johnson launched their own plans of escape, but both lost hope as they reached the cold water. The two inmates were reported missing, and a search effort went out to find them. Johnson was found, and surrendered, and Burgett's dead body was found quite a while later.

  13. 11 June, 1962 - The 13th attempt was perhaps the most famous of all. It was the escape attempt by Frank Morris8 and John and Clarence Anglin. Another inmate named Allen West helped in this escape, but did not actually leave Alcatraz.

    To escape, they gradually dug through the ventilation shaft of their cells9, with a painted papier mâché head sitting in their beds so that guards would not notice they were gone when during one of the night-time head counts. The inmates went through the hole in their cells to the utility corridor in the cell house and made their way up onto the roof, from where they went to the water surrounding the island. They used raincoats that had been made into life vests and a raft to assist in their escape.

    Their escape was undetected until the next morning, when a full-scale search was launched. A few raincoats and personal items were found in the bay, but there were no bodies. They are currently considered missing and presumed drowned, but no one knows if they made it or not. It would be unlikely for anyone to make that swim, but Frank Morris was reputed to have been a fine swimmer.

    This dramatic and intricate escape was immortalized in the classic (and very accurate) film 'Escape from Alcatraz', starring Clint Eastwood.

  14. 4 December, 1962 - The very last prison escape attempt of the history of Alcatraz was made by John Scott and Daryl Parker. They made their way through a barred window in the kitchen area, and eventually to the shore. They made their way to the water, both getting in. Parker was thrown into a minor piece of land known as 'Little Alcatraz' off the coast of the island. Scott, however, was carried by the currents to Fort Point (part of the mainland) and badly hurt because of the water and it repeatedly slamming him against rocks there. Parker was discovered by prison officials, and Scott was discovered by some civilians. His condition was so bad that he had to be taken to a hospital immediately, and he barely survived. This escape proved that reaching the mainland from Alcatraz was possible for an inmate, but not advisable. He was taken back to Alcatraz, having earned the distinction as the closest anyone has ever gotten to escaping Alcatraz and living10.

The Prison Closes

1,545 men spent time in Alcatraz - from Frank Lucas Bolt (AZ-1) to Frank Clay Weatherman (AZ-1576). However, in 1963 after the 13th escape attempt (see above), Alcatraz was scrutinized much more than before.

It was found that the conditions of Alcatraz were definitely deteriorating and that the operation was too expensive (everything needed for a prison had to be shipped there... everything). By order of Attorney General Robert Kennedy (under the John F Kennedy administration) it was shut down officially on 21 March, 1963.

The government could not decide what to do with the island, and ideas poured in from all over the nation. While the country was debating, however, something happened...

Native American Occupation

For six years after the Federal Penitentiary closed at Alcatraz, the island was considered abandoned. During some of the time, Native Americans claimed the island. On 20 November, 1969, Native Americans arrived on the island with plans to build a cultural centre.

By 1969, the protest climate in the United States was high because of the Vietnam War, so Native Americans received great public support, which prevented their removal, as they were seen as activists. They had to resort to stealing copper wiring from buildings, to help finance the shipping that the occupation required. Their organizational structure toppled and drugs became a problem. On 1 June, 1970, fires destroyed some of the prison buildings, the lighthouse-keeper's residence, the Warden's house and the Officer's Club, and the lighthouse was damaged.

After this incident, public favour, which had diminished over time, fell from the Natives, and the Federal Government removed the natives from the island. Some remnants of the occupation remain today... for instance, as visitors to the island (just after they leave the ferry) can now see some graffiti that claims the island as Indian Land.

National Park

In 1972, the National Parks Department took over Alcatraz to use it as a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is open to visitors and tourists today, and upon going to the island via the ferry, one may tour the prison or walk around the island11.

Films about Alcatraz

The island of Alcatraz has that dramatic element of being inescapable, yet filled with people desperate to escape. As such, it has inspired several films, with major stars, about it and its prisoners. Of them, there are three films that could be considered classic Alcatraz films-

  • Escape from Alcatraz is the essential Alcatraz film. Starring Clint Eastwood, it shows the 13th Escape Attempt by Frank Morris in 1962 and his short time as an inmate.

  • The Birdman of Alcatraz stars Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud, based on Thomas Gaddis' book of the same name.

  • The Rock starring Sean Connery is not a historical tale, but is rather about a group of terrorists who take over Alcatraz after it becomes a National Park.

1Or Island of the Pelicans.2At the time of its construction, it was the largest steel-reinforced concrete structure in the world.3It wasn't escape-proof, though. At the time it was not a high security facility, though the cement superstructure and the isolation of the island helped keep successful escapes relatively low.4Inmate Jim Quillen used to play a game where he took a button, flipped it, spun around and felt around in the darkness until he found it, and repeated the game. This was the sort of recreation an inmate might find in solitary confinement.5This was because of several bottles mounted on the ceiling that could be released if the inmates started a riot. They were never released.6This rule said that inmates had to remain silent throughout most of the day, and could only speak quietly at their work assignments.7And two inmates, Sam Shockley and Joe Cretzer attempted to escape twice.8Who was noted as an exceptionally talented escapist and as a very intelligent person. In his Alcatraz profile, 'Escape Artist' is written as one of his professions.9Which was already eroded and weak from the humidity in the San Francisco Bay. They were able to dig large holes from the shaft with crude tools - according to legend they used spoons, but since they had access to the Machine Shop in Alcatraz, it is more likely they stole tools or used homemade drills.10Assuming several other inmates died during their earlier escape attempts.11Provided it is not mating season for the birds on the island, in which case a large part of the island is blocked off. Of course, all through the year, visitors are subjected to an array of bird excretion over the island.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Edited by

h2g2 Editors

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more