Alcatraz: 10 Unbelievable Facts You Didn't Know
Escaping Alcatraz? Just one look at this bleak, foreboding island makes one thing crystal clear: this is not a place for a glamorous vacation. It's isolated, barren, cold and damp. In short, it was the perfect place to teach some of the country’s most hardened criminals a lesson. The intent was to serve as a place for those who were uncooperative and disruptive in other prisons - and eventually for them to be returned to complete the rest of their sentences afterwards.
Most of the prisoners at Alcatraz were notorious bank robbers and murderers. The prison initially had a staff of 155, including the first warden James A. Johnston and associate warden J. E. Shuttleworth, both considered to be "iron men". The staff were highly trained in security, but not rehabilitation. During the 29 years it was in use, the prison held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, including gangsters such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz"), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, James "Whitey" Bulger, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families.
The sight of the island in San Francisco Bay is an eerie one, over a mile out and often surrounded by a dense sheet of fog. Alcatraz is a prison surrounded by another prison of ice-cold water. This had a psychological effect on the prisoners, quelling any thoughts of escape. Although the island is surrounded by water, it is a literal rock: no water flowed and each week over one million gallons were sent to the island.
The prison was also unique in that it offered its inmates hot showers. However, this was far from being a courtesy. It was to make the prisoners less familiar with cold water and therefore, less inclined to attempt escape. A myth also existed that the bay was infested with sharks. This was not true and the only sharks that lived in the bay were harmless, though the guards probably kept this secret close to their chests.
Alcatraz was built atop a military fort dating back to the 1850s and only became a Federal Prison in 1934. To inmates, the "Spanish Dungeon" was a product of the old fort and used to torture prisoners who stepped badly out of line. The dungeon, built by military prisoners between 1901-1911, generated many myths among inmates.
It was rumored to have been built during the Spanish Inquisition and was below sea level. Although the old brick and constant dripping made this seem likely, the dungeon was a 20th-century construction.
Punishment at Alcatraz was extreme. At the dungeon, prisoners were chained up standing in total darkness, often with no food and regular beatings. These punishments often lasted for as long as 14 days and by 1942, the dungeon was found to be unnecessarily cruel and closed. Cell Block D was dubbed "The Hole" since the cells were composed of only a hole to be used as a toilet. Inmates were poorly fed while in The Hole, beaten often, and experienced sensory deprivation for days on end. Prisoners would be force-fed during hunger strikes and cells were a mere five feet by nine feet.
Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison and notoriously rigid in its rules and day to day life. This, coupled with the solitude of being on an island led to the deterioration of many prisoners' mental health. One inmate famously chopped off his fingers while working, but most prisoners were stir crazy, meaning the mundanity of their everyday lives had them living as husks, repeating their days soullessly.
On most nights, guards would practice their shooting on dummies as the prisoners listened. The following day, inmates would walk by these dummies observing the guards' accuracy. This had a harsh psychological effect on the inmates. Prisoners spent most of their time alone, rarely socializing with other inmates. Also, visits were highly restrictive and controlled. Allowed only once a month, the inmate was separated by his visitor by a window and a guard closely monitored both the inmate and visitor.
Alcatraz Al Capone
In 1934, one of America’s most notorious prisoners, gangster Al Capone, was carted off from an Atlanta penitentiary to the United States’ most cutting-edge prison: a maximum-security prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. You’d think that Capone, who was technically imprisoned for tax evasion but spent years as a brutal Mafia boss, might have spent his days in jail trying to get out. But by the time he arrived at Alcatraz, he was in no condition to flee. In Atlanta, where he had served the initial part of his sentence, he had been given special privileges, entertained near-constant visitors and used piles of cash to pay off prison guards.
But things were different in Alcatraz. For one thing, Public Enemy No. 1 was suffering from syphilis (some biographers even think that the disease explains some of his erratic, murderous behavior). He was also watched closely by the warden of Alcatraz, who refused to grant him any of those special privileges he had previously enjoyed.
Capone had bribed guards to receive preferential treatment while serving his tax-evasion sentence in Atlanta, but that changed after his transfer to the island prison. The conditions broke Capone. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” he reportedly told his warden. In fact, Convict No. 85 became so cooperative that he was permitted to play banjo in the Alcatraz prison band, the Rock Islanders, which gave regular Sunday concerts for other inmates.
Escapees From Alcatraz
Alcatraz saw eight murders, five suicides, and 15 natural deaths, as well as 36 escape attempts. None, however, have successfully escaped. Many argue that three men did, in fact, in July 1962. Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin managed to escape from their cells and attempted to flee the island by using a makeshift raft.
