For three decades, California’s Alcatraz Island was home to America’s most feared prison. Set more than a mile from land in San Francisco Bay, the jail was considered inescapable. Anyone who tried would face a long, cold swim through the chill waters of the bay, assailed by harsh currents. Not everyone was deterred, though, but officially none succeeded.
Ten years after it closed, the prison opened up to visitors. These days, close to a million people come to Alcatraz annually – just for the day or evening. The lure of the jail is strong, making it an attraction for tourists from around the globe, seeking a taste of its grim history.
The prison was once home to the vicious and violent, with its inmates including such luminaries as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Arthur “Doc” Barker and Al Capone. And many believe the prison is now home to some of its infamous inhabitants’ ghosts. Indeed, some consider it among the spots in which you’re most likely to encounter a specter.
The island itself is not large, measuring only about 22 acres in area. It’s roughly 1,700 feet long and fewer than 600 feet wide. Alcatraz was likely discovered by Native Americans, who may have come to the bay as far back as 20,000 years ago. Certainly, two tribes – the Ohlone and the Miwok – inhabited the bay area.
Although it’s hard to be certain, when dealing with people who didn’t keep written histories, historians think that native peoples used the island to camp and to gather food. They may have particularly been interested in bird eggs. The local people may even have used the island as a home for those they had expelled from their communities.
In any case, the Native Americans would not be left in peace forever. By 1775 the Spanish had arrived, in the form of Juan Manuel de Ayala. He entered the bay by ship and gave the island its name. At first he called it “Alcatraces” and although the exact definition of that word is elusive, it’s thought to have meant “strange birds” or “pelicans.”
In time Alcatraz came into American hands, when Governor Pio Pico of Mexico handed it to William Workman in 1846. In the same year, it passed to John C. Fremont, California’s military governor, who splashed out $5,000 on the island, hoping for a healthy return on his investment. No profit was forthcoming, however, as the then-president Millard Fillmore commandeered it for the military, paying Fremont nothing.
Part of Fillmore’s motivation was that the population of the San Francisco area had rocketed after the discovery of gold in California. The consequent desire to defend the bay led to the building of a fort on the island. Alongside the citadel, the army put in more than a hundred guns. The plans weren’t all for defense, however, as a lighthouse was also constructed, the West Coast’s first.
In 1860 the U.S. Army started to ship convicted soldiers onto the island. As time passed, the military found less use for Alcatraz as a fortress and more as a detention centre. By 1907 the guns had gone and the site had officially been named a prison. For the next quarter of a century, it housed and re-instructed army prisoners.
Around the turn of the century, a boom in prisoner numbers necessitated new buildings. And when the fort fell down in 1909, a whole new prison complex arose in its place. To this day, visitors can see the tunnels and structures of the original castle, still underlying the newer, concrete buildings.
Financial constraints started to bite after the First World War, and in 1933 the army was happy to let the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) take over the site. The BOP wanted it because it had started to struggle with prisoner security, given how many hardened criminals it was housing. So the BOP modernized Alcatraz, and it opened as a federal facility in 1934. Close to three dozen of the army’s bad guys stayed on the island, but the rest were shipped out.
Those soldier convicts were soon joined by felons from elsewhere. Alcatraz gained the name of “the prison within the prison system,” because it housed only the hardest of men who had been sent from other jails. They averaged five years on “The Rock,” under the highest security. Although more than 300 men could be accommodated, there were usually only about 260 there.
The prisoners faced myriad rules, and infractions would land them in one of the 40-plus cells of solitary confinement. In some, the inmate had no control over the lights and could be left in the dark by guards. The worst was the “strip cell,” where the inmates would spend time shut away bare naked in darkness, absolutely without comforts, even their toilet nothing more than a simple hole.
