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Alcatraz Essay, Research Paper

Alcatraz Island has quite a distinct history. Many people know that Alcatraz served as a federal prison, but most are surprised to know that this island served as a fort. The name Alcatraz was derived from the Spanish word alcaraz which means: Spanish fort or palace (1). Built before the Civil War, it served two main purposes. First, it was to guard the San Francisco bay area from enemy ships against a foreign invasion. Second, it was to hold hostage prisoners of war or POW’s as they were called. When the great “Gold Rush” of 1849 first started, California grew from a small, unpopulated state, into one of the most populated states due to the gold rush. The government recognized, that California was much more important than they ever realized so they decided that it must be protected. San Francisco has one of the largest bays in all of California. This was where enemy countries would most likely to try to invade the United States. This is where Alcatraz was to lie as a military fort. It was supposed to serve as a secondary base in companionship to another base located on the other side of Golden Gate Bridge. But because of severe problems trying to build the other base, Alcatraz was to remain alone. Alcatraz operated from 1850 – 1933. It served as San Francisco’s only major defense.

It started off with eleven cannons that were transported onto the island in 1854. Also, in 1854, some 450 electrically controlled underwater mines were brought to the island to protect the Bay. By the early 1860’s, Alcatraz had 111 cannons. Some were enormous, firing a fifteen-inch ball weighing over 450 pounds (2). Defenses included a row of brick enclosed gun positions called case mates to protect the dock (a fortified gateway or a Sally Port to block the entrance road) and a three-story citadel on top of the island. This served both as an armed barracks and as a last line defense strategy. Even though Alcatraz was built to withstand a foreign invasion, its most important use was during the Civil War, 1861 – 1865. Since it was the only completed fort in the entire bay, it was vital protection from Confederate Raiders. Early in the war, ten thousand rifles were moved to Alcatraz from the State armory, to prevent them from being used by southern sympathizers. The crew of a Confederate privateer was the first group of inmates to be held within “The Rock.” In 1907 Alcatraz officially ceased being a fortress and became a Pacific Branch, US Military Prison. Alcatraz Island’s use as a prison began in December 1859. Eleven soldiers were confined in the Sally Port basement. The Army recognized that the cold water (53 F) and swift currents surrounding Alcatraz made it an ideal site for a prison (3). In 1861 the post was designated as the military prison for the Department of the Pacific (most of the territory west of the Rocky Mountains). During the next three decades, additional buildings were erected just north of the Sally Port to house up to 150 Army prisoners. At various times “rebellious” American Indians were also held on Alcatraz. The largest group was nineteen Hopi, held in 1895. The Spanish-American War of 1898 increased the size of the prison population (4). A prison stockade, known as the “Upper Prison”, was hastily built on the parade ground. By 1902 there were 461 prisoners on the Island. In 1904 the upper prison stockade was expanded to house 300 inmates. In 1912 with 600 single cells, each with toilet and electricity, the Cell house was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world! In 1915 Alcatraz was changed from a military prison to “Pacific Branch, US Disciplinary Barracks.” The new name reflected the growing emphasis on rehabilitation as well as punishment. Prisoners with less serious offenses could receive training, education and an opportunity to return to the Army. Prisoners convicted of serious crimes were not given these chances, and were discharged from the Army when their sentences were completed.

As a result of the Great Depression, a new breed of violent criminals swept the streets of America. In response to the cries of alarmed citizens, Congress enacted a number of statutes, which gave the federal government jurisdiction over certain criminal offenses previously held by the states (5). With the suggestion of former US Attorney General, Homes Cummings, Congress agreed that a special penal institution of maximum security and minimum privilege should be established. In 1934, the legendary US Penitentiary of Alcatraz was born and became the home of America s most wanted for the next thirty years.

Once authorized by Congress, the US Department of Justice acquired control of Alcatraz Island. As the island was redeveloped into a maximum-security prison, seven of its twelve acres were enclosed in a prison compound. The remaining five were set aside for employee residences, apartments, and recreational space. Soon after the redesigning of the old Army fortress, the Alcatraz prison was ready for the grand opening. Equipped with four different cell blocks, A, B, C and D, the Rock began its operations on January 2, 1934. Although cell block A was seldom used, B, C and D provided 378 cages to accommodate the most notorious felons that America could produce.

