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Alcatraz Island is an island located in the San Francisco Baymarker, offshore from San Franciscomarker, Californiamarker. Often referred to as The Rock, the small island early-on served as a lighthousemarker, a military fortification, a military prison, and a federal prison until 1963. Later, in 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received landmarking designations in 1976 and 1986.

Today, the island is a historic site operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Areamarker and is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharfmarker in San Francisco. Alcatraz has been featured in many movies, TV shows, cartoons, books, comics, and games.


The lighthouse on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay
first Spaniard to discover the island was Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted San Francisco Bay and named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces," which translates as "The Island of the Pelicans," from the archaic Spanish alcatraz, "pelican", a word which was borrowed originally from Arabic: القطرس al-qaṭrās, meaning sea eagle.

The United States Census Bureau defines the island as Block 1067, Block Group 1, Census Tract 179.02 of San Francisco County, Californiamarker. There was no population on the island as of the 2000 census.

It is home to the now-abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools, a seabird colony (mostly Western Gulls, cormorants, and egrets), and unique views of the coastline.

Military history

A model of Military Point Alcatraz, 1866-1868, now on display on Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island, 1895

The earliest recorded owner of the island of Alcatraz is one Julian Workman, to whom it was given by Mexicanmarker governor Pio Pico in June 1846 with the understanding that the former would build a lighthouse on it. Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puentemarker and personal friend of Pio Pico. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Fremont, champion of Manifest Destiny and leader of the Bear Flag Republicmarker, bought the island for $5000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. Fremont had expected a large compensation for his initiative in purchasing and securing Alcatraz Island for the U.S. government, but the U.S. government later invalidated the sale and paid Fremont nothing. Fremont and his heirs sued for compensation during protracted but unsuccessful legal battles that extended into the 1890's.

Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay. In 1853, under the direction of Zealous B. Tower, the Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858, eventuating in Fortress Alcatraz. The island's first garrison at Camp Alcatraz, numbering about 200 soldiers and 11 cannon, arrived at the end of that year. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the island mounted 85 cannons (increased to 105 cannons by 1866) in casemates around its perimeter, though the small size of the garrison meant only a fraction of the guns could be used at one time. At this time it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Southern sympathisers. Alcatraz never fired its guns offensively, though during the war it was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast.

Military prison

Due to its isolation from the outside by the cold, strong, hazardous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861.

Following the war in 1866 the army determined that the fortifications and guns were being rapidly rendered obsolete by advances in military technology. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed (the so called "parade ground" on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). Instead the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation. In 1867 a brick jailhouse was built (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868 Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.

In 1898, the Spanish-American war would increase the prison population from 26 to over 450. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. By 1912 there was a large cellhouse, and in the 1920s a large 3-story structure was nearly at full capacity. On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison, laterPacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1915. In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island's dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit (creating a dry "moat") to enhance its defensive potential. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of "dungeons" below the main cell block. The Fortress was deactivated as a military prison in October 1933, and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.

During World War I the prison held conscientious objectors, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled 'Uncle Sam's Devil's Island' about his experiences.

Prison history

Federal prison

The United States Disciplinary Barracksmarker on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justicemarker on October 12, 1933, and the island became a federal prison in August 1934. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held such notable criminals as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, James "Whitey" Bulger, and Alvin Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prison staff and their families.

Escape attempts

During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoners had ever successfully escaped. 36 prisoners were involved in 14 attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and three were lost at sea and never found. The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946 when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the so-called Battle of Alcatraz.

On June 11, 1962 Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin successfully carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devisedmarker. Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and their progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.

The escape route then led up through a fan vent; the fan and motor had been removed and replaced with a steel grille, leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to climb through. Stealing a carborundum cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners had removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen raincoats for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells with stolen human hair from the Barbershop for hair, they escaped. The prisoners are estimated to have entered San Francisco Baymarker at 10 p.m.

The official investigation by the FBImarker was aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who also was part of the escapees' group but was left behind (West's false wall kept slipping so he held it into place with cement, which set; when the Anglin brothers (John & Clarence) accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall, but by the time he did his companions were gone). Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were located on nearby Angel Islandmarker, and the official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay.

The MythBusters investigated the myth, concluding such an escape was plausible.

Notable inmates

Robert Stroud, who was better known to the public as the "Birdman of Alcatraz," was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. He spent the next seventeen years on "the Rock" — six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri (MCFP Springfieldmarker).

When Al Capone arrived on Alcatraz in 1934, prison officials made it clear that he would not be receiving any preferential treatment. While serving his time in Atlanta, Capone, a master manipulator, had continued running his rackets from behind bars by buying off guards. "Big Al" generated incredible media attention while on Alcatraz though he served just four and a half years of his sentence there before developing symptoms of tertiary syphilis and being transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Islandmarker in Los Angelesmarker.

