Alcatraz is unlike almost all other prisons in that it has natural barriers to thwart escapes. The fact that it is basically a big piece of rock surrounded by the strong, cold currents of San Francisco Bay, and a distance of 1 1/4 miles to San Francisco itself is formidable enough; however, those cold currents also sweep out into the Pacific Ocean. Even so, over its lifetime from 1934 to 1963 there were 36 escape attempts.
There have been several fairly famous escape attempts but the one most people will think of is that which was portrayed in the movie "Escape from Alcatraz" starring Clint Eastwood. It was a complicated plan (the complicated part is how they managed to acquire all the materials necessary to pull off the escape plan) executed by real life inmates Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin involving the making of false heads to fool guards into thinking the they were the heads of sleeping inmates, false wall segments and making raincoats into vests & inflatable rafts. It is not known whether the escape was successful because the men were never found. A body found floating in the bay sometime later could not be positively identified as one of the escaped inmates so the mystery as to whether they made it to freedom or not remains open to speculation to this day.
Once thought impossible, it has been proven that it is indeed possible to swim to or from Alcatraz given that the person is conditioned and in good shape.
Even with the likes of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelley being inmates at Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" is its most famous prisoner. Stroud was portrayed as a short-tempered, but brilliant man by Burt Lancaster in the movie "Birdman of Alcatraz," a movie which Stroud himself was never allowed to see. Unlike his portrayal in the movie, Stroud was a vicious repeat murderer. Originally sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole by President Woodrow Wilson.
Contrary to the movie depiction, Stroud began his study of canaries while in Leavenworth Prison , Kansas. He was allowed to breed the birds and assembled a lab inside 2 adjoining cells as prison officials thought it was a productive use of his time. He studied bird diseases and concocted medicines to treat them. Stroud authored 2 books on canaries and their diseases and his observations benefited research on the canary species--no small feat and an indication of his latent intellectual potential. He might have made other significant contributions to veterinary medicine, human medicine, or general science had his life taken a different path.
Stroud wasn't transferred to Alcatraz until 1942, where he apprently wrote two more books, “Bobbye” (his autobiography), and “Looking Outward, A History of the US Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons.” He purportedly also studied law and several languages. He was transferred off The Rock supposedly for medical reasons in 1959. He died in November of 1963 from natural causes. Had he not had such violent tendencies, this man might have made many significant contributions to society -- not forgetting that he did make a significant difference for bird lovers. Sources say he is buried in Illinois.
Another inmate at Alcatraz, Henry Young, might be famous for a couple of reasons. Warner Brothers made a film entitled, "Murder in the First," portraying Young's early life as virtually the same as the Jean Valjean character right out of Victor Hugo's famous work, "Les Miserables"!!. Supposedly in the film, Young was a teenager convicted for stealing $5 in order to feed his starving sister. However, apparently the real story is that he was a bankrobber who brutalized his hostage and committed other murders beginning in 1933.
"Murder in the First" also seems to suggest that Young's attempted escape from Alcatraz was punished by his naked confinement in a dark dungeon for years afterwhich he murdered an inmate upon release from his horrific conditions. Again, movie makers took liberties with the real story. Some say although he was confined in solitary for some months, the murder of fellow inmate, Rufus McCain, took place more than a year after his release from solitary. The movie also intimated that Young died at Alcatraz in 1942. Not true!
Young was incarcerated at Alcatraz from about 1936 to 1948 after which he was transferred to Washington State Penitentiary to start serving another life sentence. He was released in 1972 and jumped parole. The kicker----his whereabouts are unknown to this day!! He could still be alive but unlikely!!
Alcatraz Island is located about one and a quarter miles out into San Francisco Bay and which is only about 10 minutes from Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. It is reacheable solely by ferry boat. No admission tickets are sold on the island itself. As Alcatraz is very, very popular, it is wise to purchase your admission and excursion ticket combo in advance. Prior to our visit, we purchased our tickets directly online from "Alcatraz Cruises" (October, 2009) which apparently had the rights to transport all visitors to Alcatraz Island. Today "alcatrazcruises.com" has the concession to sell tickets to the park combined with the roundtrip ferry ride to get there and back.
Alcatraz (open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year's Day) ferries leave every half hour beginning about 9:00 a.m. or so. Boarding is 30 minutes prior to your timed ticket. Alcatraz Cruises offers several tour options which now seem to be enhanced since we visited in 2000 (this may be due to the different company now running the ferries/tours or to the National Park Service itself). The ticket includes the roundtrip ferry ride, an orientation video, a 45-minute audio tape tour entitled, "Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour," which is fantastic and makes all the difference. The audio tour, which begins at a cell block, is available in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, and Mandarin. The audio will include comments and information from former guards and inmates and it is an eye opener!! When you leave the cell block, you are free to walk around the island on the Agave Trail, or visit the museum and book/gift shop. See the new Gardens of Alcatraz!