However, despite the rigors, lots of prisoners found Alcatraz a much better environment than other facilities. Some convicts actually asked to be moved to the island, perhaps liking the idea of a cell to themselves. But life on The Rock was no picnic, since everything beyond the barest minimum living standard had to be earned. Indeed, the central aim of the institution was to teach hardened criminals to toe the line.
Eventually, many of America’s most infamous criminals ended up on The Rock. Among them was Al Capone, the notorious gangster, who despite a reign of terror that didn’t stop short of murder, was actually jailed for evading taxes. At first sent to prison in Atlanta, he found himself shipped to Alcatraz for reform.
In fact, Capone was one of the initial draft of prisoners at Alcatraz – inmate AZ#85. And The Rock proved his match, when he tried to grab control of the prison by bribery. The warden clamped down on Capone, who reportedly said, “It looks like Alcatraz has me licked.” He passed the time by playing banjo in a prison band. Eventually, as syphilis began to spread into his brain, his time in Alcatraz ended.
Another man sent to Alcatraz in its first year was George “Machine Gun” Kelly. This notorious bad boy had bragged that he would escape from prison and then get his wife out of her jail too. That didn’t sit well with the authorities, who decided that they would not risk him doing that. In Alcatraz, Kelly proved a “model inmate,” and he stayed on the island for 17 years.
One man whom Alcatraz did not manage to reform was James “Whitey” Bulger. Jailed in 1956 for armed robbery, he found himself in Alcatraz by the end of the decade. He looked back on his time on The Rock almost fondly. However, he’d return to crime once freed, ending up with his name associated with a string of murders and racketeering.
Possibly the most renowned inmate of the prison was Robert Stroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Although in the film of the same name Burt Lancaster played him as a kindly old man, in real life he was a violent and dangerous inmate. He also did not keep birds during his 17 years on The Rock.
Not everyone was happy with the open-ended sentences in Alcatraz. Some did try to escape. In all, 36 men gave it a try, with most of their attempts ending in abject failure. Twenty-three were recaptured, while another six were shot dead while attempting to flee. Another two drowned, and five more were thought to have met the same fate.
Even a child could swim from Alcatraz to shore, as two 10-year-olds once proved, but it was no easy task. Although the rumored man-eating sharks didn’t exist, the cold, choppy waters proved a daunting obstacle. One of the big problems facing inmates was that they could not train for the attempt, with limited scope for physical exercise and little ability to choose what they ate.
Of course, before you could brave the chill of the bay, you first had to break out of the prison. In May 1946 a bunch of inmates tried to do exactly that. The consequence was an outbreak of violence that would become known as the “Battle of Alcatraz.” It all began with Bernard Coy, a Kentucky bank robber, who had spent months planning an escape.
Coy had slimmed down in that time, so he could sneak into a gun store. He and his buddies snatched some weapons and made their bid for freedom. Unfortunately for them, the whole plan collapsed, and they ended up in a two-day gunfight with the authorities. Coy, two more inmates and two guards ended up dead in the fray. Two further convicts faced the gas chamber for their part in the failed escape.
Less violent was the jailbreak that would become immortalized by Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Three men, brothers Clarence and John Anglin and Frank Morris, disappeared one day in June 1962. Guards found dummy heads that the prisoners had made to fool them in the night count and expanded air vents through which they had climbed.
Having escaped the cellhouse, the men had descended towards the water. There they’d used a raft to help them get across the bay. And although some of their personal effects were later discovered in the sea, the prisoners themselves were never seen again. The authorities listed the three as presumed drowned, and that was that.
Or was it? In 2013 the police in San Francisco had a curious piece of mail. It purported to be from John Anglin, who claimed that all three had escaped. He said that his brother and Morris had died in the 2000s, but he lived on and sought medical help. The FBI put the letter through all sorts of tests, with no solid outcomes.
Not long after the trio vanished, the prison shut. This wasn’t because of the escape – closure had been on the cards for some time – but to save money. Alcatraz needed repairs that could run into the millions, and it was already much more expensive to operate than other prisons. By 1959, Alcatraz prisoners cost taxpayers more than $10 a day each, while they only set the nation back $3 in Atlanta.
