Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island (sometimes informally referred to as simply Alcatraz or by its pop-culture name, The Rock) is a small island located in the middle of San Francisco Bay in California, United States. It served as a lighthouse, then a military fortification, then a military prison followed by a federal prison until 1963, when it became a national recreation area.

Today, the island is a historic site supervised by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

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

It is home to the now abandoned prison, 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.

The first European to discover the island was Juan de Ayala in 1775, who charted the San Francisco Bay and named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces", which means "Island of the Pelicans".

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 brought thousands of ships to San Francisco Bay, creating an urgent need for a navigational lighthouse. In response, Alcatraz lighthouse #1 was erected and lit in the summer of 1853. As the first lighthouse built on the Pacific Coast, this third-order lens fresnel lighthouse contained a California Cottage design with a short tower protruding from the center, similar to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego and to the Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove. In 1856, a fog bell was added to the lighthouse.

After 56 years of use, Alcatraz lighthouse #1 was torn down in 1909 to make way for the construction of Alcatraz prison. Alcatraz lighthouse #2 was located next to the cellhouse and completed on December 1, 1909. Its 84-foot tower of concrete contained a smaller, fourth-order lens. In 1963, the fresnel lens of Alcatraz lighthouse #2 was replaced with an automated rotating beacon. The keepers were then discharged.

Alcatraz had a military installation established in 1850 which was later used as a military prison to incarcerate, amongst others, some Hopi Native American men.

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

Because of its natural isolation in the middle of a bay, surrounded by freezing waters and strong sea currents, Alcatraz was soon considered by the U.S. Army as an ideal location for holding captives. In 1861 the island began receiving Civil War prisoners from many different states, and in 1898 the Spanish-American war would bring the prison population from twenty-six to over four hundred fifty inmates.

In 1906, following the San Francisco earthquake (which destroyed much of the city), hundreds of civilian prisoners were transferred to the island for safety reasons. By 1912 a large cell house had been constructed on the island’s central crest, and by the late 1920’s, the three-story structure was nearly at full capacity.

Alcatraz was the Army’s first long-term prison, and it was already beginning to build its reputation as a tough detention facility by exposing inmates to harsh conditions and iron fisted discipline.The prisoners who violated the rules, faced strict disciplinary measures. Violators were assigned punishments that included, but were not limited to, working on hard labor details and solitary lock-downs with a severely restricted bread and water diet.

The average age for law-offending soldiers was twenty-four years, and most of the prisoners were serving short-term sentences for desertion or lesser crimes. However, it wasn't uncommon to find soldiers serving longer sentences for the more serious crimes of insubordination, assault, larceny and murder. One interesting element of the military order was that prisoners' cells were used only for sleeping, unless the inhabitant was in lock-down status. All prisoners were prohibited from visiting their cells during the day. Inmates with first or second class rankings were allowed to go anywhere about the prison grounds, except for the guards' quarters on the upper levels.

Despite the strict rules for criminals, Alcatraz primarily functioned in a minimum-security capacity. The types of work assignments given to inmates changed depending on the prisoners, their classification, and how responsible they were. Many inmates worked as general servants who cooked, cleaned, and attended to household works for the families who lived on the island. In many cases, select prisoners were given the responsibility to care for the children of staff members. Alcatraz was also the home of several Chinese families, who were employed as servants, and made up the largest segment of the island's civilian population. The lack of a strict focus on prison security helped some inmates who hoped to be able to escape from the prison. But in spite of their best efforts, most escapes never made it to land, and usually turned back to be rescued from the freezing waters. Those who failed to turn back died because of the cold water.

Over the decades the prison's routine became more relaxed, and recreational activities were more common. In the late 1920's prisoners were permitted to build a baseball field, and were even allowed to wear their own baseball uniforms. On Friday nights the Army hosted "Alcatraz Fights" that featured boxing matches between inmates selected from the prisoner population. These fights were really popular, and often regular people from San Francisco would come to Alcatraz just to see the fights.

Due to rising operational costs because of its location, the Military Department decided to close this famous prison in the year of 1934, and after that, this place was taken by the Department of Justice.

The Great Depression was a partial reason for a severe crime increase during the late 20's and 30's, which ended in a new era of organized crime. The gangster era was very strong, and the nation was witness to horrific violence, which was brought on by the combined forces of prohibition and great need. The American people watched in fear as influential gangsters and public enemies gained heavy influence on metropolitan cities and their authorities. Law enforcement agencies were not equipped to deal with the situation, and would frequently be beaten by better armed gangs in a shoot-out.

