The History of Alcatraz

Sitting in the middle of the San Francisco Bay is the infamous Alcatraz Island. While Alcatraz, and its infamous nickname “The Rock,” is best known as being a maximum-security prison for the likes of Al Capone and James “Whitey” Bulger, its history stretches far beyond those days.

Long before the island became known as Alcatraz, it was an area that Native Americans avoided because they believed it contained evil spirits. The Ohlone Native Americans used the island as a banishment site for people who violated their tribal laws. Despite the fact that they avoided the island, they would use it for gathering food, especially eggs and sea-life.

In 1769, the first Europeans to visit the island were the Spanish who gave it the name Isla de Los Alcatraces, which translates to Island of the Pelicans because it was home to a large pelican population. Later on, its name was shortened to Alcatraz. As the Spanish created more missions throughout what is now California, the Ohlone used the island as a place to escape the Christianity that was being forced upon them.

After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the US took control of California along with the island. Not long after this did the American Military noticed the strategic position of the island. In 1853 they started working on creating a defensive base for the San Francisco Bay. This construction began with a temporary wharf, offices, barracks, and shops. They used the island’s natural ruggedness to their advantage, and blasted out parts of the island and laid bricks and stone to form steep walls around the island. They completed the lighthouse by 1854, as well as 11 cannons.

The remaining parts of the fortress would take several more years to complete since the laborers were more interested in hunting for gold. That wasn’t the only reason why it took them so long to complete Fort Alcatraz. They also had bad quality building materials. While they acquired some of the sandstone from nearby Angel Island, most of the granite was imported from China.

The first death to occur during the building of Fort Alcatraz happened in 1857 when the crew was working on the road that connected the guardhouse and wharf. A 7000 cubic-yard landslide occurred and buried many of the laborers, killing two of them.

However, the fortress slowly took shape, and the remaining buildings and the Citadel were built. It was finished in 1859. It included a row of enclosed gun positions as protection for the dock, a fortified guardhouse to block the road entrance, and a three-story citadel on top of the island that was used as an armed barrack and the last line of defense. The only way a person could get to the citadel was over a drawbridge over a deep moat that surrounded it. It was made to hold up to 200 soldiers, along with provisions that could sustain them for a four-month siege.

Captain Joseph Stewart and 86 men of Company H, Third US Artillery took command of Fort Alcatraz in December 1859. Fort Alcatraz quickly took over the lead role as the best coastal defense. Besides its defensive position, the island also became a stockade for enlisted men. Realizing that the natural temperature of the water, 53 degrees F, and its currents, made it a great place for a prison. 11 of the soldiers under the command of Captain Stewart were incarcerated in a cell block in the basement of the guardhouse. Two months later, another soldier, who people said had gone insane, was jailed there. It wasn’t long before other forts that had less secure garrisons started to send their escapees, deserters, and other prisoners to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was presented with a new role in April 1861. It was to defend the Union state of California from the Confederates after the Civil War broke out. Since the population of California included Confederate and Union supporters, tension ran high along the coast, and the fort, along with its men, had to calm the threat of local war and protect San Francisco. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the Department of the Pacific and sent 10,000 muskets and 150,000 cartridges of ammunition to Fort Alcatraz, and with that, Fort Alcatraz because the most powerful fort west of the Mississippi. The fortress made quick work of the Confederate sympathizers and their hopes that the San Francisco Bay could be taken.

While nobody ever attacked the rugged island during the war, the military there increased to over 350 men. Alcatraz was officially labeled a military prison for the Department of the Pacific on August 27, 1861. Like the majority of the prisons at that time, the conditions in the cell house were atrocious, with men forced to sleep side-by-side on stone floors. They had no running water, heat, or sanitary facilities. Illnesses ravaged most of the prisoners.

The first Confederate threat to California took place in March 1863 when they learned that a group of sympathizers were planning to overtake San Francisco Bay. The sympathizers plan was to arm a schooner, use it to take over a steamship, blockade the harbor, and attack the fort. Unfortunately for them, the captain of the schooner decided to brag about their plan while drinking in a bar, and the news was quickly sent to Union officials. The night that the schooner was supposed to set out, the US Navy seized the ship and arrested them. After the boat was taken to Alcatraz, they found ammunition, cannons, and 15 men hidden in the ship.

