History of Alcatraz


Emma Norenberg (9th), Reporter

Alcatraz is a very well known place in San Francisco, California. Many people have gone there to see its history. Alcatraz is about 1.25 miles off the coast of San Francisco. The small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a federal prison. Alcatraz has a nickname of “The Rock”. 


History of Alcatraz

Before Alcatraz became home to some of the most notorious outlaws of the country. It was a place that the Native Americans would hide from because they thought that this place had contained many evil spirits inside. The Ohlone tribe would use this place as a punishment or isolation for the members that would break the tribal laws. But besides the evil spirits it was also used by the Indians for food gatherings. 

During the Civil War, Alcatraz was a military prison where they would send the Confederates who were being arrested from the ship; they joined many other military prisoners and local civilians who were arrested for treason.

Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary (1934 -1963)

Beginning on January 1, 1934, much to the chagrin of the people of San Francisco, the Bureau of Prisons began the process of selecting a warden and upgrading Alcatraz to an “escape-proof” maximum security prison. Four guard towers were constructed at strategic points around the island, and 336 of the cells were reconstructed with tool-proof steel cell fronts and locking devices operated from control boxes. None of the cells adjoined a perimeter wall. The mess-hall and main entrance had built-in tear gas canisters in the ceiling that could be remotely activated. 

Appointed as the first warden, James A. Johnston came with more than twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin and Folsom Prisons. Believing in a system of rewards and consequences, Johnston and Federal Prisons Director, Sanford Bates, established the guiding principles under which the prison would operate. One of the regulations that were enacted for the prison was that no prisoner would be directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Instead, they “earned” their transfer to the island from other prisons by attempting to escape, exhibiting unmanageable behavior, or those that had been receiving special privileges. Therefore, Alcatraz became home to the “worst of the worst” criminal elements in the nation. 

About some of the prisoners

On July 1, 1934 Alcatraz received some of their first prisoners. The 32 hard-case prisoners who had been “left” by the Army were turned over to the Alcatraz authorities. The first of which was a man named Frank Bolt, who was serving a five-year sentence for sodomy. Other inmates in this group has commited such crimes such as robbery, assault, and rape. The next month, 69 more prisoners arrived from McNeil Island and Atlanta Penitentiaries, the most famous being, Al Capone. During Capone’s sentence on the “Rock,” he would make several other attempts to con Johnston into allowing him special privileges, but all would be denied. Capone spent 4 ½ years at the “Rock,” holding various menial jobs at the prison. While he was there, he spent eight days in isolation due to a fight with another inmate and was stabbed with a pair of scissors by another prisoner. Eventually, he began to suffer symptoms of syphilis that he had contracted years earlier and actually spent more time in the hospital than he did in the cell house. In 1938, he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his sentence. He was released in November of 1939, settled in Miami, and died in 1947, at the age of 48.

The Routine

The routine was the same every day, with prisoners awakened at 6:30 a.m., given time to tidy their cells and wash up, then marched silently to the mess hall. Following breakfast, the prisoners were then given their work assignments for the day, and after dinner, were again locked within their cells. The strict rules required inmate counts every half hour. However, the worst rule was Warden Johnston’s strictly enforced silence policy. Many of the inmates considered this to be their most unbearable punishment. Prisoners were only allowed to talk during meals, in the yard on Saturdays, and for three minutes during a morning and afternoon work break. Though the silence policy was later relaxed, several reports reported that inmates were driven insane by the severe rule of silence. The routine was unyielding, day after day, year after year. As quickly as privileges were earned, they could be revoked for the slightest infraction of the rules.

