As you may have guessed, escaping from Alcatraz would be difficult, if not impossible. The water surrounding the island rarely, if ever, reached a temperature of above 58 degrees, making hypothermia a certainty within minutes. The strong currents of the bay were difficult to swim against, as escapees would learn. Contrary to popular belief though, Alcatraz was not surrounded by man eating sharks. The sharks that inhabited the waters were mostly sand sharks. But the natural conditions were often enough of an impediment.
Despite the odds against them, there were several attempts to escape Alcatraz, some of which were more successful than others. Then again, that would depend on your definition of success.
A few actually made it off the island. Most of those that did were captured in the water or at the spot where they made landfall. A couple were never found and were presumed dead, but, you never know.
A couple of escape attempts involved inmates who sawed through the bars on the windows. In one attempt, the would-be escapees sawed through the bars in the basement and made it to the water. One gave up on fighting the frigid and choppy water and turned back. The other made it to the rocks near the Golden Gate bridge, but was too exhausted to pull himself out of the water. In another incident, 5 inmates sawed through the window bars in D-block. One was killed while running towards the water and the rest were captured and presumably locked up in isolation in D block.
Alcatraz began as a fort constructed to protect the west coast of the United States. The original buildings built on the island were for housing the military. It quickly became used as a military prison. During the civil war, military prisoners and Confederate sympathizers were confined on the island. In the early 1900's the military tore down the fortress used for protection and began building a cellhouse. This began Alcatraz as a federal prison. Initially, it was used to house objectors to World War I, but, in the 1930's, the federal government came up with the idea of using the island as a maximum security facility.
In one of the buildings, you will find exhibits from the civil war era of Alcatraz. Included with these exhibits are these canons, provided for protection but never used.
After the prison closed and Alcatraz was left vacant, a group of Native Americans attempted to claim the island on behalf of Native Americans of all tribes. The determined group went so far as to make an offer of purchase to the United States government. The sale price: $24 in beads and other trade goods. In their written proclamation, the group, known as the "Indians of All Tribes" stated that Alcatraz reminded them of an Indian Reservation because "it is isolated from modern facilities, the soil is rocky and the land does not support game."
The movement generated a fair amount of public support during the early period of the 19 month occupation. But Alcatraz remote location once again made the attempted occupation difficult. It cost a great deal to keep enough supplies on the island for the population. Eventually, the numbers dwindled down to a few hold outs who were then removed from the island by federal agents.
There is a 20 minute documentary shown on the island that describes the occupation. The film includes excerpts from the individual responsible for the movement, whose exit from the island was the beginning of the decline of the movement.
Excerpts taken from Discover Alcatraz: A Tour of The Rock
One of the most famous escape attempts became known as the "Battle of Alcatraz". Six inmates were successful at overpowering guards and taking over the cellhouse. They could not get the key to the exterior door, and its doubtful that they would have gotten very far if they had. Two guards died and 13 were wounded in the three day seige. Three of the attempted escapees were killed in a shoot out at the end of the seige. Two others were executed for their roles in the attempt. You can see the bars that were spread by the inmate that began the escape attempt. The C block door also contains bullet marks from the shoot out which ended the seige.
The photo depicts an escape attempt that may have been successful. Three inmates left dummy heads in their beds (how they made these is anybody's guess) and escaped through the air vents. They made a swim for land with flotation devices made from raincoats. They were never seen again.
One of the reasons for Alcatraz' popularity is the number of famous, or infamous, persons that did time on The Rock. The most known of Alcatraz' prisoners include Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Stroud, "The Birdman of Alcatraz". Stroud's nickname is somewhat of a misnomer, because his bird studies were conducted while at Leavenworth. On Alcatraz, inmates privileges were highly restricted, and those restrictions apparently expanded to include birds.