History of Alcatraz Prison: “The Rock”

Better known by its famous moniker, The Rock, Alcatraz was America’s maximum-security prison notorious for its celebrity inmates and failed breakout attempts. Here’s everything you need to know about this spooky but iconic landmark isolated on its own island just over a mile from San Francisco Bay.

From Island to Prison

The site of America’s most famous penitentiary was discovered by Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish explorer who sailed the first ship into San Francisco Bay on 5 August 1775. Declaring the 22-acre rocky outcrop La Isla de los Alcatraces (translating as ‘Island of the Pelicans’ after its plentiful feathery visitors), it became simply known by its English name - Alcatraz. Years later, it was converted into a fort and an American Civil War military detention, before finally operating as a federal prison from 1934 until 1963. While there were no facilities for capital punishment (criminals handed a death sentence were transferred to San Quentin State Penitentiary) eight prisoners were murdered, five committed suicide, and 36 tried to escape.

A Few Famous Alcatraz Inmates

Of the 1,576 prisoners incarcerated at Alcatraz, gangster Al Capone was the most legendary. Not only was the charismatic mob boss among the first to occupy the sinister facility in August 1934, but he was also thought to have bribed the guards for preferential treatment and extra privileges during his four-year sentence for tax evasion. Known as Convict 85, he was allowed to play banjo in the prison band, the Rock Islanders, and live in a cell with upgraded amenities. Other notable inmates included bank robber and kidnapper George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and celebrated outlaw Roy Gardner. Equally illustrious was psychopathic murderer Robert Franklin Stroud, the so-called ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ whose 1955 biography by Thomas E Gaddis was adapted into a film in 1962, starring Burt Lancaster in the title role.

Alcatraz Prison Conditions

Smaller than a walk-in wardrobe and measuring nine feet long by five feet wide, the 336 cells in B-Block and C-Block were just roomy enough for most men to extend their arms and touch each wall. D-Block offered more space, but prisoners here were confined to their cells for pretty much 24 hours each day. Facilities were basic throughout; there was a bed, toilet, small sink with cold running water, and no light. However, hot showers were provided and visitors (although strictly regulated) were allowed. The food was also considered the best within the entire American prison system, with menus that included hearty dishes like bacon jambalaya, beef pots, and pork roast with all the trimmings. At any one time, there were 250 prisoners along with 150 staff who lived on the island with their families in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks.

Did And Alcatraz Island Prisoners Actually Escape

The island’s cliffs were surrounded by the shark-infested and freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean, but that did little to prevent an estimated 36 prisoners trying to escape to freedom. Of these, 23 were captured, six were shot, two drowned, and the other five went missing and were presumed drowned. Security was extremely tight; doors had state-of-the-art locking mechanisms, guard towers were strategically placed, and the entire place was fortified by steel and concrete. Yet in spite of this, on the night of 11 June 1962, brothers John and Clarence Anglin and fellow inmate Frank Morris pulled off a prison break so impossibly daring their story inspired the Hollywood blockbuster.

Star of the Silver Screen

While nobody knows for sure whether John and Clarence Anglin together with Frank Morris pulled off their great escape and made it to shore, the 1979 Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz did a stellar job in spicing up the story and sparking public interest. Further must-see movies that mix the prison’s history with fiction include cult thriller Point Blank (1967) starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson and legal drama Murder in the First (1995) starring Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Oldman. And then, of course, there’s The Rock (1996) - the explosive action movie with Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris that has a powerful hold on the imagination by bringing a fictional tale to life.

What's Alcatraz Like Now?

After 29 years of operation, the fortified prison closed on 21 March 1963 because Attorney General Robert F Kennedy decided it was far too expensive to run - the cost of keeping an inmate here was three times as much as anywhere else in America. The island was designated part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and opened to the public the following year. Nowadays, it ranks as one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions, welcoming 1.4 million visitors annually. But it’s not just the cell house that garners attention; the prison is also home to surprisingly lush gardens, interesting birdlife such as cormorants and snowy egrets, and the first lighthouse built on the West Coast (the current structure was completed in 1909 as the 1854 original was destroyed in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake).

Tickets to Alcatraz Island are available for purchase 90 days prior to your desired tour date. They sell out extremely quickly so we suggest securing your reservation as far in advance as possible.

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