The first of four wardens to take charge of the penitentiary was a retired, professional administrator named James A. Johnston. The Department of Justice carefully selected Johnston because he was a well-organized, no-nonsense businessman with over twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections (6). Under Johnston, ninety officers were required to cover the three eight-hour shifts, plus leave and vacation time.

During its thirty years of service, close to 1545 inmates resided at the Alcatraz penitentiary. Contrary to popular belief, Alcatraz was initially meant to confine only a few of the infamous headline-makers of the era. However, out of the total population ever to occupy this prison, the vast majority were not to be found on wanted posters adorning post office walls. The average number of prisoners maintained in the prison at one time was 260, with a high count of 302 and a low count of 222 men. No female prisoners were ever detained at Alcatraz.

Although many stories exist of escapes from Alcatraz, only three men were successful in escaping the prison and the island, Morris and the Anglin brothers (June of 1962). Thirty-six prisoners were involved in attempts to escape: seven shot and killed, two drowned, five unaccounted for and the rest recaptured (7). Even though some men have made it off the island, survival still remains questionable.

Alcatraz was, of course, home to Al Capone for about four and a half years. He was first transferred from US Penitentiary Atlanta in August of 1934. Capone was also among the first official shipment of criminals to be received at the Rock. Capone s arrival actually generated bigger headlines than the opening of the institution, giving birth to the endless myth of Alcatraz (8). For this famous gangster, the influence and privileges he possessed in an Atlanta Penitentiary were lost at Alcatraz, where he was assigned menial jobs in accordance with other inmates. More importantly, Capone s transfer to Alcatraz solved the problem caused by his ability to run his criminal organization from jail. Once at the Rock, the channel of communication between Capone and his family members was immediately shut down.

Arriving on the second official shipment of prisoners was George Machine Gun Kelly. After an initial sentence at Leavenworth, Kelly emerged from prison to a lucrative career in bank robbery and kidnapping. Kelly s capture resulted in a courtroom sensation at the first Lindbergh Law Trial and a life-sentence that sent him back to Leavenworth. He was transferred to the Penitentiary of Alcatraz in September of 1934 for a period of seventeen years. After suffering a mild heart attack, he was returned to Leavenworth where he was paroled in 1954. Soon after his parole, a final heart attack ended his life at the age of 59.

In August of 1936, another well-known criminal named Alvin Karpis joined Capone and Kelly at Alcatraz. After being a fugitive on the run for fifteen years, Karpis was apprehended and taken into custody in New Orleans. Karpis began his career as a petty thief who moved on to join Ma Barker in violent rampage of robbery and kidnapping. It was during this time that Karpis gained the title of Public Enemy No. 1, given to him by J. Edgar Hoover (9). After serving 26 years in Alcatraz, Karpis was transferred and released for deportation to Canada. After leaving Canada, Karpis assumed residency in Spain and committed suicide in 1979.

Finally, the United States Penitentiary of Alcatraz was closed on March 21, 1963 and has not reopened since. The island was turned over to the General Services Administration (GSA) in May of 1963 and later became a national park and monument. Today, Alcatraz has become one of the biggest attractions of the San Francisco Bay-area and has even inspired films such as The Birdman of Alcatraz , The Rock ,and Murder in the First (the movie that inspired me to do this report). Even though the Alcatraz prison is dead, its legacy continues at other penal institutions such as the federal prison in Marion, IL, which operates in the footsteps of Alcatraz (10).


1. Alcazar. The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, 1996,

Page 35

2. American Correctional Association. The American Prison: from the beginning…

New York: The American Correctional Association, 1983

Page 163

3. American Correctional Association. The American Prison: from the beginning…

Page 167

4. Smith, Paul and Robert Warrior. Like a Hurricane.

New York: The New Press, 1996

Page 225

5. Coy, Bernard Paul. Alcatraz 46: The Anatomy of a Classic Prison Tragedy.

San Rafael, CA: Leswing Press, 1974

Page 6

6. Coy, Bernard Paul. Alcatraz 46: The Anatomy of a Classic Prison Tragedy.

Page 10

7. Roberts, John W. Escaping Prison Myths

Washington D.C.: The American University Press, 1994

Page 16

8. Roberts, John W. Escaping Prison Myths

Page 4

9. Roberts, John W. Escaping Prison Myths

Page 8

10. Coy, Bernard Paul. Alcatraz 46: The Anatomy of a Classic Prison Tragedy.

Page 35

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