No escape from Alcatraz — part 1

The former residents were a literal “murder’s row” of American gangsters. Al Capone was incarcerated there. So were Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, Robert “the Birdman” Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

In fact, between 1934 and 1963, 1,576 men — most without colorful gangster nicknames — did time at the federal penitentiary on the island of Alcatraz, a place that one inmate once described as “tomb of the living dead.”

Despite the prison’s image as America’s Devil’s Island, Alcatraz is generally considered to have been no worse than other federal prisons of that era. It was clean, warm and offered pretty good food and individual inmate cells.

Its reputation as “Hellcatraz” was no doubt due to its isolation — the island sits in the middle of the San Francisco Bay — and the secrecy and mystery that surrounded the facility during the time it was in use. While it was in service, most visitors and the media were kept away from Alcatraz for security reasons.

Additionally, there was a mystique about Alcatraz because it housed the worst prisoners in the federal system — men who were escape risks or who had been troublemakers at other federal prisons. And, for many years, inmates were not allowed to speak.

Among the first residents at Alcatraz when it opened in 1934 were several of the country’s notorious gangsters including Chicago mob boss Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, a murderous bank robber, bootlegger and kidnapper.

Today, there are no prisoners on Alcatraz, which has been transformed into a popular attraction that attracts about 1 million visitors each year.

Visitors to Alcatraz have only one way to view the place also known as “the Rock” — buy a ferry ticket and take the 15-minute ride that so many criminals once feared.

The boat ride is brief but scenic; the view of the San Francisco skyline from the water is spectacular. As the ferry draws closer to the island, you began to see a handful of imposing structures and ruins atop its rocky cliffs walls.

The island of Alcatraz is actually the top of a drowned mountain peak. The first people to set foot on the island were probably Native American fishermen, who, it is thought, might have hunted for birds’ eggs or fished from its rocky shores.

In the mid-16th century, Spanish explorers entered the San Francisco Bay and reported seeing the small island, but it wasn’t until 1775 that it was named. In August of that year, Jose Canizares charted the islands of the bay, including a small barren island populated by many birds. He named it “La Isla de los Alcatraces” after a cormorant bird native to Spain, the alcatraceo.

Alcatraz remained untouched until the 1840s when the U.S. Army decided that the island would make an ideal place for a lighthouse and for a fort that could protect the bay of San Francisco from foreign invaders.

In the 1850s, the island was surveyed and its surface smoothed to accommodate platforms that could support large cannons. Additionally, several barracks and tall brick defensive walls were constructed on the island.

In 1861, a military prison was opened on the island. Its original prisoners were military officers who refused to swear allegiance to the federal government after the start of the Civil War. Later, non-military southern sympathizers, Indians captured by the Army and prisoners from the Spanish-American War were sent to Alcatraz.

It remained a military prison until 1933, when the Army decided to abandon the facility due to its high costs (all water and food had to be shipped in from the mainland).

The Army’s pullout from Alcatraz coincided with the federal government’s need to develop a “super-prison” to house the nation’s most notorious criminals. In July 1934, Alcatraz was reopened as the country’s toughest prison.

After the penitentiary was closed in 1963 (again because of high costs), it remained empty until 1969 when a small group of Native Americans occupied its buildings and claimed the island in the name of the Indians of all tribes.

The Indian occupation of Alcatraz, which lasted for about 19 months, garnered considerable media attention and helped create a better awareness on a national level of Native American issues and concerns.

More about what it’s like to tour Alcatraz today in next week’s column.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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