Facts About Alcatraz: The Inescapable Prison

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Alcatraz is an island located in the chilly waters of the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles offshore from San Francisco, California, USA. The island has a long history, but is known mostly for the federal penitentiary that existed here. No inmate has ever escaped though there have been 14 attempts involving 36 inmates.

FACT 1: The island was first mapped by the Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala (1745 to 1797). He named the mountainous island the Isla de Alcatraces (pelicans), after the large population of pelicans that inhabited the island.

FACT 2: In June 1846, the island was given to Julian Workman, by the Mexican governor Pio Pico. In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe signalled the end of the Mexican-American War and California was acquired by the United States. The American President Millard Fillmore reserved the island for military use in 1850.

FACT 3: The island was seen as an ideal prison as it was thought than no prisoner would ever be able to swim away from it. The first military prison was built near the docks. It was used during the American Civil War and the Spanish American War. A number of American Indians were also incarcerated here.

FACT 4: On June 1, 1854 the first lighthouse on the western coast became operational on the island.  The light house had to be demolished as a new prison block was being built. This new structure would block the light from the lighthouse. A new concrete lighthouse was built.

FACT 5: In 1859 the Post on Alcatraces was garrisoned by the army as the first US fort on the Western Coast. It was mounted with 110 canons to protect San Francisco Bay. There has never been any need to fire the gins.

FACT 6: In 1933 the military prison became non-functional and the infamous federal penitentiary took its place. The federal prison operated from 1934 to 1963.It was known as the ‘prison systems prison ‘The most disruptive of inmates from other prisons were sent here to learn how to follow rules. It house approximately 260-275 prisoners at a time though it has a maximum capacity of 450.The prison was a financial burden to the state as shipment of supplies to the island was very expensive. It closed its doors in 1963.

FACT 7: The prison was surrounded by beautiful gardens. These gardens were tended by the officers, their families and the inmates. They were an important part of everyday life on the island. Elliott Michener who was an inmate from 1941 to 1950 said that gardening at Alcatraz gave him ‘a lasting interest in creativity’.

FACT 8: The prison, nicknamed the Rock has housed some of America’s most difficult and dangerous felons. The notorious gangster Al Scarface Capone was sent here as he was in the habit of corrupting prison officials to conduct his illegal operations from the prison in Atlanta, Georgia. The murderer Robert Stroud, called the Birdman of Alcatraz was an inmate for 17 years. Despite his nickname he was not allowed to keep birds at Alcatraz as he had at Leavenworth prison in Kansas.

FACT 9: The island is also famous for its scenic beauty and bird colonies. It became a part of the Golden Gate National recreation Area in1972 and was opened to the public a year later. In 1980 the annual ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ Triathlon was started. Hundreds of athletes participate in this annual event. It consists of a 1.5 mile swim, an 18 mile bike ride and an 8 mile run.

FACT 10: The island played its role is securing self- determination for Native Americans when Mohawk activist Richard Oakes along with other Native Americans and some university students occupied the island demanding that the Island be returned to the Native Americans. They left in 1971 when Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy and established the policy of self-determination.

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