The development of Alcatraz Island began in the late 1860s. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the island became a military prison, holding ex-soldiers sentenced for desertion, looting and Confederate sympathizers who had celebrated Abraham Lincoln's death. Later, dozens of Native Americans were confined to the citadel following a series of wars between US colonists and North America's native population. The army slowly upgraded the facilities on the island, but high maintenance costs eventually prompted the prison's closure. The Department of Justice acquired it in October 1933 and reopened it a year later, modernizing the prison, walling off part of its underground tunnel network, and building heavily armed guard posts along the island's entire perimeter.
During the spike in crime caused by the Great Depression, Alcatraz came to hold many of America's most notorious criminals, including gangsters, maniacs, serial killers and dangerous fugitives caught trying to escape from other prisons. These men were placed in solitary holding cells and forbidden from talking, occasionally leading to insanity. Small pleasures such as library privileges or permission to write to relatives had to be earned through back-breaking physical labor and good behavior.
Alcatraz's most famous guest was Al Capone, the Chicago crime boss who made his claim to fame during Prohibition. Sentenced to ten years in prison for tax evasion in 1931, Capone ended up spending seven of them at Alcatraz, gradually losing his mind due to neurosyphilis.
Other infamous inmates included Harvey Bailey, dubbed 'the Dean of American Bank Robbers', and George Kelly Barnes, or 'Machine Gun Kelly', a gangster whose crimes included bootlegging, armed robbery, and the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles Urschel, which eventually led to his arrest by the FBI.
No One Gets Out
No one has ever officially escaped Alcatraz. The prison's security features, combined with the strong current and frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, helped to justify prison authorities boast that the prison was escape-proof.
Of the 14 escape attempts made, only one, a daring June 1962 plot by Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, is thought to have been plausible. Another attempt, made by one John Paul Scott in December 1962, was the only proven instance of an inmate successfully swimming to shore. Scott recovered in hospital and returned to the prison after being found on the mainland suffering from hypothermia.
The escape by Morris and the Anglin brothers has long been the stuff of legends, put on the big screen in the 1979 Clint Eastwood drama Escape from Alcatraz. In 2003, the MythBusters attempted to replicate the intricate escape plan, recreating the prisoners' makeshift raft and sailing it across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. After successfully carrying out the perilous 5 km journey, the MythBusters admitted that the escape was 'plausible'.
The most bloody escape attempt, a May 1946 plot known as the 'Battle of Alcatraz', resulted in the deaths of two prison guards and three inmates, and the execution of two more inmates for their roles. The plot was hatched by convicted bank robber Bernard Coy; he and his conspirators took over part of the prison and took several guards hostage in a failed getaway. A detachment of marines and FBI agents had to be sent to the island, where they engaged in a tense two-day stand-off and shootout. That event, too, has fostered depictions in film and on television.
American Cultural Landmark
Alcatraz was officially closed down for economic reasons. Structural deterioration of the prison's buildings by salty air and wind would have required some $5 million (equivalent to about $36.5 million today) to fix. In 1961, engineers determined that further repairs would no longer be feasible. These calculations led to the prison being officially shuttered on March 21, 1963.
In the decades since, the penitentiary has been turned into a museum, tourist attraction and a major San Francisco landmark, attracting some 1.5 million visitors each year. Alcatraz's reputation as an escape-proof fortress, its widespread appearance in films, television, novels and music and the mysterious June 1962 escape attempt have turned it into a globally-known piece of Americana.