Alcatraz Island is the first US built fort located on the West Coast. This island is opulent in history, and there is a natural bounty to the Rock such as bird colonies, gardens, tide pools and bay views. Alcatraz Island has a unique part in the history of America. Most are aware of this place as an inescapable federal prison that has the worst racketeers, gangsters, and kidnappers. Alcatraz has a great history after and before its term, and the history includes wayward soldiers, civil war era traitor’s detention and then the American Indian activists. Alcatraz was a firsthand history and now a part of the Golden gate national recreation area.
Alcatraz acquired this name from Juan Manuel de Ayala, the Spanish explorer according to the National Park Service. In 1775, he sailed into the San Francisco Bay and noticed on a particular island many pelicans. Thus, while mapping the landmarks, he referred it as island La Isla de Alcatrices (The Island of the Pelicans). That name, became Alcatraz as it was Americanized and remained the same.
Alcatraz transformed into a federal prison, but its operational roots remained as a military fortress. President Millard Fillmore in 1850 declared it as a military fortress, and the Union by 1859 had stationed troops to keep rebel sympathizers under check so that they did not overtake the San Francisco Bay, thereby bringing California into the Confederacy. Thus the base was never again attacked.
The history of Alcatraz as a federal prison started earnestly in the 1930s with U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings idea. Cummings imagined a particular prison for the dangerous criminals, especially for the kidnappers, attackers, racketeers and other predatory thieves, as per the National Park Service. Alcatraz was the right place to fit the bill to accommodate the fearsome and was a remote place. The prison opened to house the worst offenders in 1934 as a place from federal institutions around the country. The very first warden who served here was James A. Johnston, an experienced correctional administrator, and officer and a California businessman.
The Civil war came to an end by 1865 and Alcatraz weaponry became archaic. However, the island was not useless, and the wayward soldiers in fact from the country were sent to serve time in Alcatraz as it was regarded to be a military prison. The Californians convicted during the Civil War of treason and were also sent there and with the United States westward expansion, 19 Hopi Indians also reached Alcatraz after a land dispute in 1895 in northern Arizona. Alcatraz had military prisoners after and during the Spanish-American war, and in 1915 the Army worked on the actual use of the prison. They believed that such a huge military prison indicates the soldiers were unruly and in 1933 the Army left the island.
Alcatraz Island housed high profile thieves and gangsters; some were the biggest post- Depression-era celebrities of America. The well-known inmates included Al Capone, the Chicago gangster and “Machine Gun” Kelly, the bank robber/kidnapper George. Another inmate became famous for that he did in prison. He was a convicted murderer Robert Stroud, and he looked after birds, besides wrote two books on them and their diseases. In 1951, the story inspired Burt Lancaster film ”The Birdman of Alcatraz”
Escape From Alcatraz
Alcatraz was being operated as a federal prison, and the inmates here tried to escape 14 times in the 29 years period. As per the record, no one ever escaped this prison. The escapees were captured, drowned in the San Francisco Bay waters or shot dead, as per Alcatraz History site. The escape that was the best was the mastermind of Frank Morris, and that was reproduced in ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ film by Clint Eastwood. This took place in 1962, June 11. Morris and his three partners plotted an elaborate plan after spending months and this included using dummy heads using toilet paper with hair from the barbershop of the prison and the prison art kits paint in flesh color were used. The inmates planned to get free by riding a raft built from stolen and borrowed prison raincoats. Morris and his two partners who were brothers, John and Clarence Anglin were never found and even Allen West; the co-conspirator could never make it through his attempts to remove from his cell the air grate.
In 1969 November collegiate American Indian activists hired a boat to Alcatraz and claimed the island, saying it belonged to them and it was taken from his people. Until June 1971, they staged a full-scale occupation, as federal authorities retook the island. Thus it gave rise to the “Red Power” movement, as per the National Park Service, and thus there was a change seen in the federal government’s policy on American Indian tribes. Today, Alcatraz maintained as a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area by the National Park Service as. Only private ferries are operated to this island and the National Park Service recommends visitors to get their tickets in advance.
The prison now
Alcatraz was a”supermax”; federal prison, out of the modern fortified systems seen in Florence, Colorado that featured cameras, motion detectors, pressure pads, remote- controlled steel doors and razor wire twelve foot tall fences.
Alcatraz meant “strange birds” or pelicans, as per the Bureau of Prisons website. It was a fort originally for military and then became U.S. official military prison in 1907 and remained until 1933.
The cells were very small, hardly the size of a closet. In fact, the B and C blocks had five by 9 feet cells with a small sink and a toilet, where the sink had only cold running water. Today, the closets are six by 6 feet or even bigger.
Alcatraz has beautiful gardens and this is because Alcatraz remained an active prison, as its officers and their families planted gardens. However, many plants survived the neglect even after decades as the prison remain closed. Only in 2003, the Gardens of Alcatraz entered into a partnership with National Park Service and have got it restored and are maintaining them. They provide guided tours as well.
Birdwatchers are sure to love Alcatraz. In this island, you can see seabirds much closer whereas in other places using binoculars is a must. Among the species, you can see snowy egrets, cormorants, western gulls, black crowned night herons and orange footed pigeon guillemots, among the many more bird species.
Families who lived on Alcatraz in the prison years included the guards and officers with their spouses and children. The prison was never full: The average number was 260 of prisoners, but only nearly 222 and as many as 320 remained occupied.
Alcatraz did not have facilities to executed death penalty, though few prisoners did in imprisonment and this was because other inmates murdered them, while some committed suicide and few of natural causes.
Alcatraz may be haunted: There are paranormal occurrences reported, and it suggests Al Capone may be in this list of “haunts”
Facts to know
1. Al Capone, the great gangster, played banjo in the inmate band. He was a mob boss and the first to come to new Alcatraz federal prison. Capone bribed guards so that he receives preferential treatment as he was in Atlanta on tax-evasion sentence and this changed when he was in the island prison. In Alcatraz he started playing banjo and gave for other inmates regular Sunday concerts.
2. Alcatraz confirmed no escapes though 36 inmates tried escaping, 23 were captured, two drowned and six shot to death. Five went missing and were believed to have drowned. This included Fran Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin who tried escaping. The crafty trio used sharp spoons and chipped the rotting concrete cell walls and fashioned decoy heads using hair locks from the barbershop such that they placed it on their beds and fooled the guards. Of course, their bodies were not recovered, though their possessions were found in San Francisco Bay floating and some also speculated they may have escaped.
3. Robert Stroud killed a bartender and was on a manslaughter sentence and in 1916 he stabbed a guard that he was given death sentence to a solitary confinement that Stroud began studying ornithological diseases and also wrote two books. He was banned from having inside Alcatraz any avian cellmates in his 17 years imprisonment that started in 1942. However, the movie ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ in 1962 made Burt Lancaster a nominee of Academy Award before the Alcatraz Island closed and it was fictitious.
4. The worst criminals in the country were not shipped automatically to Alcatraz. They were housed in Alcatraz means they were not prisoners who committed the most heinous crimes. In fact, they were prisoners who needed some attitude adjustment. Their mistake was they had attempted escape by bribing guards, and they were sent to Alcatraz aiming to follow the rules and to return to other federal facilities.
5. Swimming to shore was possible. Initially, federal officials doubted the escaping inmates can survive the swim in the San Francisco Bay cold and swift waters and could reach the mainland. Prisoner John Paul Scott, in 1962 greased himself using lard and squeezed through a window and reached the shored by swimming. However, he was exhausted on reaching the Golden Gate Bridge that he was identified by the police as he lay unconscious due to hypothermic shock.