Alcatraz was the best solution that the government could find to solve this problem. It could serve the dual purpose of placing public enemies away from the people, and as a warning to this new and ruthless brand of criminals that were causing trouble in the streets from all over the country. Sanford Bates, the head of the Federal Prisons, and Attorney General Homer Cummings led the project, and they were responsible for the finely detailed design concepts. One of the best security experts, Robert Burge, was asked to help design a prison that had to be escape-proof . The original cellblock, built in 1909, would go into a process of extensive upgrades and renovations.

In April of 1934, the work gave the military prison a new face and a new identity to the prison. The soft squared bars were replaced with very modern tool-proof iron bars. Electricity was routed into each cell, and all of the utility tunnels were cemented to completely remove the possibility that a prisoner could enter or hide in them for escape purposes. Tool-proof iron window coverings would protect all the areas that could be accessed by inmates. Special gun galleries surrounded the cellblock perimeters, allowing guards to carry weapons while being protected behind iron barriers. These secure galleries, which were elevated and out of reach of the prisoners, were be the control center for all keys, and would allow the guards the ability to keep an eye on all the inmate activities.

Special teargas canisters were permanently installed in the roof of the dining hall, and they could be remotely activated from both the gun gallery and the outside observation points. Guard towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter, and new technology allowed the use of metal detectors, which were positioned outside of the dining hall and on the Prison Industries access paths. The cellhouse contained a total of nearly 600 cells, which were very far from the perimeter wall. If an inmate managed to tunnel his way through the cell wall, they would still need to find a way to escape from the cellhouse itself. The inmates would only be assigned to B, C, and D blocks, since the primary prison population would not exceed 300 inmates. The implementation of these new measures, combined with the natural isolating barrier created by the very cold Bay waters, meant that the prison was ready to receive the nation's most incorrigible and dangerous criminals.

If the prison of Alcatraz was going to be the most secure prison in the world, they needed a good warden to take care of it. The Bureau of Prisons selected James A. Johnston as the new Warden of Alcatraz. Johnston was an ideal choice, because of his strict ideals and humanistic approach to reforming criminals and sending them back to society. He came to the position with a strong background in business, and more than twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections. James Johnston had been chosen as the Warden of San Quentin Prison in 1913, and had also served a brief appointment at Folsom Prison. He had become well known for the programs he implemented in the interest of prisoner reform. He didn't believe in chain gangs, but instead thought that inmates should report to a job where they were respected and rewarded for their efforts.

Nicknamed the "Golden Rule Warden", Johnston was praised in newspapers for improvements made in California highways, many of which were graded by prisoners in his road camps. Although inmates were not compensated for their work monetarily, they were rewarded with sentence reductions. Johnston also established several educational programs at San Quentin that proved successful with a good number of inmates. But despite his humane approach to reform, he also carried a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. His rules of conduct were among the most rigid in the correctional system, and harsh punishments were given to inmates who broke prison regulations. During his term at "Q," Warden Johnston oversaw the executions by hanging of several inmates, and he was not unfamiliar with the challenges of managing the most vicious criminals of society.

As Warden of Alcatraz, Johnston was given the authority to hand pick his correctional officers from the entire Federal prison system. Working together with Federal Prisons Director Sanford Bates, the new warden devised new regulations under which the prison would operate. To begin with, it was established that prisoners would have to earn their transfer to Alcatraz from other prisons, and no one would be directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Inmates who looked for an attorney to represent them while incarcerated at Alcatraz would have to do so by direct request to the Attorney General.

All privileges would be limited, and no single inmate, regardless of his public stature, would be given special rights or freedoms. Inmates arriving at Alcatraz were driven in a small transfer van to the top of the hill. They were processed in the basement area, and were then provided with all of their basic things and allowed a brief shower.

Visitation rights would have to be earned by the inmates, and no visits would be allowed for the first three months of residence at Alcatraz. All visits would have to be approved directly by the Warden, and their number would be limited to only one per month. Inmates would be given restricted access to the Prison Library, but no newspapers, radios, magazines, or other non-approved reading materials would be allowed during their term in Alcatraz. Receiving and sending mail would be considered a privilege, and all letters both in-coming and out-going were to be screened and type-written after being censored by prison officials. Work was also seen as a privilege and not a right, and consideration for work assignments would be based on an inmate's conduct record. The type of work could vary for each prisoner, and those working places were the most valuable thing a prisoner could have.

Each prisoner would be assigned their own cell, and only the basic minimum life necessities would be given, such as food, water, clothing, and medical and dental care, no other things were given to them. The prisoners contact with the outside world was completely restricted during their term in Alcatraz. This policy was so rigidly enforced that the inmates were never even allowed to explore the cellhouse, which made escape attempts more difficult. They would be marched from one location to another, always in a unified formation in the exact same places. The prison routine was rigid and unrelenting, day after day, year after year. As quickly as a given privilege could be earned for good behavior, it could be taken away for the slightest infraction of the rules. That enforced the prisoners not only to earn the privileges, but to try to conserve them for the rest of their term.

Wardens from the various Federal penitentiaries were interviewed, and they were permitted to send their most incorrigible inmates into secure confinement on The Rock. The prison population at Alcatraz was made up of inmates who had histories of unmanageable behavior or escape attempts, and high-profile inmates who had been receiving special privileges because of their public status.

The inmates' day began when they were woken at 6:30 a.m., and they were given twenty-five minutes to clean their cells and stand to be counted. At 6:55 a.m. individual tiers of cells would be opened one by one, and the inmates would march in single line into the Mess Hall. They would be given only twenty minutes to eat, and then would be marched out to line up for their work assignments. The methodical cycle of the prison routine was unforgiving. It never changed through the years, and was very precise and reliable.

The main corridor of the cellhouse was named "Broadway" by the inmates, and the cells along this passageway were considered the least desirable in the prison. The cells on the bottom tier were colder because they stood against the long slick run of cement, and they were also the least private, as inmates, guards, and other prison personnel frequented this corridor. The newer were generally assigned to the second tier of B Block, and were placed in quarantine status for the first three months of their term on The Rock.

There was a ratio of one guard to every three prisoners on Alcatraz, as compared with other prisons, in which the ratio exceeded one guard to every twelve inmates, a measure which was meant to prevent the prisoners from trying to escape. With the Gun Galleries at each end of the cellblocks, placed under lock to keep them away from prisoners, and the frequent inmate counts (twelve per day), the guards were able to keep extremely close track of each and every inmate in Alcatraz. Because of the small total number of prisoners at Alcatraz, all of the guards usually knew each inmate by their name.

In the early years at Alcatraz, Warden Johnston maintained a silence policy that many inmates considered to be their most unbearable punishment. Many complaints were posted for this matter. There were reports that several inmates were being driven insane by the severe rule of silence on Alcatraz. The silence policy was later relaxed, but this was one of only a few policy changes that occurred over the prison's history.

The single Strip Cell, also known as the "Oriental," was a dark steel covered cell with no toilet or sink. There was only a hole in the floor for the inhabitant to relieve himself, and even the ability to flush the contents was controlled by a guard. Inmates were placed in the cell without clothing, and were put on severely restricted diets. The cell had a standard set of bars with an expanded opening through which to pass food, and a solid steel outer door that remained closed, leaving the inmate in total darkness. Inmates were usually subjected to this degree of punishment for periods of only one to two days. The cell was cold, and the sleeping mattress was only allowed during the night, and was taken away during the daylight hours. This was considered the most invasive type of punishment for severe violations and misconduct, and it was genuinely feared by all the inmates.

During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary logged no prisoners as having ever successfully escaped. Thirty-four prisoners were involved in 14 attempts, two men trying twice; seven were shot and killed, two drowned, five were unaccounted for, and the rest were recaptured. Two prisoners made it off the island but were returned, one in 1945 and one in 1962. The most violent attempt was the so-called Battle of Alcatraz in 1946, in which three prisoners and two guards were killed and two prisoners were later executed for their participation in the battle.

The most famous escape attempt involved Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, popularized in the motion picture Escape from Alcatraz. The three disappeared from their cells on June 11, 1962 in one of the most intricate escapes ever devised.

Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3-foot wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiselled 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 stole several raincoats to use as a raft for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells, the prisoners are estimated to have entered San Francisco Bay at 10pm.

The official investigation by the FBI 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 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 Island, and the official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay.

In 2003, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, the co-hosts of the San Francisco-based Discovery Channel television series MythBusters, sought to prove whether the escapees could have survived. Using similar materials to those used in 1962, they constructed an inflatable raft from 30 rubber raincoats and made plywood paddles. Hyneman and Savage selected a date when the tide direction and rate matched that of the escape attempt, and with another crew member, Will Abbot, standing in for the third prisoner, they were able to paddle with the outgoing tide to the Marin Headlands, near the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. The trip took 40 minutes and Hyneman and Savage agreed that the escape could have succeeded.

