The federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the chilly waters of California’s San Francisco Bay housed some of America’s most difficult and dangerous felons during its years of operation from 1934 to 1963. Among those who served time at the maximum-security facility were the notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone (1899-1947) and murderer Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud (1890-1963). No inmate ever successfully escaped The Rock, as the prison was nicknamed, although more than a dozen known attempts were made over the years. After the prison was shut down due to high operating costs, the island was occupied for almost two years, starting in 1969, by a group of Native-American activists. Today, historic Alcatraz Island, which was also the site of a U.S. military prison from the late 1850s to 1933, is a popular tourist destination.
In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala (1745-97) mapped and named rugged Alcatraz Island, christening it La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans, due to its large population of sea birds. Seventy-five years later, in 1850, President Millard Fillmore (1800-74) signed an order reserving the island for military use. During the 1850s, a fortress was constructed on Alcatraz and some 100 cannons were installed around the island to protect San Francisco Bay. Also during this time, Alcatraz became home to the West Coast’s first operational lighthouse.
By the late 1850s, the U.S. Army had begun holding military prisoners at Alcatraz. Isolated from the mainland by the cold, strong waters of San Francisco Bay, the island was deemed an ideal location for a prison. It was assumed no Alcatraz inmate could attempt to escape by swimming and survive.
During its years as a military prison, the inmates at Alcatraz included Confederate sympathizers and citizens accused of treason during the American Civil War (1861-65). Alcatraz also housed a number of “rebellious” American Indians, including 19 Hopis from the Arizona Territory who were sent to the prison in 1895 following land disagreements with the federal government. The inmate population at Alcatraz continued to rise during the Spanish-American War (1898).
During the early 20th century, inmate labor fueled the construction of a new cellhouse (the 600-cell structure still stands today) on Alcatraz, along with a hospital, mess hall and other prison buildings. According to the National Park Service, when this new complex was finished in 1912 it was the world’s largest reinforced concrete building.
Doing Time as a Federal Prison: 1934-63
In 1933, the Army relinquished Alcatraz to the U.S. Justice Department, which wanted a federal prison that could house a criminal population too difficult or dangerous to be handled by other U.S. penitentiaries. Following construction to make the existing complex at Alcatraz more secure, the maximum-security facility officially opened on July 1, 1934. The first warden, James A. Johnston (1874-1954), hired approximately one guard for every three prisoners. Each prisoner had his own cell.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) viewed Alcatraz as “the prison system’s prison,” a place where the most disruptive inmates could be sent to live under sparse conditions with few privileges in order to learn how to follow rules (at which point, they could be transferred to other federal prisons to complete their sentences). According to the BOP, Alcatraz typically held some 260 to 275 prisoners, which represented less than 1 percent of the entire federal inmate population.
Among those who did time at The Rock was the notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al “Scarface” Capone, who spent four-and-a-half years there during the 1930s. His arrival on the island generated headlines across America. Capone was sent to Alcatraz because his incarceration in Atlanta, Georgia, had allowed him to remain in contact with the outside world and continue to run his criminal operation in Chicago. He was also known to corrupt prison officers. All of that ended when he was sent to Alcatraz. According to the biography “Capone” by John Kobler, Capone once told the warden, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.”
Other famous (or infamous) Alcatraz inmates included George “Machine Gun” Kelly (1895-1954), who spent 17 years there on a kidnapping conviction. Gangster Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz (1907-79), listed as “Public Enemy No. 1″ by the FBI in the 1930s, spent over 25 years behind bars at Alcatraz, reportedly more time than any other prisoner. Murderer Robert Stroud, also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was transferred there after three decades at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Stroud arrived on the island in 1942 and served 17 years there; however, despite his nickname, he was not permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz as he had while locked up at Leavenworth.
Escape Attempts from Alcatraz
Over the years, there were 14 known attempts to escape from Alcatraz, involving 36 inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that of these would-be escapees, 23 were captured, six were shot and killed during their attempted getaways, two drowned and five went missing and were presumed drowned.
The most famous escape attempt resulted in a battle, from May 2 to May 4, 1946, in which six prisoners overpowered cellhouse officers and were able to gain access to weapons, but not the keys needed to leave the prison. In the ensuing battle, the prisoners killed two correctional officers and injured 18 others. The U.S. Marines were called in, and the battle ended with the deaths of three of the rogue inmates and the trial of the three others, two of whom received the death penalty for their actions.
The Prison Closes Its Doors: 1963
The federal penitentiary at Alcatraz was shut down in 1963 because its operating expenses were much higher than those of other federal facilities at the time. (The prison’s island location meant all food and supplies had to be shipped in, at great expense.) Furthermore, the isolated island buildings were beginning to crumble due to exposure to the salty sea air. During nearly three decades of operation, Alcatraz housed a total of 1,576 men.
In 1969, a group of Native Americans led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes (1942-72) arrived on Alcatraz Island and claimed the land on behalf of “Indians of All Tribes.” The activists hoped to establish a university and a museum on the island. Oakes left Alcatraz following the death there of his stepdaughter in 1970, and the remaining occupiers, whose ranks had become increasingly contentious and divided, were removed by order of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-94) in 1971. The island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and was opened to the public a year later. Today, some 1 million tourists visit Alcatraz each year.