On June 12, 1962, the routine early morning bed check turned out to be anything but. The Three convicts were not in their cells: John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris were missing. In their beds were cleverly built dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair that apparently fooled the night guards. The prison went into lock down, and an intensive search began. The trio’s extraordinary escape, in which they used sharpened spoons to dig through the walls was made famous in the 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz. Some believe the men successfully escaped.
Escape Room Alcatraz
The Anglin Brothers. Did They Make It?
Morris and the Anglin brothers were assumed to have drowned after fleeing the island on a raft made of 50 inflated raincoats, but new facial-recognition analysis appears to prove that they were, in fact, successful in their escape. In 2015, a grainy photo emerged that was taken by a family friend of the Anglins, who were allegedly living in Brazil in 1975.
Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.
Even the most typical of Alcatraz's 336 cells was pretty far from comfy, measuring a tiny five by nine feet, which is about the distance of two arms outstretched. Typically they were very basic, consisting of a bed, sink, toilet, and basic table to write or read. What else could an inmate do with lights out at 9 at night and isolated days?These tiny cells, coupled with everything on this list, made life both as monotonous and miserable as possible for these prisoners and it's no wonder the infamous prison had many suicides and broke many minds and spirit.
Robert Stroud (Birdman Of Alcatraz)
While Robert Stroud was serving a manslaughter sentence for killing a bartender in a brawl, he fatally stabbed a guard at Leavenworth Prison in 1916. After President Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to a life of permanent solitary confinement, Stroud began to study ornithological diseases, write and illustrate two books and raise canaries and other birds in his Leavenworth cell.
He was ordered to give up his birds in 1931, and he was banned from having any avian cellmates during his 17 years inside Alcatraz, which began in 1942. The 1962 movie “Birdman of Alcatraz,” for which Burt Lancaster received an Academy Award nomination just weeks before “The Rock” closed, was largely fictitious.
While Alcatraz was certainly not Club Med, its tough-as-nails reputation was a bit of a Hollywood creation. The prison’s one-man-per-cell policy appealed to some inmates because it made them less vulnerable to attack by fellow jailbirds.
Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston, knew poor food was often the cause of prison riots, so he prided himself on serving good food, and inmates could return for as many helpings as they wanted. Inmates who behaved had access to privileges including monthly movies and a library with 15,000 books and 75 popular magazine subscriptions. Overall, some prisoners considered the conditions inside Alcatraz to be more attractive than at other federal prisons, and several asked to be moved there.
It was possible to swim to shore. Federal officials may have initially doubted that any escaping inmates could survive the swim to the mainland across the cold, swift waters of San Francisco Bay, but it did happen. In 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott greased himself with lard, squeezed through a window and swam to shore. He was so exhausted upon reaching the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge that police discovered him lying unconscious in hypothermic shock. Today, hundreds complete the 1.5-mile swim annually during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
Why Alcatraz Closed
After two decades of intense scrutiny relating to operating costs and confinement practices, on Thursday, March 21, 1963, the end of an era arrived with the official closure of Alcatraz. The physical structures on Alcatraz were indicating wear and tear that would cost the government millions of dollars to keep the prison running to standard. A new prison would be constructed at Marion, Illinois to continue incarceration of inmates whose character did not “readily accustom themselves to the discipline of ordinary penitentiaries or avail themselves of the opportunities for training and self improvement.” The Marion facility, more centrally located to service the network of federal prisons would take over the role that Alcatraz held for nearly three decades. Whether it simply a perception or an origin of truth, the brutality conditions at Alcatraz proved too controversial in an era when prisons were supposedly committed to the rehabilitation of prisoners.
In late August of 1962, the rumors of Alcatraz closing were confirmed when transfer orders for prisoners started flowing in with the first official chain of six inmates was set for permanent departure to USP Leavenworth on September 10, 1962. On August 9, 1962, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, James Bennett wrote an official statement to the press announcing its closure and offered insight into their decision. Following an extensive engineering study of the physical structures to determine safety and operational effectiveness, it was determined that Alcatraz deteriorated to the point where it was potentially unsafe for both inmates and staff. The support structures were at the point where it “soon would be unable” support the cell blocks, or withstand an earthquake of significant magnitude. Included in his report were references that the catwalks for officers were no longer safe, and the electrical system was subject to a catastrophic “at any time.” It was concluded by an assessment firm that it would cost over $4,000,000 and take nearly five years to bring the prison back to standard. In brief, he made clear that Alcatraz’s days were now numbered.
Is it worth visiting Alcatraz? Yes! If you're visiting San Francisco and you want to check out Alcatraz, then book a tour. It's a great way to get a real insight into how life was on "The Rock". You can book here
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