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Alcatraz Prison History

William Taft

Alcatraz Prison History: William Taft was the 27th American President who served in office from March 4, 1909 to March 4, 1913. One of the important events during his presidency was the completion of the new cell house at Alcatraz prison in 1912.

Definition and Summary of the Alcatraz Prison History
Summary and definition:
 Alcatraz Prison is situated on Alcatraz island located 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore in the San Francisco Bay, California. The history of Alcatraz Island dates back many years and it has served as a bird sanctuary, a Civil War military fortress, it housed the first lighthouse on the West Coast but is most famous for the time it served as Federal Penitentiary Prison  commonly known as "The Rock".

This article provides facts about the Alcatraz Prison History, its famous prisoners, life in the prison and the attempted escapes from Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Prison History Facts for kids: FAQ's
Fast, fun facts and Frequently Asked Questions about Alcatraz Prison History.

Where is Alcatraz Prison located? San Francisco Bay, California

How many escape attempts were there? There were 14 escape attempts made by a total of 36 inmates.

What are the names of famous prisoners? Famous inmates include Al Capone, George "Machine-Gun" Kelly, Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz" and Alvin Karpis, the first Public Enemy Number One

When was the first prison building constructed? In 1853 when the Citadel was first used as a prison.

Why did Alcatraz Prison close? Alcatraz Prison closed in xx because facilities were deteriorating and the prison cost much more to operate than other prisons - $10 per prisoner per day (other prisons were $3)

Alcatraz Prison History Facts and Info for kids: Brief Facts for kids via the Fact Sheet
Interesting description and brief facts about the Alcatraz Prison History are detailed in the following Fact Sheet.

Native Americans were the first inhabitants of Alcatraz Island from about 4000 B.C.E. They belonged to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, a Native American people of the California coast.

The island had a bad reputation as the home of evil spirits and was believed to be a burial ground and a place of banishment for Native American outcasts.

The island was named in 1775 by the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala. He called it 'La Isla de los Alcatraces' which means 'Island of the Pelicans'.

In 1848 California became part of the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War - Americans continued the old legends of the island due to its cold isolation and eerie atmosphere.

In 1850 the island was designated part of a "Triangle of Defense" to guard San Francisco Bay. Forts were planned to be built on Alcatraz Island, Fort Point, and Lime Point.

The fortress was built on the island in 1853. Workers blasted steep walls around the island and cannons were put in place

In 1854 the first lighthouse on the West Coast of California was built on the island.

By 1859 a three-story citadel was constructed atop of the island. The Citadel could only be accessed via a drawbridge over a deep, dry moat. The Citadel served as an armed barracks and a last line of defense for the island.

The fortified island and the Citadel were used by the Union Army during the Civil War (1861 - 1865).

In 1861, Alcatraz was officially designated a military prison. Army prisoners constructed more prison facilities referred to as the 'Lower Prison'.

During the Spanish-American War (April 25, 1898 August 12, 1898) the prison population grew from 25 to 441 inmates. The 'Upper Prison' was hastily built consisting of 3 wooden, two-tiered cell houses.

In 1907 the island was re-designated the "Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, Alcatraz Island".

The future of Alcatraz was as a military prison and not as a defense site. Army prisoners demolished the citadel and built a huge cell house over the site of the citadel and moat.

The wooden buildings were replaced with new concrete buildings. The complex consisted of four cellblocks, hospital, a dining room,  a kitchen, recreation yard and offices.

The new Alcatraz Prison construction was completed in 1912.

The barracks were eventually acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933

The island became part of Federal Bureau of Prisons in August 1934. Our next fact sheet details facts and stats about the notorious Federal penitentiary.

The notorious, high security penitentiary would be in operation for the next 29 years and Alcatraz Prison would be the destination of many murderers, gangsters and bank robbers.

Alcatraz Prison consisted of four cellblocks. The two innermost cellblocks, B Block and C Block, held the 336 cells and stood three tiers high:

  • The A block was generally used as a storage facility and for offices, but on rare occasions was used to house prisoners who needed to be fully isolated from other inmates

  • The B block and C block held prisoners

  • The D block housed 36 segregation cells, and 6 solitary confinement cells - the isolation and punishment cells

  • The library was also located in Block D

The prisoners gave nicknames to the long, green painted, highly polished concrete walkways or corridors between the cell blocks. The names were those of American streets and landmarks such as Michigan Avenue, Broadway, Time Square, Park Avenue and Sunset Strip.

