Alcatraz Island: the prison's true stories and myths

The highest security federal prison for 29 years
It's become a legend in itself
How to get there
Its name comes from Spain
The Hopi resistence
Incarceration didn't work
The impregnable prison
One successful escape in 29 years
So close, yet so far
Alcatraz Triatlon
The only prison with hot showers
An average of 8 years per prisoner
Famous criminals of Alcatraz
Victor Lustig meets Al Capone
Better than other prisons
Individual rooms
Tiny cells
Rumors of ghosts
'Birdman of Alcatraz'
Lights out and absolute silence
Civilians also lived on the island
It was a very expensive prison
Student occupation of Alcatraz
Eviction and victory
Azkaban Prison
It was also a movie set
How much does it cost to go to Alcatraz Prison?
The highest security federal prison for 29 years

Located in the centre of San Francisco Bay, California, Alcatraz Island is famous around the world for having been a maximum security federal prison between 1934 and 1963.

It's become a legend in itself

So much so, that it's been considered a National Park since 1972 and is open to tourist visits. It is estimated that 1.5 million people pass through its dependencies each year.

How to get there

To get to Alcatraz Island, you have to take the ferry at Pier 33, very close to Fisherman's Wharf, in San Francisco. But for those who won't be going, here are some curiosities about the famous prison...

Its name comes from Spain

The first curiosity about this old prison leads to Spain, the country of origin of the explorer Juan Manuel Ayala, who rediscovered the island in 1775. The first thing he found when he arrived there was a tremendous colony of gannets, a seabird whose name in Spanish is alcatraz.

The Hopi resistence

The Hopi Hostiles were a group of 19 Hopi men (a native-American tribe) who were imprisoned on Alcatraz when it was still under military control. The men opposed the government’s forced education in schools and the policies that were intended to eliminate their language and religion.

Incarceration didn't work

The government figured that hard labor and confinement would eventually force them to submit, and they were held from January to August of 1895, but they continued to resist even after they were released.

The impregnable prison

Known as 'The Rock', legend speaks of a prison from which no one escaped due to its security measures, because it was surrounded by the icy waters of the Pacific (around 10º Celsius or 50º Fahrenheit) and because of the danger of strong currents.

One successful escape in 29 years

Out of 14 attempts in the history of the prison, only one successful escape has been recorded, that of the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris in 1962, of whom nothing has been heard since. They could have died in the waters of the Bay, but legend places them in Brazil a few days after the escape.

So close, yet so far

In 1945, an inmate by the name of John Giles managed to escape the island by stealing an army uniform from the laundry bags and getting onto an army truck. Unluckily for him, the truck was on its way to Angel Island, and as soon as he got off the truck, correctional officers sent him back to Alcatraz.

Image: Sandie Clarke/Unsplash

Alcatraz Triatlon

The waters of the San Francisco Bay are part of the famous Alcatraz Triathlon held every year, to prove that escape from Alcatraz was not impossible. There are 2.4 kilometres that separate the bay from Alcatraz Island. Prison officials spread the rumor that there were sharks, which was false.

The only prison with hot showers

The showers at Alcatraz were always supplied with moderately hot water, in order to hinder inmates from becoming acclimated to the cold Bay waters.

An average of 8 years per prisoner

Prisoners who caused problems in other prisons were sent to Alcatraz. More than 1,500 of the bloodiest criminals in the United States passed through its dependencies throughout its history. The average time they spent in there were 8 years.

Famous criminals of Alcatraz

To name a few: Al Capone, Bumpy Johnson, Mickey Cohen, Alvin Karpis and James 'Whitey' Bulger were there.

Victor Lustig meets Al Capone

Con artist Victor Lustig once managed to con Al Capone out of $5,000, not to mention he was also responsible for trying to sell the Eiffel Tower, not to mention the massive counterfeiting operation which got him sent to Alcatraz, where Capone just happened to be a prisoner.

Better than other prisons

Interestingly, the quality of life at Alcatraz was better than other prisons. Those responsible thought that if the food was rich and abundant, the fights would be minimal and they were right.

Individual rooms

To this was added that the rooms were individual, that the prisoners had a baseball team or that there was even a music band. Many prisoners requested a transfer to Alcatraz in the mid-20th century. Its library came to accumulate more than 15,000 books.

Tiny cells

The 336 cells that the prison had measured 1.5 x 2.75 x 2.13 meters, the prisoners could not have possessions and there was only a bed, a table and a chair, in addition to a toilet and a sink. There was no privacy.

Rumors of ghosts

The original Native American inhabitants of the island claimed to have encountered evil spirits before it became a prison, and writer Mark Twain described it as “being as cold as winter, even in the summer months.”

'Birdman of Alcatraz'

After being sentenced to life imprisonment, Robert Franklin Stoud had time to become an expert native ornithologist. He ended up being known as 'Birdman of Alcatraz', and inspired a movie with the same name in 1962 starring Burt Lancaster.

Lights out and absolute silence

Every night at 9:30 p.m. the lights went out and the silence in the prison was sepulchral. Whoever broke it risked spending a time in an isolation cell.

Civilians also lived on the island

One of the most impressive facts about Alcatraz is that, in addition to the prisoners, 300 civilians also lived on the island. In this case, jail employees and their families. They even had their own supermarket there.

It was a very expensive prison

The reason that led to the closure of Alcatraz prison in 1963 was the high maintenance cost involved in keeping it running. Each Alcatraz inmate cost three times as much as another prisoner. In addition, the salt water had severely damaged the structure of several of its buildings.

Student occupation of Alcatraz

In 1969, Richard Oakes led a student occupation of the prison to call for the abolition of tribal sovereignty and to relocate Native Americans to cities. They spent 19 months in Alcatraz Island.

Eviction and victory

Finally, in 1971, the last natives were evicted. Of course, this movement allowed the United States Government to return numerous lands to the Indians, in addition to approving several laws to promote Indian self-determination.

Azkaban Prison

JK Rowling confessed that her Azkaban prison, from the Harry Potter saga, is inspired by Alcatraz Island. In fact, its name is the combination of Alcatraz with Abbadon, a Hebrew word that means place of destruction.

It was also a movie set

'The Rock' (1996), one of Michael Bay's most famous films, with Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris, was shot at Alcatraz Island. In fact, the premiere of the tape was also made in the prison itself.

How much does it cost to go to Alcatraz Prison?

If you're craving a visit after all these facts, you should know that the cost during the day is 49 dollars, and at night is 56.40. In both cases, the visit lasts around two and a half hours.

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