On the final day of our Coyote Trip- we visit the world’s most infamous prison; Alcatraz. Known as “The Rock” this jail has a remarkable back-story featuring gangsters, outlandish escape attempts and incredible stories of survival. This guide will explore some of the tales that have helped to create the legends of Alcatraz. However, the only sure-fire way to really get an understanding of the island prison is to visit the site itself. Looking out across at the water and imagining you have no escape from the prison officers and hardened criminals within. Fortunately, we do get a return ticket…
Alcatraz’s days a federal prison are where its true fame is drawn but before that it was also used as a place to lock people up. It was first named Alcatraz by Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775 who called it so due to the large population of Pelicans on the island. By the 1850s – it had become a military fortress and held citizens accused of treachery during the Civil war as well as Native American “rebels.” The inmates were put to work in creating the buildings that still stand today and it was perfectly set up to be a maximum-security prison by the time the federal government opened it, in 1934. After all- what could be more secure than an island where no one could swim to shore…
The Prison Experience
Alcatraz was used for the most dangerous and notorious criminals with a prisoner population of 260 or so- inmates were “broken” by tough conditions with a view to sending them back to the mainland. Cells were small- 5ft by 9ft with a small sink. In D Block- the cells were bigger but inmates were here for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with the exception of one solo visit to the recreation yard. And you thought lockdown was tricky?
For the guards and their families- conditions were more pleasant. They even had a bowling alley, soda stores and could go to the mainland via regular boats. It’s hard to say how comfortable an upbringing it was for students to sleep within a few hundred metres of the world’s most dangerous criminals.
The experience was not all bad and Alcatraz reportedly the best in the federal system. That said, up until the late 30s- there was a silence policy whereby inmates couldn’t talk to once another during mealtimes and there were strict punishments for minor violations. In the 30 years as a federal prison, there were 8 murders, 5 suicides and 15 natural deaths. Generally, the prisoners were released back to mainland prisons having served their time at Alcatraz- just 2 people made parole directly from the island.
The vast majority of the residents were not necessarily famous but had transgressed enough in their regular, mainland prison that they were then sent to Alcatraz. This gives some idea of the clientele on the island. However, there were some of the country’s most well-known rule-breakers. There are none more notorious than Scarface himself. Al Capone spent over 4 years in Alcatraz as authorities thought it was the only place where Capone would not be able to run operations from. Having been eventually brought to justice, Capone still manage to play the system from behind bars. His cells were filled with amenities, he tipped the guards to give him privileges and was hardly facing the full weight of American justice. All that changed when, without warning, he was moved to Alcatraz. His attempts to bribe and cajole his way into a powerful position were met with deaf ears and he admitted Alcatraz had him “licked.” He was also stabbed by a fellow inmate but he did survive and was eventually released from internment.
The prison also played host to the FBI’s Public Enemy Number 1- Alvin Karpowicz who was also the longest serving resident with a 25 year stretch. Another famous inmate was “The Birdman of Alcatraz” – Robert Stroud a convicted murderer who had kept birds in his Kansas gaol. After his initial conviction for manslaughter, he killed a prison guard and was sentenced to death which was then commuted to life imprisonment. He used this time to study birds and wrote 2 books about canaries. He was eventually sent to Alcatraz where he spent 17 years including 6 in solitary confinement.
The ultimate prison escape would be to get out of Alcatraz and 36 men attempted this across 14 separate attempts. 23 were caught, 6 were killed and 2 drowned. The most famous attempt was masterminded by Frank Lee Morris. He ingeniously planned an escape with 3 accomplices and they were successful in breaking out of the jail. Their bodies were never found and there’s always been speculation that they made it out alive despite obstacles. This story was immortalised in “Escape from Alcatraz” and is a fascinating part of any Alcatraz tour.
The end of Alcatraz
Alcatraz eventually shut in 1963 after concerns over operating costs, buildings being eroded and the practices being operated. It now stands a symbol of another era and a fascinating insight into a dark chapter of American history. If you are feeling really bold then you can take on the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon and this event includes the 1.5 mile swim from the former jail to San Francisco. You can then judge if it might have been possible for an escape to really have been made!
Ready to travel to America? You can discover Alcatraz on our West Coast Adventure, California Calling or the Full Coyote. Drop us a message in the chat box below or send us an email at email@example.com to find out more!