  • The name given to the corridor between "A" block and "B" block was Michigan Avenue

  • The central walkway, between cell blocks B and C, was nicknamed Broadway

  • The area between the dining hall and the cell blocks was called Times Square

  • The corridor between C Block and the library was called Park Avenue

  • The corridor in D Block was named Sunset Strip

Gun galleries lay at the end of each block, these were multi-level corridors and walkways enclosed in bars and mesh that were patrolled by armed guards

A total of 1,576 prisoners were incarcerated during its time as a Federal Penitentiary. The first batch of 137 prisoners arrived at 9:40 am on August 11, 1934

New inmates to Alcatraz Prison started out on "Fish Row" in the floor-level cells called "the flats"

How big were the cells? The cells in B & C block measured 5 feet by 9 feet. Each cell was equipped with a small sink with cold running water, a small bunk, a shelf, a folding steel table and chair and a toilet. There was only one prisoner per cell.

In the mornings, every prisoner dressed, cleaned his cell, and stood ready for the first head count. All prisoners had to be clean shaven - no beards or moustaches were allowed.

Prisoners were allowed two showers per week and a change of clothes.

The prisoners only had four other rights: Food, medical attention, shelter and clothing. Everything else had to be earned, including visits.

Prisoners were allowed approved visitors for one and a half hours per month. Visitors were close family members, over 16 years old and without a criminal record. They were separated by a toughened glass screen, no physical contact was allowed and they spoke via a telephone

All conversations were strictly monitored. Prisoners were not allowed to talk about their life in the 'Pen' and visitors were not allowed to talk about current affairs

Prisoners were allowed to send and receive letters. All mail was vetted and censored.

Their daily life in Alcatraz Prison centered around work in the kitchen or laundry and lights went out at 9.30pm. Inmates spent at least 14 hours a day in their cells

No newspapers, radio or television was allowed. Their reading material was censored and extremely limited.

The average length of stay was eight years. The penitentiary initially had a staff of 155. The maximum numbers of prisoners at any one time numbered 202

James A. Johnston was the first of four wardens at Alcatraz from 1934 to 1948. He was a hard disciplinarian and imposed stringent rules:

  • He insisted on one guard for every three prisoners (other prisons averaged one guard for 12 prisoners)

  • Inmates gave him the nickname of "Old Saltwater"

  • He wrote  "Prison Life is Different" detailing his experiences as warden

  • He sanctioned punishments including the use of strait jackets and solitary confinement in darkness

  • James A. Johnston imposed the controversial "Silent System". Conversation between prisoners was banned. The "Silent System" was enforced for 4 years, then stopped as it was sending prisoners insane

Cell Block D was the most notorious of al the blocks in Alcatraz Prison. It was referred to as the special treatment unit, where prisoners were either segregated or placed in isolation and solitary confinement. .

The Hole: Five of the cells on the bottom tier of Cell Block D were earned the nickname of "The Hole". These dingy cells had a sink, a toilet and a solid steel door with a small opening to push food through. There was no human contact whatsoever, no form of reading was allowed - all there was was boredom. Prisoners were given a mattress to sleep on at night but this was removed during the day. Prisoners could be kept in the "Hole" for up to 19 days.

The Strip Cell: The "Strip Cell" was even worse. There was no bed, sink, or toilet - the prisoners had to make do with a hole in the floor. They had no clothes, no blanket and no light. It was cold and dark - prisoners were usually kept in the strip cell for two days - but sometimes this was exceeded.

Facts and Stats on Alcatraz Prison history:

  • 8 people were murdered by inmates

  • 15 prisoners from natural illnesses

  • 4 of the 42 cells in block D are said to be haunted

  • No executions ever took place on the island

Facts about attempts to escape from Alcatraz island:

  • 36 prisoners were involved attempts to escape from Alcatraz Prison

  • 21 were captured and returned alive

  • 7 inmates were shot and killed trying to escape

  • 2 were returned and subsequently executed

  • 5 prisoners, from two separate escape attempts, managed to escape from the island

    • Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe disappeared in 1937

    • Frank Morris and Clarence Anglin and John Anglin disappeared in 1962

    • The FBI were unable to determine whether the 3 men successfully escaped or died in the attempt

  • John Paul Scott was the only known prisoner to successfully swim off the island in December, 1962. He was recaptured in San Francisco almost immediately

Famous prisoners incarcerated in Alcatraz Prison were Al Capone, George "Machine-Gun" Kelly, Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz" and Alvin Karpis

  • The Chicago gangster and racketeer Al Capone who was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years

  • "Machine-Gun" Kelly was an Irish-American gangster was arrested for bootlegging and armed robbery and spent 17 years on the island

  • Alvin Karpis, the first Public Enemy Number One, was convicted of Kidnapping, Robbery, Burglary, Murder and spent 26 years on the island

  • Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz" was convicted of murder and spent 17 years on the island

The site is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and visited by many visitors and tourists to San Francisco Bay area - who also visit the famous Angel Island.

US American History
1881-1913: Maturation Era

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