Located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island is best known as the site of the infamous penitentiary where some of the country’s most notorious criminals were imprisoned.
The first European to discover the small island was Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala, who in 1775 named the island ‘Isla de los Alcatraces’ (Island of Gannets) for the many seabirds on the rocky island (he probably saw cormorants instead of gannets, a sort of pelican).
Another common name for Alcatraz is ‘The Rock’ as the 22-acre-large (9 ha) island isn’t much more than a large rock. Initially there wasn’t even any soil, it was all transported to the island in the early twentieth century so that prison wardens could create a garden.
History of Alcatraz Island
Since the island was strategically located, the army built a fort here in the 1850s to defend the bay. During that time, the West Coast’s oldest lighthouse was also built here in 1854. It was replaced in 1909 by the tower that still stands today. In 1907 the fort was converted into a military prison, which quickly gained a reputation for being harsh.
By the 1920s and 30s, during the days of gangsters and prohibition, federal agencies decided that Alcatraz Island would be the perfect location for high-profile criminals such as Al Capone to be held once captured. So the site was handed over to the federal government in 1933 and became a federal penitentiary the following year. It kept that function until 1963 when the prison became too costly to maintain.
After its post-prison years, the island was the site of an American Indian occupation and protest movement from 1969-1971. Members of many different tribes took up residence on the island for eighteen months, claiming the land should have been returned to the Native Americans. They left the island in 1971, but many buildings were damaged. Visitors to the island can still find some remnants of those years while exploring the islands.
The prison became famous for its notable inmates like Al Capone, Bill “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis – a partner of the notorious Ma Barker – and “Birdman” Robert Stroud. To keep all these high profile prisoners under control, they had to stay in their cell for 16 to 23 hours per day and were not allowed to talk to each other. Prisoners causing trouble could lose privileges such as reading books or receiving visitors. The worst were put in isolation cells, where they had no privileges and could only leave the cell for ten minutes each week to take a shower.
Alcatraz was well-known as the prison from which no one could escape and, despite many attempts, no one successfully fled Alcatraz during its twenty-nine years in operation. To keep prisoners from escaping, the island was protected by barbed wire, watchtowers and remote controlled doors. But what made any escape attempt a perilous endeavor was the cold water and strong current in the bay around the island.
The most famous attempt to escape from the prison was that by the Anglin Brothers and Frank Morris; a dramatized version of the escape was made into the 1979 movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz’. While the three companions succeeded in getting off the island, they probably drowned in the bay.
Exploring the Island
Though Alcatraz Island is federally owned, visitors must book transportation through a private company in order to gain access to the island. Plans should be made well in advance, especially during the summer months, as Alcatraz tours fill up quickly. Most tours include the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, which is essentially a self-guided tour of the prison. Visitors can also explore the area outside the prison as well. The area is a good place to peruse native plants and birds, but it can be difficult to navigate for anyone with a handicap.