The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary sat on Alcatraz Island, also known as “The Rock,” located in San Francisco Bay, California and is one of the world’s most famous prisons. Not every prison becomes the setting of popular Hollywood movies like Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz.
Between 1934 and 1963 the island was used as a federal prison. And during that time in history, it held some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, including Al Capone and Robert Stroud. The prison was closed in 1963, however, due to the excessive cost and damage to the buildings from the salt water. But despite having been closed for decades now, its legend lives on.
These are some unsettling facts about Alcatraz which will make you understand why it became a world-famous prison and one popular culture never ceases to reference.
Al Capone Played in an Inmate Band
It may already be old news that the notorious gangster and mob boss, Al Capone, was among the first prisoners of the Alcatraz federal prison in August 1934. But not many people know that Capone was in prison band, and he played the banjo. Capone had actually bribed the prison guards to receive preferential treatment while serving his sentence for tax-evasion in Atlanta.
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But his treatment changed after he was transferred to the island prison. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” he told his warden. Capone, otherwise known as convict # 85, became very cooperative and he was allowed to play banjo in the Alcatraz prison band, “the Rock Islanders”, which performed regular Sunday concerts for the other inmates.
There Were No Prisoner Escapes
The truth is there have never been any escapes. Although a total of 36 inmates put the “escape-proof” Alcatraz to the test, none succeeded. Of those who tried to flee, 23 were captured, six were gunned down, and two drowned while trying to swim to freedom. The other five went missing and were presumed to have also drowned, including Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, whose 1962 attempted breakout was the inspiration for the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz.
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The three convicts picked at the rotting concrete walls with sharpened spoons and even used locks of hair from the barbershop which they placed in their beds to fool the guards. In the end, their possessions were found floating in San Francisco Bay, but not their bodies. There were even theories leading some to believe that they may have successfully escaped.
If you want to know who the first prisoners of Alcatraz were, see the next page…
Military Prisoners were the First Inmates
The Gold Rush of the 1840s turned San Francisco into a prosperous place, and Alcatraz was dedicated to military use. The U.S. Army would incarcerate military prisoners inside what was the new fortress in the late 1850s. During the Civil War, prisoners were “Union deserters” and “Confederate sympathizers.”
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The prison also held Native Americans who had land disagreements with the government, American soldiers who deserted to the Filipino cause during the Spanish-American War, and Chinese civilians who resisted the Army during the Boxer Rebellion.
The “Birdman of Alcatraz” Didn’t Actually Have Birds
In spite of his nickname, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” had no birds in the prison. Robert Stroud was serving a manslaughter sentence for killing a bartender in a fight. He fatally stabbed a guard at Leavenworth Prison in 1916. President Woodrow Wilson then sentenced him to a life of permanent solitary confinement and he was moved to Alcatraz, which is when Stroud spent his time doing peculiar things.
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He studied ornithological diseases, wrote and illustrated two books and raised canaries and other birds in his Leavenworth cell. But in 1942, when he was transferred to Alcatraz, he was ordered to give up his birds and he was banned from having any birds during his 17 years inside the prison. The 1962 movie Birdman of Alcatraz, for which Burt Lancaster received an Academy Award nomination a few weeks before “The Rock” closed, was mostly fictitious.
See next why the prison was given the name Alcatraz…
Alcatraz Was Named for Sea Birds
Before criminals became its occupants, the island was home to large colonies of brown pelicans. When Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first known European to sail through the Golden Gate in 1775, he dubbed the rocky island as “La Isla de Los Alcatraces,” meaning “Island of the Pelicans.”
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The name simply became Anglicized to “Alcatraz.” Now with all the prisoners gone, the island returned to its original muse – the pelicans. And they can now claim the island as theirs, as it once was.
Alcatraz Had the Pacific Coast’s First Lighthouse
Fans of lighthouses might be amused by this fact. A small lighthouse on top of the rocky island was built in 1852 in order to help the frequently arriving ships navigate through the bay. It eventually became obsolete in the early 1900s.
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It was after the U.S. Army constructed a building that blocked its view of the Golden Gate. A new, taller lighthouse replaced it in 1909.
One of the prisoners actually swam to shore. See who it was and what happened, next…
It Was Possible to Swim to Shore
Federal officials initially doubted that any inmates who wanted to escape would even be able to survive the swim to the mainland through the cold and harsh waters of San Francisco Bay, but it did indeed happen. In 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott greased himself up and squeezed through a window and swam to shore.
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But when he reached the Golden Gate Bridge, he was so exhausted that police discovered him lying unconscious in hypothermic shock. Today, hundreds of brave swimmers complete the 1.5-mile swim every year during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
The Country’s Worst Criminals Weren’t Automatically Sent to Alcatraz
Contrary to popular belief, the convicts of Alcatraz weren’t necessarily the ones who committed the most violent or heinous crimes. They were, however, the convicts who needed an attitude adjustment the most. They were the most irredeemable and disobedient inmates in the federal penal system.
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These are prisoners who would bribe guards and attempt escapes. Being sent to Alcatraz was intended to be a temporary stay to get them to follow the rules so they could return to other federal facilities.
See why inmates would request transfers to Alcatraz…
Inmates Would Request Transfers to Alcatraz
Alcatraz’s threatening reputation was something of a Hollywood creation. The prison had a one-man-per-cell policy that appealed to some inmates because it made them less vulnerable to attacks by fellow prisoners. Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston, was aware that bad food was often the cause of prison riots, so he prided himself on serving good food, and inmates were even allowed second and third helpings.
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Inmates who behaved well also had access to privileges like monthly movies and a library with 15,000 books and 75 popular magazine subscriptions. Many prisoners considered Alcatraz’s conditions preferable to other federal prisons, and a lot of them asked to be moved there.
Native American Activists Occupied Alcatraz at One Point
Following two brief occupations, a group of nearly 100 Native American activists, led by Mohawk Richard Oakes, took over the island in November of 1969. They fought for the right to be granted unoccupied federal land which a treaty deemed as fair for Native Americans. The protestors wanted Alcatraz to be established as a university and cultural center.
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Their declaration included an offer to purchase the island for “$24 in glass beads and red cloth” which was the same price paid by Dutch settlers for Manhattan in 1626. Federal marshals removed the protestors in June of 1971, but some of their graffiti is still there. When the National Park Service rebuilt an Alcatraz water tower, they made sure to repaint the red graffiti that read “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”