Alcatraz’s role as a military prison increased during the Civil War. The Confederates that were arrested on the schooner joined the other military prisoners and local civilians who had been arrested for treason. Eventually, the rooms in the guardhouse were completely filled and they had to build a temporary wooden prison in 1863 just north of the guardhouse. This was later replaced by several adjoining structures known as the Lower Prison. The prisoners built the jailhouse has part of their punishment, along with other housing on the island.

Any Confederate sympathizers caught celebrating the death of President Lincoln were sent to Alcatraz along with other military convicts and malcontents of society. After the war thousands of emigrants flooded to the west, which started the Indian Wars of the late 1800s. During this time, Native Americas were often used by the cavalry as scouts and any of them that were convicted of a crime were sent to Alcatraz, and were housed next to some of the worst criminals, murderers, and rapists in the West. Any other Native American who thwarted the US government got sent to the Rock. The first Native American to be sent to Alcatraz was Paiute Tom, who was transferred, on June 5, 1873, to Camp McDermit in Nebraska. Two days later, he would be shot and killed by a guard. The reasons for his transfer and death have been “lost” in history.

Later during that same year, there were two Modoc Native Americans known as Sloluck and Brancho, who were sent to Alcatraz. They were arrested for taking part in the murder of members of a peace commission during the Modoc Wars of northwestern California. They were sentenced to hang, along with four other Modoc Native Americans. President Ulysses S Grant spared them because of their youth, and instead, sent them to be imprisoned in Alcatraz. While there, Brancho died of tuberculosis, but Sloluck was released in February of 1878 and joined the rest of his tribe members who had be exiled in Indian Territory.

The largest number of Native Americans were sent to Alcatraz in January 1895 from northern Arizona. 19 Hopi leaders, who had taken part in land disputes with the government, were sent to the Rock. The Call, a San Francisco newspaper, stated that the Hopi “have been rudely snatched from the bosom of their families and are prisoners… until they have learned to appreciate the advantage of education.” The Hopi were not released until they had pledged to “cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards.”

During the late 1800s, the prison housed an average of 100 men. The old cannons were slowly removed, and by 1891, only seven were left. At the turn of the century, the population of the prison had reached more than 400 and another prison complex was quickly built on the parade ground. Known as the Upper Prison, it was made up of three wooden cell houses with two tiers each, and was surrounded by a stockade fence. During the next few years, more support buildings were added to the Upper Prison and the Lower Prison was transformed into a workshop for prison labor.

Both Prisons were firetraps, and in 1902, an oil lantern fire nearly destroyed the Lower Prison. In 1906, after an earthquake hit San Francisco, burning most of the city, officials evacuated 176 city prisoners to Alcatraz for nine days. Realizing that Alcatraz was a huge fire hazard, new concrete barracks were built with prison labor.

As US military’s ships became more powerful, the defensive purpose of Alcatraz became obsolete. In 1907, it was re-designated as the “Pacific Branch, US Military Prison” and prison guards replaced the infantry soldiers.

During World War I, the prison was used to house German prisoners of war. They tore down the upper citadel and built a huge cell house over the citadel basement and moat. The cell house, which was completed in 1912, was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world during this time. It held four cell blocks and had a total of 600 cells, each with electricity and a toilet.

It was renamed to the “Pacific Branch, US Disciplinary Barracks” in 1915, and they placed new emphasis on rehabilitation and education. The men who were convicted of less serious offenses soon started attending military training, vocational training, and remedial education. The plan worked so well, that a lot of soldiers were restored to active duty after they served their sentences. Prisoners who had more serious offenses were not given such opportunities and were dishonorably discharged after they served their terms.

When Alcatraz was a disciplinary barrack, it was a minimum-security prisoner and most of the prisoners were only locked in their cells at night. During the day, they would be in class or working on activities. During this time, a number of inmates tried to escape by boarding boats headed to the mainland, clinging to wooden objects, or swimming.

Driftwood was used during escapes in 1912, 1916, and 1927. A ladder was used during a 1929 escape. Most of these people who attempted to escape through the water didn’t make it to shore. Of those who tried, some were apprehended and others drowned. The most successful escape occurred on November 28, 1918 when four prisoners escaped on rafts. Authorities thoughts they had drowned in the Bay, but they appeared later in Sutro Forest. Only one of them was recaptured.

