As the cold waters rush into the San Francisco Bay, they crash up against an island standing in the strait. This rock is hidden by the fog and isolated by the chilling waters of the Pacific that flow in and out every day. It has a gloom that hangs about its rocky face most know it as Alcatraz but the men who experienced this island, referred to her as “The Rock”.
To the men confined there, it is not only the ultimate in isolation but the most ironic because they are there in the midst of the activity of a busy harbor with small craft darting to and from San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, Richmond, and Sausalito; within sound of the honking horns of a ceaseless procession of automobiles crossing the bridges; within sight of ocean liners as they glide through the Golden Gate to far away ports in the vast Pacific, and within sight and sound of air clippers and their buzzing motors, all reminding them that life is near but freedom is so far.
James A. Johnston
Alcatraz was the dreaded prison of all criminals. This penitentiary was a sign of long term confinement and isolation. The island has gone through many changes in its time, from serving as a military fort in the mid 1850s, as a military prison in the early 1900s, as a national prison in the mid 1900s and, as it is today, serving as a national museum and park.
The military took this island as a fort in 1909 and construction of a concrete cellblock was started on the uppermost plateau of the island. It was used as a military prison during these years. However, it soon became over crowded and three years later construction of the new cell house took place. Once completed, the inmates were moved into this cellhouse which had spacious cells, and more importantly, central heating. In addition, a well-equipped medical facility was now available onsite, thus eliminating the need to transfer sick, yet dangerous, inmates off the island for care in hospitals on the main land.
Life on Alcatraz, popularly named as “The Rock”, was not easy for the inmates. During the early years on Alcatraz, incarceration meant hard labor on the grounds of the island. However, by the mid 20’s, rumors began to circulate about the country of unspeakable conditions the inmates had to endure on the island. Outcry from the public persisted, forcing the military to make a decision. Faced with the expense of operating the island and increasing public discontent, the military closed its doors on the prison in 1933.
During the 1920’s and 30’s a new wave of crime had broke out across the United States. Because of the passing of the Volstead Act in 1920, production and distribution of alcohol became an extremely profitable business. With this also came a noticeable rise in organized crime in many of the big cities. Even worse, the crimes committed by members of these gangs became more violent. Soon prisons were overcrowded and were merely hold facilities. No correction was in mind for these prisoners. Convicts filled the empty hours with talk, mostly about the crimes they had committed and ways they could beat the law. Drug addicts and other petty offenders were mixed with killers and robbers. Young felons, who had taken to crime for no more than sheer pleasure or pride on a dare, came out of prison with no job skills but with plenty of advice from more experienced criminals. In 1933, J. Edgar Hoover was made the director of the recently established FBI agency. Hoover had plans to crack down on these criminals. The problem Hoover faced was that, no sooner were the criminals locked up than the crime organizations would bust them out. With this major problem in mind, the Justice Department began looking into a maximum-security prison that was not easy to access and therefore inescapable. When they came across Alcatraz, it was almost too good to be true.
By April of 1934, work began on Alcatraz to make the current cell house more secure by replacing soft iron square bars on the cells with new, rounded “tool proof”, bars. In addition to other changes, a new locking system was installed which allowed guards to open one cell at a time, instead of the whole block. Metal detectors were installed on the dock and at the entrance to the cell house. On top of all of these improvements, three new guard towers were constructed to keep a better look over the activities of the island. Soon Alcatraz was a fully operational penitentiary housing some of the hardest criminals in the world. Among these criminals were, Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. With hardened convicts like these, escapes were inevitable.
One of the most famous attempts to escape Alcatraz took place in 1939. Five men had been slowly sawing their way through the bars on their solitary confinement cells. Unlike the rest of the prison, these cells were not equipped with the “tool proof” bars. Early in the morning of January 13, the men broke out of their cells and by using a home-made spreader to part the “tool proof” bars, made it out of the cellhouse. The men ran for the water but were discovered thirty minutes after leaving their cells. One man surrendered as the other four ran for it. The chase continued with one man dead and the last three captured. As punishment, two of the men were sent to “dark cells”, solitary confinement cells that left the inmate in total darkness for 24 hours a day, except for a ten minute shower once a week. These two men spent two years in these conditions. Other escapes would take place after this, and the final escape led to the end of Alcatraz as a prison. The security of Alcatraz was questioned after the last escape in 1962, which was executed with relative ease. Ironically, the one thing that made Alcatraz such a secure prison was also the thing that was causing it’s demise. The salt water from the bay had taken its toll on the prison. The concrete in the cellhouses and other buildings absorbed much of the salt from the air and were quickly disintegrating. This is why it was so easy for this last escape to take place. It was estimated that it would take close to 5 million dollars to repair Alcatraz. That was a cost that the government was not willing to spend. The operating costs of Alcatraz were also looked over. The cost of shipping food and other supplies to the island was becoming more expensive and it was found that it was no longer cost efficient to keep “The Rock” in use. In 1963 Alcatraz was closed down by the decision of Robert F. Kennedy. Despite the closing of Alcatraz as a prison, there is still activity among these rocks.
This island, formerly a place of solitude and desolation, now serves as a National Park and museum. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established in 1972 and Alcatraz was included as one of these parks. Over one million people visit “The Rock” each year, including tourists from around the globe. The island of Alcatraz has become one of the most popular attractions in the Bay Area and its stories live on.
1. Gazis-Sax, Joel “American Siberia”
2. Bennet, James I Chose Prison”,
New York: Alfred Knopf, 1970, pp.87-88V., “
3. San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1934
4. Alcatraz Museum Hand Out:
“Discover Alcatraz A Tour of The Rock”