urrounded by the cold water of the largest bay on the West Coast of the United States, Alcatraz Island housed the most dreaded maximum security prison and the oldest American lighthouse. For 29 years no one had successfully escaped from there … or so they thought.
Long before it became the home of the famous maximum-security prison, Alcatraz was a desert island. The native Americans of the region avoided the island as they thought it housed evil spirits. The tribe known as the Ohlone, used the island as a place of punishment where they sent those who violated the rules of the tribe. The first Europeans to visit the island were the Spaniards. In 1775, the explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first to cross the Gulf of San Francisco and named one of the three islands “Isla de los Alcatraces” or “Pelican Island.”
Later, the name was shortened to what we know today as Alcatraz. When the Spaniards began their expeditions to Southern California, many members of the Ohlone tribe used the island as a hideout to avoid European-imposed Christianization.
From a Lighthouse to a Prison
The first registered owner of the island was Julian Workman, who was appointed in June 1846 by Mexican Governor Pio Pico to build a lighthouse. In 1848, at the end of the American-Mexican War, California, along with the island, became the property of the United States. In the early 1860s, when the Civil War broke out, Alcatraz served as a place to protect and store firearms for the San Francisco arsenal.
Realizing its strategic position, a fortress began to be built with 11 cannons placed on top. During the war, Confederate sympathizers were sent to the island. In 1868, after the construction of the brick prison, it was officially designated to serve as a long-term place of detention for military prisoners.
The New Prison
From 1909 to 1911, a new, improved prison was built. The new building, which was later known as “The Rock”, was built by the prisoners themselves. The island was under the jurisdiction of the United States Army from 1850 to 1933, when it was transferred to the ownership of the Department of Justice, being used by the Federal Bureau of Penitentiaries. It was then decided that Alcatraz would become a maximum-security federal prison, with minimum privileges granted to the most dangerous detainees on American soil.
The first prisoners were brought in 1934, handcuffed and guarded by FBI agents. The main director of the prison was James A. Johnston, who ran the institution with an iron fist until 1948. There was absolute silence on the part of the prison authorities, and the presence of the press was forbidden.
The prison staff initially numbered about 150 people, who lived with their families on the island. Usually, 250 convicts were held, each with his own cell. Although it is known as the “Devil’s Island”, many prisoners wanted to be transferred there, as living conditions were more decent than most prisons in the US as the time.
At Alcatraz, prisoners had four rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Any other privilege such as: working out in the open, correspondence with family, visits by relatives, access to the penitentiary library, activities such as painting, writing, or working out had to be earned. When the prison management believed that a prisoner was no longer a threat, he was sent to another federal prison to complete the rest of his sentence.
The “House” of Famous Criminals
From 1934 to 1939, the most famous gangster, Al Capone, was imprisoned in Alcatraz. They were followed by George Kelly, nicknamed “Machine Gun Kelly”, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, enemy number 1, from 1936 to 1962. By 1963, there were 14 escape attempts, in which 36 people were involved, of whom 23 were caught, 6 were shot dead. The bodies of the remaining 6 prisoners who aren’t accounted for in the previous tally have never been found and to this day their fate remains a mystery
Alcatraz was closed in 1963 by Robert F. Kennedy because of the high costs of transporting supplies to the island. In 1969, a group of Native Americans claimed the island until 1971, when they were evacuated by authorities. Currently, the island is open to visitors.