During the time it was a Military Prison, there were at least 80 men who tried to escape in 29 separate attempts. Of those, 62 men were captured and returned to the prison, one might have drowned, and the fate of the other 17 are unknown. In 1933, the army had decided that the island was too expensive to operate. The location was the biggest problem, with the cost of importing supplies, water, and food.

During this time, the gangster era was in full swing. The nation’s cities were witnessing terrible violence as shootouts and public slayings became frequent as mobsters took control. The ill-equipped law enforcement agencies were bought off by gangsters or cowered before the better-armed gangs. At the same time, the existing prisons were experiencing large numbers of escapes, rioting, and gang-related murders.

Alcatraz was the best solution to this issue and J. Edgar Hoover jumped on the chance to transform it into a super-prison that would instill fear into the minds of possible criminals, offered no means of escape, and was a place where inmates could be easily controlled. Negotiations started and Alcatraz was given to the Bureau of Prisons in October 1933.

During the first half of 1934, eighty years of US Army occupation ended. Except for 32 hard case prisoners, who were to stay on the island and incarcerated in the new prison when it was finished, the others were sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Fort Jay, New Jersey.

On the very first day of 1934, much to the chagrin of San Francisco, the Bureau of Prisons started the process of selecting a warden and upgrading Alcatraz to an “escape-proof” maximum security prison. They added four guard towers at strategic points across the island and 336 of the cells were reconstructed with tool-proof steel cell fronts and locking devices operated from control boxes. None of the cells were connected to the adjoined perimeter wall.

All the windows in the prison were equipped with tool-proof steel window guards and two gun galleries were built in the cellblock that gave the machine gun armed guards the ability to oversee all of the inmate’s activities. The mess-hall and main entrance had built-in tear gas canisters in the ceiling that were able to be remotely activated from the outside observation points and a gun gallery.

New technology made it possible for them to have electromagnetic metal detectors, which were positioned outside of the mess hall and at the entrance to the workshop. Sanitary facilities and electricity were upgraded in the cells, and the utility tunnels were cemented so that prisoners couldn’t hide or get into them. Plus, the barracks buildings were changed to provide comfortable quarters for the prison guards and their families. The living facilities included four houses, three apartment buildings, and one duplex. A large house next to the cell house was built for the warden, while the duplex was meant for the Captain and Associate Warden.

The combined effort of Homer Cummings, the US Attorney General, and Sanford Bates, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, created a legendary prison that seemed necessary and appropriate to the times. It was such a scary place to go, it was nicknames “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island.”

James Johnston, the first warden, had more than 12 years experience in the California Department of Corrections at Folsom Prison and San Quentin. Johnston already had a reputation for strict ideals and a humanistic approach to reform. However, he also had a strict disciplinarian style and his conduct rules were some of the most rigid in the California correctional system.

Johnston believed in a system of rewards and consequences, and along with Sanford Bates, he established the guiding principles for the prison. He and his hand-picked officers enforced those guidelines by rewarding their inmates with privileges or sentence reductions for hard work, and harshly punishing those who defied prison regulations.

One of their regulations was that no prisoner would be directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Instead, they had to earn the transfer to the island from other prisons by attempting to escape, unmanageable behavior, or if they had been receiving special privileges. This meant that Alcatraz became the worst of the worst.

The first prisoners were sent to Alcatraz on July 1, 1934. The 32 prisoners who had been left by the Army were turned over to the Alcatraz authorities, the first of which was a man named Frank Bolt, who was serving a five-year sentence for sodomy. Other inmates of this group had committed crimes like desertion, rape, assault, and robbery. The next month, 69 prisoners arrived from the McNeil Island and Atlanta Penitentiaries. Their first famous inmate was inmate #85, Al Capone.

Johnston started a custom of meeting the new inmates when they arrived. When Capone arrived, Johnston immediately recognized the grinning man who was quietly making smug comments to inmates. When Capone was supposed to meet the warden, he tried to flaunt the power he had enjoyed at the federal pen in Atlanta by asking the warden questions.

While he was in Atlanta, he had successfully bribed the guards for extra favors like unlimited visiting privileges, uncensored reading materials, and liquor. He was so great at gaining those privileges, family members had taken up residence at a nearby hotel. It was through those family members that he continued to run his organization in Chicago.

However, Johnston could not be manipulated and immediately gave him his number and ordered him to get back in line. The arrival of Capone to Alcatraz generated more headlines than the prison’s opening. This started an era of public fascination with the maximum-security prison.

