Advertisement
  1. Archive

SLICES OF AMERICA // Get your piece of The Rock

It's doubtful any of the 1,576 men who were imprisoned at Alcatraz felt as nostalgic about the place as Warden Blackwell did. Besides the food _ described by inmates as the best in the federal prison system _ there was little positive going for the 12-acre fortress that housed the nation's most incorrigible prisoners from 1933 to 1963.

Instead of prisoners, Alcatraz now attracts more than 1-million visitors a year. They take ferries from Fisherman's Wharf to see what it was like when Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly called The Rock home.

Alcatraz is a place of contradictions, caught between its past and present, its grim former reality and its current tourist status.

"Indians Welcome" _ graffiti from the 19-month American Indian occupation of the island in the early 1970s _ has never been removed from the dock area. A chipper Park Service guide reminds visitors that "Alcatraz is not a good place to break a federal law" as she ticks off prohibitions on picking flowers and harassing migratory birds.

The place is so steeped in legend that sometimes it's tough to separate fact from fiction. The facts:

What does the name "Alcatraz" mean? Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted San Francisco Bay in 1775 and named it La Isla de los Alcatraces _ island of the pelicans.

What was the island used for before 1933? Just prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Army began constructing a fort on the island. It was the first federal fort on the West Coast. Remnants from that era can be seen on the island. More than 100 cannon and 300 troops were stationed on Alcatraz during the Civil War, but it never was attacked.

In 1907, the Army designated Alcatraz as its Pacific military prison. Many of the men sent here by the Army helped construct the buildings that exist today.

Why did the Army leave? Ever-increasing costs of maintaining the fort convinced the military to cede control of the island to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which needed a place to house the worst of the worst.

The government stopped using Alcatraz as a penitentiary for the same reason the Army did three decades earlier: rising costs and crumbling facilities. San Francisco Bay's saltwater ultimately caused notable deterioration of the stone buildings.

The property was turned over the the National Park Service and opened to the public in the early 1970s.

Who were the biggest names among the inmates? Mob chieftain Capone was incarcerated from 1934-39. All-around monster Kelly was held here from 1934-51. Racketeer Mickey Cohen was in Alcatraz from 1961-62, and Richard Stroud (see next item) called The Rock home from 1942-59, most of it in the hospital wing. Kidnapper/bank robber Alvin "Creepy" Karpis was imprisoned from 1936-62.

How many birds did Richard "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud keep at Alcatraz? None. Stroud gained fame as a birdkeeper during earlier incarceration at Leavenworth. He was, according to guards and fellow inmates, thoroughly unlikable. He was sent to Alcatraz for murdering a guard at Leavenworth.

How big were the cells? Five feet by nine feet,with a cot, basin and toilet. Prisoners spent between 16 and 23 hours a day there.

How long was the average stay? Only inmates who were too tough for regular federal prisons to handle were sent to Alcatraz. On average, they stayed about eight years before being sent back to other prisons. Few were directly paroled from Alcatraz to the outside world.

Was it crowded? No. An average of 260 men occupied cells at any one time, well below the prison's capacity. There was one guard for every three prisoners.

What did inmates fear most? Being sent to solitary confinement. The average stay was a couple of days, the longest, 19 days.

The food here was better than prison grub served anywhere. There was a reason: The dining hall was the one place where prisoners had a potential advantage, since they had metal (forks and trays) and the guards on the floor were without weapons. To lessen tensions, the food was kept high in quality. For added insurance, tear gas canisters were installed on the ceiling. They were never used.

How did inmates spend their days? The federal government operated a jobs program at the prison. Inmates made everything from stop signs to equipment that was sold to government agencies. The recreation yard was a privilege that could be granted or taken away, depending on behavior. It offered baseball and a variety of other activities. It also offered a splendid view of the Golden Gate Bridge, despite the barbed wire.

Inmates could have just one visitor per month, with no discussion of current events or prison life and no physical contact.

More than 300 civilians,including 60-80 children, lived on Alcatraz at any one time when it served as a prison. They had their own bowling alley, soda fountain and the best view around; kids took a ferry to San Francisco to school each day.

Did anyone ever escape? A total of 36 men attempted it. Most drowned, were shot or were quickly recaptured. In 1962, though, three inmates got away and were never seen again. Federal officials contend Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin died in their attempt, but the proof isn't all that convincing.

How long was the American Indian occupation of the island? Nineteen months, from November 1969 to June 1971. The protesters claimed the island was theirs under terms of a 19th-century treaty. During that period, several buildings _ including the historic Warden's House _ burned down.

What's the roughest, toughest prison in America today? The maximum security prison in Marion, Ill., opened in 1979 to handle the most incorrigible prisoners from around the nation. An even more secure facility in Colorado was started in 1990.

How can I get to Alcatraz? Red & White Tours' ferries leave frequently from Fisherman's Wharf. Cost is $6.75 for adults, and reservations are a must for peak months. Call (415) 546-2700 for tickets.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement