The History of the Famous Alcatraz Prison

The History of the Famous Alcatraz Prison

An icon of power and strength, Alcatraz has become the single most recognizable symbol of American society. Known as America’s most infamous prison, Alcatraz has a rich history that extends beyond its years as a federal penitentiary.

Situated in the San Francisco Bay, one can’t help but be drawn to the rocky shore, the dark walls, and the lone light tower sanding cold against a picturesque sunset, imagining what it would have been like to be incarcerated in one of the world’s most infamous prisons.

From its discovery to its current status as a national historic landmark, the story of Alcatraz is a captivating tale of transformation, resilience, and enduring mystery.

The Early Days: From Discovery to Military Fortress

Long before Alcatraz became synonymous with high-profile inmates, it held strategic importance due to its location.

Discovered in 1775 by the Spanish explorer Juan Miguel de Ayala, La Isla de los Alcatraces (The Island of the Pelicans) was little more than a rock inhabited by a group of pelicans from which the island bears its name (Alcatraces meaning pelicans in Spanish). However, in 1847, the U.S. government began to look at it as much more.

Strategically placed at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, it was the perfect site for a military fort.

By 1853, a state-of-the-art military fortress was protecting the Western United States against foreign infiltration.

Alcatraz as a Military Prison

Alcatraz’s isolated location made it an ideal setting for a military prison, a role it served long before it became a federal penitentiary.

In 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War, Alcatraz began receiving its first military prisoners. However, it wasn’t until 1898 and the Spanish-American War that the isolation of the island that made it an impregnable military installation also made it an inescapable prison.

During this war, the prisoner population jumped from 26 to 450. That number spiked again as civil prisoners were transferred from city jails after the famous 1906 earthquake; with the island becoming more and more a prison and less and less a military fort, a cell house was built in 1912.

This is generally felt to be the point at which the fort perishes and “The Rock” is born.

“The Rock,” however, was little more than a minimum-security resort. Many prisoners worked as servants and maids for the many families that were required to live on the island. A few were even commissioned to babysit young children who lived on the island.

Flowers and shrubs were imported to help beautify the rocky island. Many inmates, because of this, were allowed their own private gardens. In the 1920s, prisoners were allowed to build a baseball field on which different inmate teams played in their own uniforms. On Friday nights, hundreds of people would come from the mainland to see the exciting “Alcatraz Fights,” which pitted two inmates against each other in a boxing-type match.

The Era of the Federal Penitentiary

Alcatraz’s most notorious phase began in 1934 when it was converted into a federal penitentiary designed to hold the most troublesome inmates.

With the rise of organized crime in the 1930s, Alcatraz went through some dramatic changes. The deteriorating cell house was refurbished with electronically controlled cell doors, metal detectors, gun galleries, which allowed guards an elevated view of the entire cell house, permanently mounted tear gas canisters in the ceiling of the dining hall, and tool proof bars.

Alcatraz Strip Cells
Strip Cells

New cells named “Strip” cells and “The Hole” were built to house those inmates who required complete isolation. A strict silence rule was instituted, and those who violated it could be put in isolation for up to eight days.

The once-merry days of baseball games and gardening were over.

The prison housed some of the most notorious criminals of the time, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

The federal government chose Alcatraz for its maximum-security facilities and the natural isolation provided by the surrounding waters. It was believed to be escape-proof, a claim that added to its fearsome reputation.

Despite its reputation, Alcatraz was not immune to escape attempts. Over 29 years, the prison saw 14 attempts involving 36 inmates.

  • The Battle of Alcatraz: One of the most violent escape attempts occurred in 1946 and is known as the “Battle of Alcatraz.” The failed attempt resulted in the deaths of two guards and three inmates, with many more injured.
  • The Mystery of the 1962 Escape: Perhaps the most famous escape was that of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers in 1962. They managed to flee the island on a makeshift raft, and their fate remains unknown, fueling ongoing speculation and mystery.

The Closing of Alcatraz

In 1963, due to the exorbitant cost of running an island prison, Alcatraz was officially closed.

Arguments quickly arose over what to do with the eyesore that the prison had become. In 1969, a group of Native American Indians claimed the island as their own. However, they soon ran into the same problems that the U.S. government had, namely the cost of importing food, water, and fuel.

1971 saw the island go up in flames, badly damaging the lighthouse and many of the houses that used to house the cell guards and their families. The last remaining Indians were removed after this fire. Once again faced with the cost of maintaining the island facility, the U.S. government decided to make Alcatraz part of the newly opened Golden Gate Park.

Alcatraz Today: A Site of History and Hauntings

Today, the island attracts over a million visitors a year, more than making up the island’s operation costs. It stands as a testament to its storied past, attracting visitors from around the world.

Through the life of the fort turn prison turn tourist site, Alcatraz has experienced countless changes. From flower gardens to isolation cells, this small, rocky island that once only supported pelicans has seen it all. However, through all the changing inmates and wardens, through all of the construction and destruction, and through all of the fluctuating social attitudes and opinions, Alcatraz has retained one thing. Its walls have never ceased to capture hold of the onlooker’s wonder and amazement, drawing forth that all-important feeling of awe.

That small island on the mouth of the Bay is and always will be known as “The Rock.”

From its early days as a military fortress to its years as America’s most notorious federal penitentiary, Alcatraz has captured the public’s imagination like few other places. Its legacy as a symbol of isolation, punishment, and intrigue continues to fascinate us, reminding us of the complex tapestry of American history. As we reflect on the echoes of the past that resonate within its walls, Alcatraz stands as a monument to human resilience, a keeper of stories, and a witness to the unyielding passage of time.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.