During Capone’s time at Alcatraz, he would make many more attempts to con Johnston into allowing him special privileges, but he would receive none. Capone stayed four and a half years at Alcatraz, holding several menial jobs. While there, he spent eight days in isolation because of a fight he had with another inmate and was stabbed by scissors by another prisoner.

Eventually, the syphilis he had contracted years before started to affect him, and he actually spent more time in the hospital than in his cell. In 1938, he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to finish the rest of his sentence. He was released in November of 1939, settled in Miami, and died at the age of 48 in 1947.

The second shipment of inmates to arrive at Alcatraz arrived in September, and included George “Machine Gun” Kelly. He was first involved in bootlegging and was sentenced to Leavenworth where he spent three years. He was not rehabilitated, and resumed his life of crime, this time robbing banks. He took his criminal activity up a notch to kidnapping and in 1933, he held for ransom a wealthy Oklahoma oil magnate. After being captured, he was given a life sentence and sent back to Leavenworth. However, within months he was sent to Alcatraz, where it is said he was a model prisoner for the next 17 years. When Kelly had a mild heart attack, he was sent back to Leavenworth in 1951 and received parole in 1954. After a few months, he had another heart attack and died at 59.

As part of the jails maximum-security efforts, the ratio of prisoners to guards were three to one. Other prisons at the time had a ratio of 12 to one. Plus, the inmates couldn’t have visitors for the first three months, and after, were only allowed one visitor each month, a privilege they had to earn. While the prisoners were allowed some time to access the library, no radios, newspapers, or unapproved books were allowed. All incoming and outgoing mail was screened, censored, and retyped.  Their work assignments were based upon the conduct record of the prisoner. Each prisoner was assigned a private cell with the basic necessities of clothing, food, and water.

They had the same routine every day. The prisoners were awakened at 6:30, given time to tidy their cells and wash, then they were silently marched to the mess hall. After breakfast, prisoners were given work assignments, and after dinner, they were locked back into their cells. The rules required they do an inmate count every 30 minutes.

The worst rule that Johnston strictly enforced was the silence policy. Many of the inmates thought this was the most unbearable punishment. Prisoners could talk only during meals, in the yard on Saturdays, and for three minutes during their morning and afternoon work break. Though this policy would later be relaxed, there were several reports of inmates being driven insane by the rule of silence.

This was an unyielding routine that happened for years. As quickly as they could earn privileges, they could just as quickly be taken away with the slightest infraction of the rules. The only redeeming qualities of Alcatraz were the private cells and the quality of food. These also had their reasons. The first was to help isolate the criminals even more, while the second was to help prevent riots that were often started in other prisons due to the bad quality of the food.

Though most of the prisoners in Alcatraz were never seen on a wanted poster, other more notorious criminals held at Alcatraz over the years include two members of the Ma Barker Gang, Arthur “Doc” Barker, who was their last surviving son, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who was in a partnership with Ma.

Some of the other notorious criminals included Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, and Floyd Hamilton, a gang member and driver for Bonnie and Clyde. While the hoodlums of the Ma Barker gang terrorized the Midwest between 1931 and 1936, their crimes included train robbery, kidnapping, bank robbery, and murder. Karpis’ flamboyant style had earned the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover and was soon labeled as “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Doc Barker would be arrested in January of 1935 and sent to Alcatraz from Leavenworth. He would be killed while trying to escape Alcatraz in 1939. Karpis was arrest in New Orleans in May 1936 and found himself in Alcatraz a few months later. He spend 26 years in Alcatraz before being sent to McNeil Island in April 1962. In 1969, he was released and deported back to Canada. He died in 1979.

Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, received very little notoriety until the 1962 movie, “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” Stroud was convicted of manslaughter in 1909, and was first sent to McNeil Island for 12 years. While there, he was hard to deal with and after attacking an orderly, he was transferred to Leavenworth. After just four years there, he killed a guard and was sentenced to hang. After his mother appealed to President Wilson, the sentence was commuted to life. It was during his 30 years at Leavenworth that he started to study birds, which gained international attention. When he started to violate prison rules to continue is birding experiments and communications, he was sent to Alcatraz in 1942, where he was never again allowed to continue his avian studies.

