For three decades, Alcatraz Island in California was home to the most feared prison in America. It is set about a mile from land in the San Francisco Bay and was considered to be inescapable. If someone tried to escape, they would have to swim through the cold waters of the bay, while being taken by the harsh currents. This didn’t stop some from trying to escape, but officially, nobody ever has. These rare photographs reveal the reality of prison life inside Alcatraz.
Ten years after the prison closed, it opened up to visitors. Every year, close to a million people visit Alcatraz for the day or the evening. Tourists from all over the world visit the prison due to its grim history. It was home to some very vicious and violent inmates including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Arthur “Doc” Baker, and Al Capone. Today, people believe that the prison is haunted by the ghosts of some of the more high-profile and violent inmates.
Alcatraz Island isn’t very big. It is roughly 1,700-feet long and 600-feet wide. It covers about 22 acres in area. It was initially discovered by Native Americans, possibly 20,000 years ago. The two tribes that are believed to have inhabited the island are the Ohlone and the Miwok tribes. Historians believe that the native people used the island to camp and gather food. They also believe that local people used the island as a home after being expelled from their communities. Like most areas of the U.S., the Native Americans wouldn’t hold onto the island for long. In 1775, the Spanish arrived. Juan Manuel de Ayala and his crew sailed to the island, originally calling it Alcatraces.
In 1846, the governor of Mexico, Pio Pico, gave the island to William Workman. That same year, it was sold to John C. Fremont, California’s military governor. He paid $5,000 for the island He was hoping that he would get a nice return on his investment, but he didn’t see a profit. When President Millard Fillmore commandeered the island for the military, he paid Fremont nothing, and he was out $5,000.
Fillmore had a reason for wanting the island. At the time, San Francisco’s population exploded due to the discovery of gold in California. He also wanted to defend the bay. He thought that he could do this by building a fort on the island. Alongside the fort, the army put over 100 guns. They also constructed the West Coast’s first lighthouse on the island.
In 1860, the United States Army started shipping convicted soldiers to the island. As time went on, the military found that the island was better served as a detention center than a fortress. By 1907, all the guns were gone, and Alcatraz was officially a prison. It would remain this way for the next quarter-century. At first, it housed and re-instructed army prisoners.
New Buildings and New Owners
As time went on, there were too many prisoners to house in the one building, so there was talk of building more. When the fort fell in 1909, a whole new prison complex was built. Today, visitors can see the tunnels and structure of the original castle under the new building. World War I caused financial problems for the military in 11933, so they allowed the Bureau of Prisons to take over the island. The BOP wanted it because they were struggling with prisoner security. In 1934, it became a federal facility. Only three dozen army prisoners remained there, and the rest were shipped out to make room for America’s most hardened criminals. Over 300 men could be housed on “The Rock,” but the capacity never reached 260.
The prisoners who were housed there had to follow the rules. Any infraction would land them in one of the 40 solitary confinement cells. The inmates had no control of the lights and would be left in the dark by the guards. There was also a “strip cell,” where the inmate would be shut in the cell naked, in complete darkness. There was no bed or toilet. They had to relieve themselves in a hole.
9 Asking To Go
Many prisoners found Alcatraz to be better than other prisons that they had been in because they liked having a cell to themselves. It wasn’t comfortable there; however. Everything beyond the barest minimum had to be earned. The prison system wanted to teach hardened criminals to toe the line. It wasn’t long before the most infamous criminals made their way to Alcatraz. Notorious gangster, Al Capone, was sent there, but not for one of the many murders he committed. It was for tax evasion. He was one of the original draft prisoners on the island, and his inmate number was AZ#85. He tried to control the prison with bribery, but it didn’t work. He admitted that he couldn’t beat Alcatraz. He played the banjo in a prison band, and when syphilis spread to his brain, he left Alcatraz for good.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Whitey Budger
Machine Gun claimed that he would escape from prison and then break his wife out as well. This caused the authorities to send him to Alcatraz, where he was a model prisoner for 17 years. James “Whitey” Bulger spent some time on Alcatraz for armed robbery in 1956. Once freed, he returned to his life of crime and spent some time on the run, before finally getting caught.