A iconic fixture off the coast of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island has a long and interesting history. The island was first developed in the 1840s for military use after being purchased by the United States Government from a private owner for $5,000.The initial military installation was completed in 1858 and given the name “Fort Alcatraz”. After a short time being used to station troops, the fort was converted to a military prison until 1933. A year later, the United States Department of Justice took over the Island and fortified the existing structures to become the famous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
What is Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary?
From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island housed what was thought to be the most secure secure prison in the United States due to its remote island location surrounded by the cold, rough waters of the San Francisco Bay. Because of this, Alcatraz was used for the most dangerous and violent criminals, including notorious inmates like George”Machine Gun” Kelly, Al Capone and Robert Stroud (also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz). Although the prison was thought to be secure, it didn’t stop prisoners from hatching elaborate escape plans. There were a total of 14 escape attempts by 36 prisoners, but according to official records, no one was successful. Of those attempting to escape, 23 were caught, 6 were killed, 2 drowned and 5 others were listed as presumed drowned. While it is highly unlikely that the missing prisoners were successful, their bodies were never found.
Although the prison was moderately successful, there were issues with the costs associated with being on an island. Getting food and water to the prison and removing waste became too costly, so the decision was made to close the prison in 1963. Shortly after the close of Alcatraz Penitentiary, the island was occupied by Native Americans demanding reparations, which lasted until June 11, 1971. Afterwards, the Prison was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Place and in 1976 was declared a National Historic Landmark. From 1973 on, the prison was a tourist attraction allowing visitors to tour the iconic prison.
Today, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is one of the most popular San Francisco attractions in the Bay Area, attracting well over 1 million visitors every year. To access the island, you must purchase tickets and take the Alcatraz Cruises Ferry. A free audio tour is included with your Alcatraz Tickets which will take you through the prison to see the cells of famous inmates, the dining hall, recreation area and more.
The History of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, an imposing structure standing on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, has a history as dramatic and turbulent as the currents that surround it. Known as “The Rock,” Alcatraz has served various purposes throughout its existence, but it’s most remembered as America’s most notorious maximum-security prison.
Before it became a penitentiary, Alcatraz Island had a diverse history. The island was first discovered and named by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” or “Island of the Pelicans.” The U.S. Army fortified the island during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s due to its strategic location and transformed it into a military installation. In the years that followed, Alcatraz began its journey as a place of incarceration, initially as a military prison during the Civil War.
From Military Prison to Federal Penitentiary
In 1933, due to escalating crime rates during the Prohibition era and the Great Depression, the U.S. Department of Justice acquired Alcatraz Island from the Army with the intention of setting up a high-profile, maximum-security prison. The aim was to contain the country’s most dangerous criminals in an inescapable fortress and send a strong message to would-be lawbreakers.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons modernized the existing infrastructure and converted it into a prison, which opened in 1934. The facility was designed to be escape-proof, taking advantage of the island’s isolation and the treacherous, cold waters of San Francisco Bay.
Notable Inmates and Escape Attempts
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary housed some of America’s most infamous criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” In total, the prison held more than 1,500 men during its 29 years of operation.
The harsh conditions and the perceived impossibility of escape did not deter inmates from trying. There were 14 known escape attempts involving 36 inmates. The most famous attempt, the June 1962 escape, resulted in a popular movie, “Escape from Alcatraz.” This attempt by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers involved an intricate plan using decoy heads and a makeshift raft. The inmates were never found and were declared dead, drowned in the cold waters of the bay.
Closure and Transformation
The penitentiary was closed in 1963 due to high operating costs and the need for significant repairs and upgrades. Following closure, the island was occupied by Native American activists from 1969 to 1971, highlighting the U.S. government’s history of broken treaties with Indigenous tribes.
In 1972, Alcatraz Island was incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service began managing the site, and in 1973 it was opened to the public for tours. Today, Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations, drawing more than a million visitors each year.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, with its storied history and notorious inmates, holds a unique place in American history. The journey of Alcatraz, from military fortification to infamous penitentiary, and eventually to a popular tourist attraction, is a fascinating narrative of transformation. Today, it serves as a potent symbol of the American justice system’s evolving approach to crime and punishment.
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