Also, tests using the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' scale model of San Francisco Bay indicated that paddles or other debris thrown into the water from the landing location would be carried by the returning tide to Angel Island. This proved that the escape was possible with the resources available to the escapees and provided an explanation for the location of the escape debris found by the FBI. (Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman had drawn a similar conclusion using scale models of San Francisco bay, but the segment was cut for time and not seen until their "MythBusters Outtakes" special over a year after the original episode.)

Leading Alcatraz historian Frank Heaney has spoken to relatives of the Anglin brothers who claim to have received postcards from South America signed by the two, but Frank Morris was never heard from again. Despite these claims, the actual fate of the escapees remains unknown; a $1,000,000 reward offered by the Alcatraz ferry operator Red & White Fleet. in 1993 for the prisoners' recapture remains unclaimed.

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.

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 syphilis and being transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in California.

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. George "Machine Gun" Kelly was returned to Leavenworth in 1951.

By decision of US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the penitentiary was closed for good 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), 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 Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a new, traditional land-bound prison opened that same year to serve as a replacement for Alcatraz.

In 1969, a group of American Indians from many different tribes, calling themselves Indians of All Tribes (many individual Indians voluntarily 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 1868 Fort Laramie treaty between the US and the Sioux conceded all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land to the Native people from whom it was acquired. During the occupation, several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires, including the recreation hall, the Coast Guard quarter and the Warden's home. It is not known who started the fires if anyone at all. A number of other buildings (mostly apartments) were destroyed by the US Government after the occupation had ended. After 18 months of occupation, the government forced the occupiers off. But the end of the Termination policy and the new policy of self-determination were established in 1970, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. Graffiti from the period of American Indian occupation is still visible at many locations on the island.

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 have been protests for several months and several demonstrations with nearly 1,000 participants.

A view of Alcatraz is often used in an establishing shot of films and television shows set in San Francisco. It plays a more-direct role in a number of movies, books, and video games:

* Birdman of Alcatraz - starring Burt Lancaster
* Escape from Alcatraz - starring Clint Eastwood
* Point Blank - starring Lee Marvin
* The Enforcer - third installment in the Dirty Harry series where terrorists use Alcatraz after the Mayor of San Francisco is kidnapped.
* Murder in the First - starring Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater and Gary Oldman
* The Rock - movie that used Alcatraz as the base of hostage situation, starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, with Ed Harris as a renegade general controlling the location of the rockets and renegades.
* Lupin III: Alcatraz Connection - In the 2001 installment of the Lupin III anime movie series, Alcatraz is a central location utilized by a villainous sect.
* Al Capone Does My Shirts, a novel about a boy and his autistic sister living on Alcatraz Island
* Alcatraz, a follow-up to the computer game Hostages was released in 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST and DOS. It was a side-scrolling shoot-em-up with some first-person indoor sequences. The plot involved US Navy SEALS rescuing hostages from a terrorist-occupied Alcatraz.
* Alcatraz is a playable level in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 and has many features of the real Alcatraz, but has been adapted for gameplay purposes.
* There are two chapters (five levels) that take place in Alcatraz in Hulk where the Hulk must investigate gamma-powered soldiers underground Alcatraz.
* X-Men: The Last Stand features Alcatraz as the development center for a controversial "cure" for mutants. It is here the final battle between Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants and Professor Xavier's X-Men takes place.
* In DC Comics continuity, Alcatraz is an active metahuman prison (Teen Titans vol. 3 #1).
* In "World of Warcraft" one of the instanced dungeons is named Arcatraz, a very similar name. The Arcatraz is also a prison. There is also an island in Dustwallow Marsh on the continent of Kalimdor named Alcaz Island that holds an important political prisoner.
* Was the main plot for The Power of Two, an episode of the popular WB series, Charmed
* In the video game Shadow Hearts: From the New World, the party travels to Alcatraz in order to save Al Capone.
* In the game Yuri's Revenge the first mission involves you destroying a fortification made by Yuri on Alcatraz Island.
* In a version of the popular video game San Francisco Rush, Alcatraz is the main setting
* In the game Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3, you have to rescue several hostages from Alcatraz Prison.
* In the 1993 Mike Myers movie "So I Married an Axe Murderer", Myers' character Charlie and his friend tour Alcatraz. Phil Hartman plays the tour guide.
* The video for the Scorpions song "No One Like You" was recorded at - and features footage of - Alcatraz.
* In Yuugiou Duel Monsters, the Battle City Finals are held at Alcatraz Island.

* The Spanish swimmer David Meca was the first to cross swimming the waters between Alcatraz and San Francisco.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home