No food is available on the island, but is available on the ferry (see Restaurant Tips for info. on this). Leave your bikes, skateboards, luggage, roller blades, wheelie shoes, etc., in the hotel room -- they are not allowed on Alcatraz!
Prices for 2010 have remained the same as 2009 as per the website: Early Bird & Day Tour ticket prices $26 for adults; Family Ticket for 2 adults & 2 children (5-11) are $79. Night Tour ticket prices include a little more for your money but also cost more) are $33.00; no Family Tickets available for Night Tours. There are discounts for seniors 62+ and for children 5-11 for single ticket purchases. Toddlers 0-4 are free. There may be additional charges for purchasing online.
BEWARE, ALL SALES ARE FINAL!! When purchasing online, you may receive an E-ticket which you must present the day of your tour; check to see if prepaid tickets must be picked up at the "Prepaid Ticket" window on the pier.
When Alcatraz functioned as a federal prison, it was known for its harsh rules and regimen. (Click on the picture to see the list of rules.) Nearly every minute of the inmate's day was structured and accounted for. There were virtually no breaks during the day. Silence was expected at all times except at meals and in the recreation yard. Breaking the rule of "silence" was strictly forbidden and harshly punished. Inmates were allowed only one visitation per month by permission of the warden, and no physical contact was allowed. Communication with visitors was through a type of intercom system and the content of speech was prohibited from relating to prison life --- guards listened to make sure there was no inappropriate content. Less than perfect conduct resulted in loss of visitation privileges.
On the other hand, some prisoners praised the fact that every man had a cell to himself. Privacy was a cherished commodity. It was said by some prisoners that the food served at Alcatraz was the best in the federal prison system. Prisoners with good conduct were assigned jobs, such as cooking and cleaning, which meant they were allowed outside of the cell block.
Our self-guided tour was enlightening to say the least and the accompanying audio, narrated by former Alcatraz prisoners, was excellent. The former prisoners explained a great deal about life at Alcatraz.
Alcatraz was originally known as "La Isla de los Alcatraces" or "Island of the Pelicans" when it was given the name by a Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala, who charted the San Francisco Bay in 1775. It was uninhabitated except for birds. In the mid 1800's, the "Island of Pelicans" was recognized as having strategic military value and subsequently a fortress as well as lighthouse (the Pacific coast's first) were built there by 1853. The fortress played a role in protecting California during the Gold Rush Era when shiploads of "goldrushers" from around the world came to seek their fortune. It was feared that other countries would attempt to seize the land and resources if not protected. "The Rock" became the symbol of the country's west coast military might.
A short time later, the Army began to use Alcatraz as a military prison because it seemed the perfect location as it was surrounded by freezing water, swift currents and general isolation. It began receiving Civil War prisoners in 1861 (the year the Civil War began) and Spanish-America war prisoners in 1898.
When the Great Depression ushered in a surge in crime, Alcatraz was transformed into a federal prison and was known to some as "Uncle Sam's Devil's Island.". It became famous for housing some of the country's most infamous criminals such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelley, and the Birdman of Alcatraz. The prison, as formidable as it was, became too costly to operate and was closed down. In 1969 a group of Native American Indians claimed it as Indian property and occupied the island until 1971.
"The Rock" is known for its famous or infamous prisoners, for harsh conditions, and some very notable escape attempts and it is still fascinating people years after its last inmate left and its doors closed in March, 1963. Each year over 1,000,000 visitors "willingly" enter Alcatraz!!
As previously stated in another tip, Alcatraz was home to several famous or infamous criminals -- perhaps the most famous of which was Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." But other notorious criminals called Alcatraz home at one time or another. Mafia boss Al Capone spent hard time at Alcatraz compared to other prisons he had been in. Unlike the other prisons he was confined at, Capone was not able to manipulate Alcatraz's wardens or guards into giving him privileges such as bringing his own furniture & bedding into his cell. He was also attacked several times while at Alcatraz, but lived to tell the tale. He spent 4 1/2 yrs at Alcatraz before being transferred to another facility, and was actually free at the time of his death in 1947.
