Alcatraz Island or ‘The Rock’ as it is commonly known, is located around 1.5 miles off the coast of mainland San Francisco in the bay area. Although it has been used for several purposes over the years, it is most famous as the notorious Federal Penitentiary.
It was once developed as a lighthouse and is home to the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States. Alcatraz was also used as a military prison from 1868 before more famously being used as the well known Federal Penitentiary between 1933 and 1963. The island also had a brief spell of occupation by a group of Aboriginals (‘Indians’) from 1969 to 1971 during a period of native activism across the country. Alcatraz has since become a national recreation area in 1972 and also National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, it is possible to tour Alcatraz Island as a mere tourist, as the island is now managed by the National Park Service. Ferry rides are operated from Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 33 in San Francisco under the name of Alcatraz Cruises. Visitors to the island are able to tour parts of the abandoned prison, including how inmates famously tried to escape the prison. Notable landmarks on the site that can be seen on tours include the dining hall, main cell block, library, Warden’s house, Officer’s Club, dining hall, recreation yard, water tower, morgue and more.
Alcatraz as a Federal Penitentiary
After earlier being used as a military prison for the United States Government, the United States Department of Justice acquired the prison on October 12, 1933, officially opening for business on August 11, 1934 with first batch of prisoners arriving from Leavenworth in Kansas and Santa Venetia, California. Originally, the prison had 155 staff and was led my warden James A. Johnston, the first of four wardens who would be in charge of Alcatraz. Although the staff were highly trained in terms of security, at the time they were certainly not trained in rehabilitation.
During the time that it was open, Alcatraz was home to some very famous inmates including Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Mickey Cohen and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger to name but a few. Prison staff and their families were also housed on the island with children ferried to and from the mainland each day for school. Alcatraz has had numerous escape attempts over the years, although the prison claimed that no inmate successfully escaped. Of course this may be the official verdict but it is not known for certain if any inmates managed to escape. This is due to the most famous escape attempt made in June 1962 by Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin. The men used spoons to dig holes in the back of their cells over the course of a year so that they could escape into an unused service corridor behind. They used sophisticated methods to conceal their escape creating dummy heads and a fake air vent to cover the holes they had made. This bought them some time as they would have passed the guards nightly inspections.
Once they were able to get into the service corridor, they used the vast network of pipes to climb up and access the roof. They then escaped to the water before using a makeshift raft to try and escape to the mainland. To this day, no one knows for sure if they managed to escape. Some believe that they made it, and other presume that they drowned in the icy bay water.
With the prison costing more than three times as much to run as other federal penitentiaries, it was decided that the prison must eventually close, and on the 21st March 1963, it did. The replacement for Alcatraz was the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, housing the prisoners that had been moved from Alcatraz.
Tips for Visiting
Of course, visiting Alcatraz is well recommended, especially if it is your first time in San Francisco. Be aware though, that even if it is a nice sunny day on the mainland, the weather can easily become foggy and bitterly cold on Alcatraz Island so make sure you take a jacket! Make sure you book well in advance, particularly in peak season as tours can often sell out. Travazzle recommends booking the night tour, for that extra creepy experience of seeing The Rock in the dark! Not only this but the night tour also includes a narrated boat tour around the island, not to mention the sunset views of San Francisco. Alcatraz tours are also a great way of seeing the San Francisco city skyline, with fantastic views that can be enjoyed on the boat trip to the island.
More photos of Alcatraz: