Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, San Francisco

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If there were a list of the most famous prisons, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on an island in San Francisco Bay would undoubtedly be on the top. The very mention of this name struck terror into the hearts of many criminals just a century ago. The prison was known for its very harsh discipline and close confinement where the most notorious criminals and very cruel assassins had to survive. And the remote island was an ideal place for the prison.

History of the island and the prison

Although it’s quite close to the shore, the island was discovered in 1775 only by a Spaniard who named the island – Alcatraz. This name can be translated from Spanish as “a gannet”. However, neither gannets nor pelicans, their relatives, have ever been seen there by ornithologists. So, why such name was given to the island is still under wraps. But this place used to have another informal name well known in the criminal underworld – the Rock and to get on the Rock meant to be sent to the Alcatraz Prison.

The island had not been used until 1848 when gold was discovered in California and lots of ships headed to these lands. The vessels needed a lighthouse for navigation and it was built on Alcatraz in 1853. Three years later, the lighthouse was also equipped with a bell used as an additional signal when fog was very dense.

Local authorities had to strengthen and protect the bay in the times of the gold rush and built a fortress with long-range guns.

The isolate fortress built on the secluded island in chilly waters has become a perfect place for war prisoners during the Civil War. In 1912, a fully-fledged prison was opened on the island and became known not only for its location, but also for its harsh discipline. Originally intended for political prisoners, the prison shortly housed true criminals: cold-blooded killers, scammers and notorious gangsters. The Great Depression raised crime rates on the streets of San Francisco. So, no surprise, cells of the Alcatraz Prison were quickly packed with most desperate criminals. The decision to rebuild the prison for security reasons was taken in 1934. Robert Burge, one of the best security experts of that time, was invited to build a maximum-security prison so nobody could ever escape from it. Be sure, he almost succeeded!

What makes Alcatraz so special?

A very good location of the prison secluded from the city infrastructure, the special arrangement of all cells and high security measures had made it almost the safest place in the city, given the number of criminals per square meter.

A number of improvements were designed to enhance the security system of the prison: watchtowers were built along the perimeter of the island; all underground tunnels were filled with concrete, all wooden window grates were replaced with metal ones. Public places, such as a dining area, that housed many prisoners were equipped with tear gas cylinders. Tear gas could be activated remotely from a guard post. Robert Burge designed the prison so that none of 600 cells was adjacent to an exterior wall – the cells were connected with each other only, so if a prisoner could make a hole in a wall to escape, he would get the way to the next cell rather than freedom.

However, chilly waters around the island appeared to be the severest obstacle on the way to freedom. The temperature of water barely rises above 14 degrees Celsius in the warm season. So nobody can swim 2.4 miles to the shore – hypothermia normally develops just after a 10-minute stay in such cold water. Moreover, prisoners had access to hot water only, so they couldn’t temper themselves by taking a cold shower.

Although the discipline was really very harsh, criminals had room for self-development and hobbies. A prison library had lots of books, and prisoners were allowed to play a musical instrument once a week. Some were allowed to knit or draw if their behaviour was good.

A criminal had to “distinguish himself” in another federal prison to get to Alcatraz. Courts did not send criminals to Alcatraz. In addition, prisoners could not get any benefits (available in other prisons) by bribing prison staff – all prisoners were equal, even Al Capone, the most famous gangster.

D Block

As in any other prison, the most violent and disobedient criminals were placed in D Block that struck fear into prisoners. Placement in Block D used to be the highest penalty on the island. There were 42 cells, including solitary confinement cells also known as ‘the holes’. The hole was an absolutely dark place devoid of any light. When placed in the hole, a prisoner could take no personal belongings at all. He had nothing to do there, but spent days and nights losing the track of time. One prisoner said that he used to throw up a coin, listen where it falls down, and then searched for the coin in total darkness by touching the cold floor with his hands. That was his recipe how not to go crazy in the hole. The imprisonment in solitary confinement cells affected prisoner’s mental condition. They had no bed and had to sleep on the bare concrete floor, so their physical condition got worse too. These cells were designed to break the spirit of prisoners and discourage them from disobeying the prison rules.

Famous Alcatraz inmates

The world known prisoners wrote a chapter in the history of Alcatraz. Sometimes even the upper crust of the criminal underworld had got behind the bars of the famous prison. Great Al Capone, the leader of the Chicago mafia operated in the 1920s – 1930s, had been the most famous inmate of Alcatraz.

