BACKSTORY: Edited from the official Tour of the Rock pamphlet: Alcatraz was a prison almost from the very beginning. In 1859, 11 soldiers scheduled for confinement in the sally port basement arrived with the fort's first permanent garrison. During the Civiil War era, soldiers convicted of desertion, theft, assault, rape, and murder; citizens acused of treason; and the crew of a Confederate ship were imprisoned here. The army also used Alcatraz as a place of incarceration for Hopi, Apache, and Modoc Indians captured during the various Indian wars of the mid- to late nineteenth century and for military convicts during the Spanish-American War (1898).
When the fort was decommissioned in 1907, regular army troops were replaced by soldiers of the U.S. Military Guard. Within a year, the army had begun tearing down the citadel and building a huge concrete cellhouse. In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed "United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch"; it wasn't long before conscientious objectors to World War I joined the Alcatraz inmate population.
During the great Depression of the 1930s, the newly created Bureau of Prisons became interested in the island as a place for a high profile, maximum-security facility. Transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice, Alcatraz reopened in 1943 as a federal penitentiary. Of the 1,545 men who did time on Alcatraz, only a handful were notorious—among them, Al "Scarface" Capone. The exact location of his cell is unknown. Part of his four and a half years on Alcatraz were spent in a hospital isolation cell. Others included "Doc" Barker, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Floyd Hamilton, and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." Stroud actually conducted his famous bird studies when he was imprisoned at Leavenworth; his real nickname was "Bird Doctor of Leavenworth." Most of the inmates were men who had proved to be problems in other prison populations—escape risks and troublemakers.
Of the 14 attempted federal prison-era escapes, the best knwon occurred in June 1962, when Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin slipped into the water. They used raincoats as floatation devices and were presumably bound for San Francisco. Although their bodies were never found, they are assumed to have drowned.
As part of its security, the Bureau of Prisons deliberately restricted visitors to "the Rock." It may have been this isolation, this apparent secrecy, that fueled stories of the prison's miserable living conditions. Although few of these stories were true—the prison was clean and the food was good—Alcatraz was undeniably a maximum-security facility. The cellhouse was never filled to capacity. The average number of prisoners was 260, and the maximum was 302. There were 336 remodeled cells available. There were no executions on Alcatraz, although there were five suicides and eight murders. Prisoners remained on Alcatraz until they were no longer considered to be disruptive or incorrigible—an average of 8 to 10 years.
Increasing maintenance and operating costs led U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to close Alcatraz in 1963. Prisoners were transferred to other federal correctional facilities, and Alcatraz was left to the care of a lone custodian.
The Alcatraz lighthouse was the first on the Pacific Coast and has been in operation since 1854. The only service interruption happened in 1970, when fire destroyed the lighthouse kepers' quarters and disrupted power to the light.
After the prison closed, Alcatraz was managed as excess government property. On November 9, 1969, a small group landed on the island and claimed it in the name of the "Indians in All Tribes," a landmark in intertribal cooperation. A full-scale occupation began 11 days later, on November 20, and lasted for 19 months.
Echoing the 1626 purchase of Manhattan Island, the Indians of All Tribes offered to buy Alcatraz from the Federal Government for $24 in beads, colored cloth, and other trade goods. The struggle to raise money and the effort required to keep the occupiers supplied with food and water caused the group's numbers to dwindle from the hundreds that the occupation claimed at its height. Finally, in June 1971, federal agents removed from the island the few individuals who remained.
In the aftermath of the occupation, crews from the federal government's General Services Administration came to the island and began bulldozing buildings into rubble piles, starting with the former correctional officers' residential apartmens on the old parade ground. Fortunately for future generations, this stoped when Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and made Alcatraz a part of GGNRA, administered by the National Park Service.
To book a tour, visit the Alcatraz Tours website.
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