Alcatraz – The story of an island

Alcatraz, the small island in San Francisco Bay, was named after the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. He named the land La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translates to Island of the Pelicans. He had no interest, since it was an uninhabited and barren terrain with minimal vegetation and treacherous icy currents.

With little to offer, Alcatraz was left alone for another 72 years. In 1847, the US Army claimed the island for use as a military fortification. Within a year, US Army engineers were hard at work building a military fortress and the first working lighthouse on the Pacific coast.

Once completed, the Alcatraz fortress became a symbol of military might. Its features included long-range iron guns and four 36,000-pound 15-inch Rodman guns, which were capable of sinking hostile ships up to three miles away. While Alcatraz’s image lived up to its reputation, the only round ever fired came from a 400-pound cannon. This was aimed at an unidentified ship, which missed. Within 20 years, rapid weaponry modernization has rendered the Army’s defenses at Alcatraz obsolete. Soon, the Army began to rethink the uses of its island.

The natural isolation made Alcatraz the ideal location for an Army penitentiary. In 1861, the island began its 102-year history of housing prisoners, first as an Army penitentiary and later as a federal prison.

Alcatraz was the Army’s debut as a prison for long-term sentences. Civil War prisoners were the first to arrive. The population remained small until 1898, when the Spanish-American War raised the prisoner count from 26 to more than 450. In 1906, a catastrophic earthquake in San Francisco forced the city to evacuate hundreds of prisoners to Alcatraz. The large influx of prisoners forced the expansion of the building. By 1912, a large three-story cell house had been built on the central ridge of the island. The structure had almost reached its full capacity by the end of the 1920s.

Rising operating costs led the military to close Alcatraz in 1934. Ownership of the island was turned over to the Department of Justice.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Great Depression caused an excessive increase in crime. The combination of Prohibition, mass unemployment, and desperate need fostered a new era of gangsters and organized crime. This new generation of criminals had taken over the big cities. Ordinary prisons were not doing a good job of keeping them behind bars. The federal government needed an “escape-proof” prison, where they could lock up the worst of these bad guys. At Alcatraz, the government found exactly that.

In April 1934, contractors began work to convert the military prison into a maximum-security federal prison. This new and improved Alcatraz was designed to hold no more than 300 prisoners. Only those convicted of federal crimes were sent to Alcatraz. These crimes included bank robbery, kidnapping, income tax evasion, evasion of military service, and murders related to these crimes. Alcatraz Federal Prison was designed strictly as a holding pen with no intention of rehabilitation.

Few prisoners were sent directly to Alcatraz when they were sentenced in court. The inmates arrived on the island through behavior problems and escape attempts. Being transferred out of Alcatraz was even more difficult. Talking was not an option. Inmates first had to earn their way to a different prison through good behavior.

James A. Johnston, the first of four keepers on Alcatraz, made the rules. He insisted on one guard for every three prisoners. The average ratio in other prisons at the time was one guard for every 10-13 inmates. The inmates had no commissary. Newspapers were not allowed; his reading material was censored and extremely limited. They had no television, and radio was banned until the mid-1950s. Inmates received no counseling and were not offered any classes or groups to join. Recreation was severely limited. Boredom was a continual and extreme problem for both inmates and prison guards.

Prisoners were allowed one visit a month, which first had to be approved by the warden. These visits lasted approximately 1 1/2 hours and were conducted through glass with the use of a telephone.

The most controversial of Johnston’s rules was the “Silent System”. Conversation of any kind between prisoners was prohibited. The prisoners were deprived of even the most basic human contact. Several inmates were reported to have gone insane due to this policy. Over the years, the silent system became too difficult to enforce. Four long years later, the policy was abandoned and never reinstated.

Alcatraz Federal Prison consisted of 336 cells in three cell blocks. The main corridor, called Broadway, housed 168 cells and was three stories high. Broadway offered little privacy to inmates, as this area received the most foot traffic. However, Cell Block D was by far the worst area of ​​the prison.

Called a special treatment unit, this area is also known as isolation, segregation, and loneliness. Five of the lower level cells earned the nickname “The Hole”. Each cell contained a sink, a toilet, and a low-voltage light bulb hung from the ceiling. The solid steel door had a small insert that opened to push out the prisoner’s food. Inmates were provided with thin mattresses to sleep on, but these were removed during the day. No form of entertainment was provided or permitted. The prisoner was cut off from all human contact, suffering extreme boredom and isolation.

The striptease cell was reserved for particularly difficult inmates. This was a dark, steel-lined cell with no bed, sink, or toilet. The door was solid steel that remained closed at all times. The prisoners were stripped naked and placed inside without blankets or light. The “toilet” was a hole in the ground. A thin mattress was provided for sleeping hours and then removed. This cell was a cold, foul, black void that was feared by even the most hardened criminals.

The time in “the hole” was not supposed to exceed 19 days, and the time in the strip cell was limited to two days. This rule, however, was not always adhered to. Reports were made of prisoners driven insane by the extreme sensory deprivation of the hole and the striptease cell.

In its 29 years as a federal prison, Alcatraz had 1,576 inmates. During that time, 14 escape attempts were made by a total of 36 inmates. Of these, 21 were returned alive, two were returned and executed, seven were shot to death and one drowned and his body was washed ashore.

Five prisoners, from two separate escape attempts, managed to get off the island. Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole disappeared in 1937 and Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin disappeared in 1962. Despite nationwide manhunts, none of these men were ever found and their bodies were never recovered. There is much controversy to this day as to whether any or all of these men made it out of the water alive.

Alcatraz’s structure began to deteriorate. By the 1950s, salty air had corroded metal and concrete. Around 1961, the power plant began to fail, causing electrical blackouts. The plumbing pipes were cracked and a major structural repair was required. During 1960-1961, the Bureau of Prisons spent $300,000 on renovations. Approximately $4 million more was needed.

Repairs weren’t the only factor in Alcatraz’s high maintenance costs. Due to its isolation, supplies, including water, had to be trucked in. This meant that even the daily expenses were much higher. The cost per inmate was nearly three times higher at Alcatraz than at other US prisons.

By the time of the last escape attempt in 1962, the decision had already been made to close Alcatraz. He had begun construction of the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the replacement for Alcatraz. On March 21, 1963, the last 27 prisoners were transferred from the prison to the island. Alcatraz officially closed in June 1963.

Aside from a caretaker and his wife, Alcatraz remained a desolate place as various parties pressured the government with development ideas. Nothing came of these ideas. Then, in 1969, a large group of American Indians landed on Alcatraz. A relatively unknown treaty with the US government in the 19th century allowed Native Americans to reclaim abandoned federal property. Using this treaty, the group claimed Alcatraz as “Indian Land”.

The Indians had an elaborate plan to transform Alcatraz, which included a Native American cultural educational center. Public support grew rapidly, with high-profile supporters from show business and the Hell’s Angels. This was both a blessing and a curse. The volume of visitors to the small island quickly became overwhelming. Sadly, Alcatraz soon became a haven for the homeless and abandoned population.

Before long, the Indians faced the same problems that blocked the administration of the prison; the total absence of natural resources and the enormous expenses. A series of difficulties culminated in a fire on June 1, 1970, which burned down what had been the Alcaide’s house, the lighthouse keeper’s residence, and the officers’ club. The Indian community fell apart. About a year later, on June 11, 1971, federal marshals removed the remaining occupants from Alcatraz.

In 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which included Alcatraz. The island was opened to the public in the fall of 1973. Today, Alcatraz is one of the most popular national historical parks, with more than a million visitors landing there each year.

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