Once considered the prison of American prisons, the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay has been an asset to the U.S. Army, the federal prison system, jailhouse folklore, and the historic evolution of the West Coast. Despite its reputation as a cold and unforgiving penitentiary, Alcatraz is now one of the most prominent tourist magnets in San Francisco.
Alcatraz as Federal Penitentiary: “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island”
Alcatraz was obtained by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1934. The former military detention center became America’s first maximum security civilian penitentiary. This “prison system’s prison” was specifically designed to house the most horrendous prisoners, the troublemakers that other federal prisons could not successfully detain. Its isolated location made it ideal for the exile of hardened criminals, and a strict daily routine taught inmates to follow prison rule and regulation.
The Great Depression witnessed some of the most heinous criminal activity in modern American history, and Alcatraz’ severity was well suited to its time. Alcatraz was home to notorious criminals including Al “Scarface” Capone, who was convicted of tax evasion and spent five years on the island. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, the FBI’s first “Public Enemy” was a 28 year resident of Alcatraz. The most famous prisoner was Alaskan murderer Robert “Birdman” Stroud, who spent 17 years on Alcatraz. Over its 29 years of operation, the federal prison housed more than 1,500 convicts.
Daily life in the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was harsh. Prisoners were given four rights. They included medical attention, shelter, food and clothing. Recreational activities and family visits had to be earned through hard work. Punishments for bad behavior included hard labor, wearing a 12 pound ball and chain, and lock-downs where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, restricted to bread and water. There were a total of 14 escape attempts by over 30 prisoners. Most were caught, several were shot, and a few were swallowed by the chilling swells of the San Francisco Bay.
The Closing of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
The prison on Alcatraz Island was expensive to operate, as all supplies had to be brought in by boat. The island had no source of fresh water, and almost one million gallons were shipped in each week. Building a high security prison elsewhere was more affordable for the Federal Government, and as of 1963 “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island” was no more. Today, the equivalent of the infamous federal prison on Alcatraz Island is a maximum security institution in Florence, Colorado. It is nicknamed “Alcatraz of the Rockies”.
Tourism on Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island became a national park in 1972, and was considered part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Open to the public in 1973, Alcatraz sees more than one million visitors from across the globe each year.
Alcatraz is best known as a maximum security prison. Media attention and fantastic stories have exaggerated this image. The San Francisco Bay islet has been much more than this. Alcatraz as a mass of rock named for its birds, an American fort during the Gold Rush, an army barracks, and tourist attraction may be less enticing, but allude to a more dynamic existence. It is one to be embraced by San Francisco and California as a whole.
This place is said to be haunted by the ghosts of many, many prisoners who died there, including the Bird Man, “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone. Voices in the former eating area as well as the cell blocks are heard when no one else is around. Footsteps and the sounds of cell doors opening and closing also echo throughout the corridors. People have reported feeling “cold spots” in certain areas and the feeling that they are not alone, even when they are.
We will be investigating Alcatraz September 23 2013.
Our Investigation will be posted in late September.