Al Capone was accused of murders, robberies, bootlegging during the Prohibition, gambling, and trading in prostitution. This list of his “sins” was far from exhaustive and appeared to be enough to send him to jail, but public prosecutors failed to find good evidence or witnesses to prove all those crimes, though everyone knew who had been behind all of them. The federals had accused the great Mafioso of tax evasion and put him in jail for 11 years. In other prisons Al Capone had not even noticed that he was imprisoned – he had used to have very comfortable conditions and servants and continued to control his gangster empire from a distance because he easily bribed prison guards. The situation however had changed dramatically when he got on the Rock. He became an ordinary prisoner, one of many, and had to do everything on an equal basis with others. He even had to clean up with a mop and was nicknamed the “wop with the mop” by inmates. Al Capone was well-known for his explosive mood and fearlessness, the traits which frightened other people. He was diagnosed with syphilis during a medical examination at Alcatraz and this could be a reason for his fearlessness. He was freed from seven-year imprisonment at Alcatraz. He became a very sick man who had lost his authority in the criminal underworld. He died from a heart attack in his home. Such death was very uncommon for the bandits of his level.

Machine Gun Kelly, a famous gangster, is another legendary inmate of Alcatraz. He got his nickname because he used to always keep his machine gun near him, especially during his numerous robberies. The list of his crimes included bootlegging during the Prohibition, kidnapping and smuggling and he was even considered the Public Enemy Number One for a while. He was eventually caught up, accused of all the crimes he had committed, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was an inmate of Alcatraz for 17 years of his life imprisonment. His health got worse and he was transferred to another prison. He died from a heart attack in a prison cell.

Robert Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz“, was probably the strangest prisoner on the island. He got his life sentence for brutal murders. He had been an inmate of Alcatraz for 17 years, including 6 years spent in the D Block intended for especially dangerous prisoners. However, despite his cruelty to people, he was very sensitive to birds. He had cured a dying sparrow one day and became known as a bird lover. Other prisoners brought their canaries to him so he could train them for sale. Later guards allowed him to keep birds in cages he made himself. He even wrote 2 books about canaries and their diseases during his imprisonment. However, even the birds could not cure his brain from psychosis, and he was considered an extremely dangerous criminal until his death.

Escape from Alcatraz

Despite all security measures and arrangements to provide maximum security at the prison, there were about a dozen attempts to escape from Alcatraz.

The escape committed by three prisoners on June 11, 1962 is considered to be the most successful attempt. They made a tunnel between their cell and the ventilation shaft with a homemade drill made from a spoon and a stolen motor from a vacuum cleaner. They drilled the wall only in the days when prisoners were allowed to play musical instruments so that nobody could hear the noise. They hid the damaged wall with old newspapers. The prisoners made papier-mache mannequins in advance to hide their escape as long as possible and put them in their beds. The mannequins were designed to the finest details – they even had real hair stolen from a prison barber.  The prisoners escaped through the drilled hole, climbed out onto the roof and got the ground using the drainpipe. They built a raft from the stolen 50 rubber raincoats and swam away in an unknown direction. The three runaways have been still wanted, and $ 1 million will be paid for their capture.

This escape aroused the whole country and affected the image of the impregnable “Wall”. In addition, the city authorities realized the danger of having the prison in proximity to the big city, even though there is a strait with icy water.

Alcatraz was officially closed to criminals one year after the successful escape – on March 21, 1963. Among the main reasons was the expensive maintenance of the prison – all goods and supplies were delivered on the island by ferry. Now the prison operates as a museum open to tourists. It’s a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

How to get to Alcatraz

You can get to the island by ferry only. The departure point for the Alcatraz services is Pier 33 at the San Francisco waterfront. The ferry service is operated by Alcatraz Cruises according to the schedule. The number of departures and arrivals depend on the season. We visited Alcatraz in December, and could buy tickets for the next day only due to the high season. So, make sure you book your tickets in advance from a ticket booth on the pier or online.

An audio guide that supports the most common languages is available upon arrival to the island. Take it and explore the island as long as you wish. You can return at any time – just take the next ferry that usually departs every 30 minutes.

Definitely, Alcatraz was one of the most exciting experiences during our two-week journey through the USA.

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