George "Machine Gun" Kelly arrived on September 4, 1934. At Alcatraz, Kelly was constantly boasting about several robberies and murders that he had never committed. Although this was said to be an apparent point of frustration for several fellow prisoners, Warden Johnson considered him a model inmate. Kelly was returned to Leavenworthmarker in 1951.

Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz arrived in 1936. He was not a model inmate, constantly fighting with other inmates. He also spent the longest time on Alcatraz island, serving nearly 26 years. He was sent to Alcatraz on convictions for worse crimes than any other inmate, though surprisingly he never once attempted an escape.

James “Whitey” Bulger spent 3 years on Alcatraz (1959-1962) while serving a sentence for bank robbery. While there, he became close to Clarence Carnes, also known as the Choctaw Kid.

Post prison years

By decision of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the penitentiary was closed on March 21, 1963. It was closed because it was far more expensive to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta), half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, and the bay was being badly polluted by the sewage from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island. The United States Penitentiarymarker in Marion, Illinoismarker, a new, traditional land-bound prison opened that same year to serve as a replacement for Alcatraz.

Native American occupation

A lingering sign of the 1969-71 Native American occupation (2006 Photograph).
Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans from many different tribes (many individual Native Americans relocated to the Bay Area under the Federal Indian Reorganization Act of 1934), occupied the island, and proposed an education center, ecology center and cultural center. According to the occupants, the Treaty of Fort Laramie between the U.S. and the Sioux returned all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land to the Native people from whom it was acquired. In fact, the Sioux Treaty of 1868 stated that all abandoned or unused federal land adjacent to the Sioux Reservation could be reclaimed by descendant of the Sioux Nation. For that reason, Indians of All Tribes abandoned the Sioux treaty as the basis of their occupation and claimed Alcatraz Island by Right of Discovery.

The Native Americans demanded reparation of the broken treaties and for the land that was taken away from them. Historian Troy R. Johnson states in The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, that Indian people have known about Alcatraz 10,000 to 20,000 years before any European knew a thing about the land. During 1895, one of the largest Indian groups being held as military prisoners, were the Moqui Hopi. The Hopi refused to agree on a policy the U.S. government offered, opting for them to send their children to U.S. school, deteriorating their culture and forced assimilation. The point of the policy was to break any relations the Indians may have had with the U.S. government.

During the nineteen months and nine days of occupation, several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires, including the recreation hall, the Coast Guard quarters and the Warden's home. The origins of the fires are unknown. A number of other buildings (mostly apartments) were destroyed by the U.S. Government after the occupation had ended. Graffiti from the period of Native American occupation are still visible at many locations on the island.

During the occupation, the Indian termination policy, designed to end federal recognition of tribes, was rescinded by President Richard Nixon, and the new policy of self-determination was established, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupiers. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.

Alcatraz would eventually result in the Trail of Broken Treaties and would influence the Longest Walk in 1985. The occupation of Alcatraz is assumed to have played a huge role for Native Americans and is defined as a key movement, fighting for what some felt was rightfully theirs. The U.S. government returned land to the Taos, Yakima, Navajo and Washoe tribes following a succession of demands at Alcatraz.

Landmarking and development

The entire Alcatraz Island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and was further declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

In 1993, the National Park Service published a plan entitled Alcatraz Development Concept and Environmental Assessment. This plan, approved in 1980, doubled the amount of Alcatraz accessible to the public to enable visitors to enjoy its scenery and bird, marine, and animal life, such as the California slender salamander.

Today American Indian groups, the International Indian Treaty Council, for example, hold ceremonies on the island. The most notable of these are on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day when they hold a "Sunrise Gathering."

In 2006, the Park Service awarded the ferry contract to Hornblower Yachts ferry operator Alcatraz Cruises. Because Hornblower does not employ union labor, there were protests, but they have ceased.

  • The Agave Path, a trail named for its dense growth of agave. Located atop a shoreline bulkhead on the south side, it provides a nesting habitat for night herons.

  • Alcatraz prison and its surroundings

Proposed peace center

The Global Peace Foundation proposed to raze the prison and build a peace center in its place. During the previous year, supporters collected 10,350 signatures that placed it on the presidential primary ballots in San Francisco for February 5, 2008. The proposed plan is estimated at $1 billion. For the plan to pass, Congress would have to take Alcatraz out of the National Park Service. Critics of the plan say that Alcatraz is too rich in history to be destroyed. On February 6, 2008, the Alcatraz Island Global Peace Center Proposition C failed to pass, with 72% of voters rejecting the proposition.

