Alcatraz or ‘The Rock’ was designed to be the ultimate prison. Lock up all the really bad guys in one solid isolated prison, separate them from other prisoners and break them down. Its regime was brutal; this wasn’t about rehabilitation it was about punishment. Prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz from other prisons when they could not be controlled. For 29 years Alcatraz reined as the most secure and one of the harshest prisons in the land. Surrounded by water and built onto solid rock, this was a prison designed to keep you behind bars for as long as necessary and if you went mad in the meantime, so be it. Both the infamous Al Capone and ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly served time in Alcatraz and both made it out the other side.
Alcatraz Island sits within San Francisco Bay and was identified in the 1800’s by the military as an ideal location to serve as a military base to protect the bay and its citizens. The island was levelled out and developed into a modern and well equipped military fort. Five guns with 50-inch cannon balls could cover a range of 3 miles in all directions. The isolation of the site proved its worth as a military prison and a jail was purposely built to accommodate the worst of military offenders. As time passed the prison population continued to grow with more military personnel being sent to serve their time on the island. The buildings, which became known as Alcatraz Penitentiary, were built with punishment in mind to accommodate the growing population.
By the 1920’s, America was in the grip of gangs and criminal activity which they were struggling to control. The Federal Bureau of Prisons needed to take action and Alcatraz Penitentiary was their solution. In 1933, the Justice Department took control of the prison from the military and started to make changes to meet their aims for the most secure prison available.
In 1934, Alcatraz Prison was officially declared open and prisoners began to arrive from other penitentiaries around the country. The prison was designed to hold 600 prisoners in the original cells with a cast iron spiral staircase to the upper tiers. Punishments for misbehaviour included being chained in the dark rooms underneath the prison for 14 days with bread and water given sparsely to survive on.
As with modern prisons, inmates were given numbers and rarely referred to by name. Number 85 was Al Capone, a man who had continued to run his illegal operations when in other prisons, transferred to Alcatraz to stop him in his tracks and prevent communication with the outside world. When he arrived in 1934 he was riddled with syphilis, which slowly affected his cognition and he was transferred back out in 1945 a much less dangerous prisoner.
Number 117 was George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, an educated man, bootlegger and bank robber. In 1933 along with his wife he was convicted of kidnapping millionaire Charles Urschel. Kelly reportedly changed at Alcatraz, becoming a well-behaved inmate. Rumour was his wife Catherine was the driving force behind his criminal actions, a woman who he was madly in love with and would do anything for.
Number 594 was Robert Stroud, the so-called ‘Bird Man of Alcatraz’. Stroud didn’t actually have any birds at Alcatraz but used to at his previous prisons earning him the nickname. He was a vicious man constantly in trouble, fighting with other prisoners and showing his aggression. He spent a total of 43 years in solitary as a result and spent his final 11 years at the prison in a special cell entirely alone with little interaction with anyone.
If you were sent to Alcatraz there was no parole available. If you were lucky and behaved, showing signs of improved behaviour, you may have been transferred back out to another prison. You spent most of your time in your cell alone. If you were very unfortunate you had a cell which could look out on the most beautiful views towards San Francisco. Views of civilization which you would never be able to join. You watched your fellow inmates try to deal with the conditions and outlook of Alcatraz Penitentiary. Some went mad, lost their mind in the isolation, the torture of the views and the harshness of the conditions. Others became obsessed with escape; determined they must find a way off this island and into the crowds of San Francisco.
Alcatraz had the reputation of being escape proof. Even if you made it outside the prison walls, trying to flee the island was suicide. A one-mile swim lay between you and freedom, but rough waters, strong currents, and freezing conditions made such a feat impossible. Security was tight and there were many more guards to prisoners with head counts taking place every 15 minutes.
In the 29 years Alcatraz was open, however, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 prisoners. Almost one-third of them died trying to escape the island or were later executed for their actions. The first recorded escape attempt was Joe Bowers. On 27 April 1936, he tried to escape by climbing the fence in full view of tower guards. Many feel it was a suicide attempt rather than an escape. Bowers ignored all warnings to get down from the fence and he was shot down, probably dead before he hit the ground.
On 2 May 1946, an incident which is now known as the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ took place involving six inmates who took nine guards hostage in the main cell house. The leader of the inmates was Bernard Coy, a man who was obsessed with escape. He thought there was a weakness in the bars and he designed and built a bar spreading device to provide him with an escape route. He timed his attack to when the main guard was on lunch leaving just one guard on the floor of the cell house.
Coy and another inmate, Marvin Hubbard, overpowered the guard and let four other inmates out. Coy covered himself in grease, clambered up to the gun gallery, spread the bars with his device and climbed in. Surprised, the gallery officer was easily overpowered. Inmate Joseph Cretzer, along with others, took more officers hostage as they came in to check what was going on and the riot between inmates and officers continued for hours.
When Cretzer and Coy realised they could not get the cell house door open they began shooting the hostages. The riots continued for two days until the military dropped grenades into the cell house to regain control. Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard were killed by gunfire and two officers did not escape the rioting alive. No one attempted to escape from Alcatraz again for another 10 years.
Maintaining Alcatraz as a prison was proving an expensive exercise, costing around $14 per day for each prisoner compared to the more usual $5.40 per day in other prisons. Water had to be shipped in and stored and electric was generated from old power plant. By the 1960’s, the walls were beginning to decay and crumble with no money available to repair them. The inescapable prison was becoming a rotting structure, putting its security at risk.
In 1963, the Attorney General at the time, Robert Kennedy, ordered the closure of Alcatraz and prisoners were all shipped out to alternative prisons around the United States. In November 1969, Native Americans claimed the land as Indian land from an ancient treaty, hoping to turn the site into an educational centre but their attempts failed. After 18 months federal marshals removed them from the island and in 1972 Alcatraz became part of the National Park system, now serving as a huge tourist attraction for people all over the world wanting a glimpse of the infamous and feared Alcatraz prison.