George "Machine Gun" Kelly whose real name was George Kelly Barnes, came from a wealthly Memphis, Tennessee family and even attended Mississippi State College for a short time before leaving to marry. He & his young wife quickly had 2 children and found themselves on hard times. He soon took up with petty gangsters and bootleggers and was known for using his "Tommy machine gun". He ended up doing stints at various other prisons including Leavenworth Penitentiary before being placed at Alcatraz in 1934. Warden Johnson considered Kelly a model inmate and many inmates of the time remember listening to Kelly's "tales". In 1951 Kelly was transferred back to Leavenworth where he died of a heart attack in 1954. Kelly spent his years in Alcatraz on Tier 2 of B Block.
As you get off the boat at the dock you will see the United States Penitentiary sign. Spray painted around it is "INDIANS WELCOME." This is because after prison closed and it was still federal land they were trying to decide what to do with it. Native American political activists decided to take a stand here. They occupied the island three times. The longest being 19 months and started on 20 November,1969. They claimed it in the name of "Indians of All Tribes." The amount of money required to support the occupiers dwindled and interest started to fade. In 1971, federal agents removed the few who remained.
The "Broadway" is the main corridor of the Alcatraz cellblock. Before it assumed its role as a maximum-security lock-up, this 1912 cellhouse was renovated by the Bureau of Prisons. Tool-proof bars replaced the flat, soft-steel barriers of the military prison, and gun galleries were built at either end of the two main cell blocks (B and C). Outside, six guard towers were constructed, barbed wire was strung, chainlink fences erected, and metal-detectors installed. As time passed, further work was done on the cellhouse; in 1939-1940, D Block (also called the Segregation or Treatment Unit) was extensively remodeled, and electric doors were installed.
In D Block, Cell 42 was Robert "Birdman" Stroud's cell. D Block was the segregation block and he spent six years here. In 1911 Stroud was convicted of manslaughter of a bartender. In 1916 after he was not allowed to see his brother who had visited him he stabbed a guard to death. He was sentenced to death by hanging but his mother pleaded for his life. His sentence was changed to life in prison with no parole in 1920. Because of his violent behaviour he spent his sentence is segregation. Stroud arrived in Alcatraz in 1942 where he spent six years in the cell that is pictured and eleven years in the prison hospital.
Althought Al Capone's exact cell is not known they believed he spent time in Cell B-206. Al Capone was quite good at manipulating guards into getting what he wanted so even in jail he lived rather luxurious. To stop this he was sent to Alcatraz in 1934. Capone spent 4 1/2 years in Alcatraz where he spent some time in isolation and later on got stabbed.
It was a kind of funny feeling to recognise this location - the courtyard of Alcatraz - as I had seen it in an Alcatraz movie.
For a moment I closed my eyes, and I could see the inmates sitting on the steps of the courtyard.
So Alcatraz was used as a penitentiary from 1934 until 1963, when Robert Kennedy closed it down. And since 1972 Alcatraz is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
As you walk around the island, you can see traces of ornamental gardens, particularly at the warden's house & on the western slope below the cellhouse. When the southern end of the island is open to visitors (during the birds' non-nesting season), look for the faded, painted names that identify the various "children's gardens." According to a former resident, these were planted in the 1950s by order of the Captain of the Guards, who felt Alcatraz's children had too much free time & would benifit from the experience of tending small plots of land along the edge of the employee housing area.
In 1907, the War Department decided that Alcatraz would no longer serve as a defensive fort but be used as a military detention barracks. Plans were drawn for a cellhouse that could house up to 600 prisoners.
When finished in 1912, the cellhouse was the largest steel-reinforced concrete building in the world.
Early in 1912, many of those who helped build the cellhouse became the first prisoners to live in it.
Alcatraz Island was occupied by native Americans protesting about the proposals for the use of the island after the penitentiary had closed in 1963. A group of Native American political activists selected Alcatraz as a place to make a stand. Activists occupied Alcatraz a total of 3 times, the 1st in 1964, when they stayed for only 4 hours. Five yrs later on Nov 9, 1969, a small group landed on the island and claimed it in the name of the "Indians of All Tribes," a landmark in intertribal cooperation. A full-scale occupation began 11 days later on Nov 20, & lasted for 19 months. Media coverage was generally positive, & the occupation gathered public support. As time passed, however, this support began to erode. The struggle to raise money & the effort required to keep the occupiers supplied w/ food & water also caused the group's numbers to dwindle from the hundreds that the occupation claimed at its height. Finally in June 1971, federal agents removed from the island the few individuals who remained.
The Indian occupiers painted the messages "Indians Welcome" and "Indianland" on the walls of the barracks. See attached Picture