The Birdman was in cell block D for six years before being sent to the prison hospital in 1948 in order to segregate him from the rest of the prison population. After he actually became ill, he was sent to a Federal Medical Facility in Springfield, Missouri in 1959. Four years after that, he died of natural causes. While the prison was fortified, it was assumed that the treacherous waters of the Bay would keep people from escaping, but several attempts were made throughout the years.

Of 1545 prisoners that spent time there, 36 men tried to escape in 14 separate attempts. Of those, 20 were captured, 7 were shot and killed, 2 drowned, and 5 were never found. The prison authorities assumed they had drowned.

Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole were the first to disappear on December 16, 1937. As they were working in one of the workshops, Roe and Cole had, over time, filed their way through the flat iron bars on a window. After they climbed through the window, they moved out to the water’s edge and disappeared in the Bay. Prison authorities said that they drowned, but four years later, a San Francisco Chronicle report reported the men were alive and well in South America.

One of the bloodiest escapes ever attempted happened over a three day period on May 2 through the 4, 1946. The escape has been known as the “Battle of Alcatraz.” Six men, Miran Thompson, Marvin Hubbard, Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, Joseph Cretzer, and Bernard Boy, took control over the cell house. They overpowered the officers and gained access to the keys and weapons. They planned on escaping through the recreation yard door. However, when they discovered they didn’t have a key to the outside door, they chose to fight instead of give up. During the next few days, the prisoners killed two guards. Eventually, Carnes, Thompson, and Shockley went back to their cells, but Hubbard, Cretzer, and Coy continued the fight.

The US Marines were called in to help and the escape attempt ended. These last three prisoners were killed, and 17 guards and one prisoner were wounded. Carnes, Thompson, and Shockley would stand trial for the death of the officers. Thompson and Shockley were given the death penalty and executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in December 1948. Carnes, only 19 years old at the time, received a second life sentence.

Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and his brother John, disappeared from Alcatraz on July 11, 1962. This escape was made famous by the Clint Eastwood movie, Escape From Alcatraz. This is the escape we will be discussing in the next episode, so we won’t go over it right now.

Mainly due to rising costs, its isolated location, and deteriorating facilities, Alcatraz was the most expensive institution. Sounds just like the reason why Alcatraz stopped being a military prison, right? During this same time, prison operating philosophy was making a switch to reinstitution and rehabilitation, instead of the wholesale warehousing of inmates. The government started to build a new prison at Marion, Illinois, with the plan to shut down Alcatraz. While J. Edgar Hoover was opposed to closing Alcatraz, his power base had eroded during the years and his opinion was ignored.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy officially closed Alcatraz on March 21, 1963 when the last 27 inmates were removed from the island. This was the first time reporters were allowed on Alcatraz to cover its closing. Afterward, the island was transferred to the General Services Administration in May of 1963.

During its 29 years of operation, the fog-enshrouded island confined more the 1500 men under deprecation and intolerable rules. Former prisoners still tell tales of the “inside” with several scenes that were seemingly terrible, and many of the prisoners would have preferred death to continuing to be incarcerated.

Just like Johnston had hoped, life was hell for the prisoners in Alcatraz, and it was quickly named Hellcatraz. Murders and suicides were common under the stark and severe rule system of the prison. Infractions would quickly land prisoners in “D” block, which was the “treatment unit.” Here, the men were allowed to leave their four-by-eight cells only once a week for a ten-minute shower. There were harsher punishments to be had, which included solitary confinement, in complete darkness, for days without any release, or being confined in steel boxes.

While it was at one time America’s most escape-proof prison, Alcatraz was an experiment that would never be repeated. Segregation on this scale had never been seen and would never again be practiced. During these years, eight prisoners were murdered by other inmates, five committed suicide, 15 died from illness, and numerous others were driven insane.

On October 12, 1972, Congress formed the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the island became part of the National Park Service. After some modifications to make it safe for the public and getting rid of the guard’s residences that were beyond repair, the park officially opened in the fall of 1973. Since then, it has turned into the most popular Park Service site with over a million visitors each year.

As one steps onto the Rock, they can be swept up in the beautiful sites that can be seen. It’s easy to imagine the island as a location of a luxurious resort. But as you walk across the island and see the cell house, solitary confinement cells, and the pitch-black hole, it will quickly bring you back to the reality of the Rock and its past.

To hear more about the history of Alcatraz and my thoughts, be sure to check out the podcast episode. If you would like to support the podcast and website, make sure that you check out the Patreon page. Become a Patron! We also have a merch store now. Find it here.

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