Fauna and flora


  • Cisterns. A bluff that, because of its moist crevices, is believed to be an important site for California slender salamanders.
  • Cliff tops at the island's north end. Containing a onetime manufacturing building and a plaza, the area is listed as important to nesting and roosting birds.
  • The powerhouse area. A steep embankment where native grassland and creeping wild rye support a habitat for deer mice.
  • Tide pools. A series of them, created by long-ago quarrying activities, contains still-unidentified invertebrate species and marine algae. They form one of the few tide-pool complexes in the Bay, according to the report.
  • Western cliffs and cliff tops. Rising to heights of nearly , they provide nesting and roosting sites for sea birds including pigeon guillemots, cormorants, Heermann's Gulls and Western Gulls. Harbor seals can occasionally be seen on a small beach at the base.


Flowers on Alcatraz.
In the background a watch tower.
Gardens planted by families of the original Army post, and later by families of the prison guards, fell into neglect after the prison closure in 1963. After 40 years they are being restored by a paid staff member and many volunteers, thanks to funding by the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The untended gardens had become severely overgrown and had developed into a nesting habitat and sanctuary for numerous birds. Now, areas of bird habitat are being preserved and protected, while many of the gardens are being fully restored to their original glory.

In clearing out the overgrowth, many of the original plants were discovered to still be growing where they had been planted - some over 100 years ago. Numerous heirloom rose hybrids, including a Welsh rose that had been believed to be extinct, have been discovered and propagated. Many species of roses, succulents, and geraniums are to be found growing among apple and fig trees, banks of sweet peas, manicured gardens of cutting flowers, and wildly overgrown sections of native grasses with blackberry and honeysuckle.


Some visitors to the island claim to have heard men screaming, whistling, and talking, and doors clanging in the prison. As is likely with many prisons, deaths occurred in Alcatraz, and some believe that those who died in the prison haunt the island. Many guards and police officers reported to have seen or heard ghostly apparitions while guarding the building. There is also a report of a banjo playing in the shower, which might be linked to Al Capone.

On October 30th, 2009, an Othersiders special depicted the gang going to Alcatraz Island and the verdict was HAUNTED.

Video game

A video game based on, but not directly referencing, some famous escapes from the prison facility. The video game, entitled Alcatraz: Prison Escape, was released worldwide on November 23 2001. It was developed by Zombie Studios and published by Activision Value.

See also


  1. Alcatraz Island, USGS Geographic Names Information System.
  2. The March of Portolá and the Log of the San Carlos - Zoeth S. Eldredge & E. J. Molera - Log of the San Carlos
  3. The History of Alcatraz Island
  4. History: Military Fortress
  5. BOP: Alcatraz
  6. Alcatraz Island - History & Culture (U.S. National Park Service)
  7. "Albatross" in the American Heritage Dictionary
  8. Block 1067, Block Group 1, Census Tract 179.02, San Francisco County United States Census Bureau.
  11. BBC - h2g2 - Alcatraz, San Francisco, California, USA
  15. Historic Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields: Post at Alcatraz Island
  16. Alcatraz Preservation Project: Exposing the Layers of An American Landmark (pamphlet), Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, 2003.
  17. "The most painful story of resistance to assimilation programs and compulsory school attendance laws involved the Hopis in Arizona, who surrendered a group of men to the military rather than voluntarily relinquish their children. The Hopi men served time in federal prison at Alcatraz".
  18. A Brief History of Alcatraz Island
  19. Grosser, P., Block, H., Blackwell, A. S., & Berkman, A. (1933). Uncle Sam's Devil's Island: experiences of a conscientious objector in America during the World War. Boston, Mass: Published by a Group of friends. [1]
  20. Alcatraz Escape Attempts
  21. A Brief History of Alcatraz, p. 5.
  22. Roots of Justice, You Are Now on Indian Land, Larry R. Solomon, 2003
  23. Alcatraz Island
  24. Alcatraz Is Not an Island. "Indians of All Tribes", author. Berkeley, Wingbow Press, 1972
  25. Roots of Justice, You Are Now on Indian Land, Larry R. Solomon, 2003
  26. and
  27. Adams, Gerald D., Alcatraz Proposal Highlights Wildlife Plan Would Open Up More of Rock, San Francisco Examiner (July 27, 1993), News section, p. A1.
  28. Voters consider changing Alcatraz to peace center | U.S. | Reuters
  29. / Activist wants to transform Alcatraz into global peace center
  30. Local and National Politics - Democratic, Republicans News, Elections and Results | KNTV Bay Area - NBC 11.
  31. The History & Hauntings of Alcatraz.
  32. The Ghost of Alcatraz Island.
  33. America's Most Haunted Places.

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