Notorious People and Escapes Of Alcatraz

There are many famous criminals that went to Alcatraz. One of them being Al Capone. Another one being Robert Stroud. Robert was also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. He didn’t have much attention on him until the 1962 movie, The Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud was convicted of manslaughter in 1908, he was sent to McNeil Island to serve a 12 year sentence. While there, he was very difficult to manage. After attacking an elderly person he was sent to Leavenworth. After less than 4 years at the Kansas prison he killed a guard and was sentenced to hang. Once his mother appealed to President Wilson his sentence was changed to life. During Stroud’s thirty years as a prisoner he started to study birds. That is what got him the attention he got. At the prison he started to openly violate prison rules and was later sent to Alcatraz in 1942 where he was never allowed to do any more studies on birds. 6 years later he got very ill and was transferred to a hospital prison and died 4 years later.

Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe were the first prisoners to escape on December 16, 1937. While working in one of the workshops Cole and Roe filed through the iron bars on a window. After making their way through the window they escaped to the San Francisco Bay. No bodies were found so the authorities assumed they had drowned. Four years later the San Francisco Chronicle reported the men were alive and well in South America. 

The bloodiest of escapes happened on May 2-4, 1946 and it lasted for 3 days. This incident was known as “The Battle of Alcatraz”. Six men by the names of Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Clarence Carnes, Marvin Hubbard, and Miran Thompson took control of the cell house. Overpowering many guards, taking the weapons and keys, they planned to escape through the recreation yard door. However when they got to the door they realized they didn’t have the key for that door, so instead of giving up they decided to fight. During the next couple of days the prisoners killed two of the guards that they took hostage. Eventually, Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes returned to their cells, but Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard continued to fight. The U.S. Marines were eventually called in, the attempt ended. In the end, Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard were killed, and 17 guards and one prisoner were wounded. Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes later stood trial for the officers’ death; Shockley and Thompson received the death penalty and were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in December 1948. Carnes, just 19 years old at the time, received a second life sentence. 

On July 11, 1962 Clarence Anglin, his brother John, and Frank Morris also disappeared from Alcatraz. Their escape was made famous by Clint Eastwood’s movie, Escape From Alcatraz. The three prisoners that escaped, including Alan (Clayton) West, made plaster heads with real hair that was swept up from the barbers. On the night of the escape they placed the heads on the beds and escaped through the ventilators in their cell. They were able to escape from there because they widened the ventilators with stolen spoons from the kitchen. West was not able to fit through his hole so he stayed back. From their cell they escaped to the roof then they went to the water. Though the prison authorities figured they drowned, there were no bodies found.

During the last escape from Alcatraz on December 12, 1962, John Paul Scott, 35-years old, swam from the island to Fort Point, under the southern part of the Golden Gate Bridge, proving that it could be done. Another prisoner joined him, Darl Parker, the two of them bent the iron bars of a kitchen window in the cell house basement and escaped. Parker was discovered on a small rock not far from the island. However, Scott was a better swimmer and made it to Fort Point, right under the Golden Gate Bridge. Collapsing from exhaustion and hypothermia, he was soon found by two teenage boys who called for help. He was then taken to the military hospital at the Presidio Army base. After being treated for shock and hypothermia, he was returned to Alcatraz.

The most successful escape was November 28, 1918, when 4 prisoners escaped with rafts. The authorities thought they drowned in the San Francisco Bay, but they later appeared in Sutro Forest. Only one of them was recaptured. In Alcatraz, there were at least 80 attempted escapes in 29 different areas. Of those, 62 were captured and returned to the prison, one may have drowned, and the fate of 17 others was unknown. 


I interviewed my dad, a local correctional officer. The first question I asked him was, “Have you ever gone to Alcatraz? Would you recommend people to go there?” He responded with, “Yes, it is such a cool place and I really do recommend anyone to go there and just see what it was like.” I also asked him if it is anything like where he works? He said, “Obviously it is somewhat similar but not that strict. The silence policy isn’t very enforced and Alcatraz was a place where the worst of the worst went. [Where I work] is just a normal prison.”


Alcatraz is such a cool place and has so much to see and learn about. I really recommend visiting the island to anyone who is interested and just seeing what some of the prisoners had to go through. The history of this place is also very interesting.