Some years after the last prisoner had departed from Alcatraz, it once again had inmates. This time they were voluntary, as in November 1969 dozens of Native Americans tried to occupy the island. The U.S. Coast Guard stopped many of them, but 14 landed. Eventually, hundreds of people would squat at the prison site.
The plan was to raise awareness of Native American struggles. It proved successful, with many visitors coming to show their support. However, some of the occupants proved unruly, causing vandalism and a fire. By the summer of 1971, the authorities had had enough, and they took the last few occupants off the island.
So the island was left to its ghosts, of which many believed it had plenty. Even the Ohlone Indians had thought it to be haunted by bad spirits and gave it a wide berth, and early white explorers reportedly also felt that it had an unnerving air. Alcatraz often finds itself listed among the most haunted spots in its state and even in the world.
Among the scariest places in the prison is cell 14D. Here people who visit Alcatraz tell of a chill that surrounds the round, attributing its eeriness to spirits. Indeed, back in the 1940s a man did meet his end in this cell. Apparently, guards discovered him dead by strangulation. And this particular ghost story does not end there: he had spent his last night howling in fear of a glowing-eyed monster.
Moreover, visitors don’t just single out that one cell. They often hear moans and cries in cell blocks A, B and C. In this same area, a psychic claimed to have met a bad specter with the name of Butcher. Coincidentally, a man with that very nickname met a gruesome end among the Alcatraz cells. Elsewhere, tourists claim that they can catch the faintest hint of a banjo coming from the shower area: proof, they believe, that Capone’s ghost still rehearses for his band.
Several paranormal “investigators” have been to the prison to try to get in touch with the spirits. And some have claimed to be successful, with one claiming to have chatted with a dead inmate who said he was ill-treated, and another allegedly becoming possessed by a presence that he connected with the Battle of Alcatraz.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, this font of legend, rumor and ghost stories has grabbed a special spot in the popular arts. Alcatraz has often featured in films in particular, with movie-makers attracted by its scenic beauty. As previously mentioned, Hollywood luminaries such as Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood have portrayed famous inmates, while Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage memorably broke into the prison in The Rock.
Given its unique setting, many people have since come up with alternative plans for Alcatraz, such as housing a new Statue of Liberty and turning it into the site of a mall and hotel. Nothing has come of those ideas, though, and the prison could easily have simply crumbled into ruin. However, the National Park Service created a new park in 1972, and it included Alcatraz. A year later, the prison was open once more, this time for tourists.
In the meantime, Native Americans still visit the island each fall, to mark their earlier occupation. Other visitors include seabirds: cormorants and gulls nest in the springtime. The lighthouse continues to operate as it has ever since its 19th century construction, and foghorns provide added warnings to shipping.
But the major use for the island these days is tourism. Indeed, TripAdvisor has twice named it America’s premier landmark. And each day, bar only three holidays, a ferry leaves San Francisco’s Pier 33 about every half hour, morning to evening. Only the weather prevents sailings – and whatever the weather, swimming is not advised.
The island now boasts a mass of things to do and see. Visitors can take a variety of guided tours or guide themselves with an audiotape that outlines the island’s history. Videos share that history too, and the former prison workshops often feature art on display. Tourists can even enjoy the inmates’ beloved gardens.
Some elements of life in Alcatraz will likely remain secret, but recently some have been illuminated. That’s because photographs have become available of daily life within the prison walls. A selection of these images of the harsh existence on The Rock partly illustrate this article, from mugshots of former inmates to captured moments from the convicts’ lives.
No prisoners inhabit Alcatraz any more. A new facility in Illinois replaced The Rock, and these days its equivalent is the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” which can be found in Florence, Colorado. But when fog swirls into the San Francisco Bay, shrouding the island in its damp embrace, the island still looks like the inescapable hellhole that it once was.