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Alcatraz Island has quite a distinct history. Many people know that Alcatraz served as a

federal prison, but most are reluctant to know that this island served as fort. Built before

the Civil War, it served two main purposes. First, that it was to guard the San Francisco

bay area from enemy ships against a foreign invasion, and second, to hold hostage

prisoners of war or POW’s as they were called. In this report, I’ll show you how this

fortress came to be a federal prison, why it is no longer in operation today, and most

importantly, to show why it was built in the first place. When the great “Gold Rush” of

1849 first started, California grew from what would be considered a small, unpopulated

state, into what it is now. California is now one of the most populated states and it was

mostly the gold rush that brought attention to California. As the government saw all of

this happening, they realized that California was much more important than they ever

realized. In their realization, they decided that California must be protected. San

Francisco has one of the largest bays in all of California, and so this was where enemy

countries would most likely to try to invade the country. So this is where Alcatraz was to

lie, to serve 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

with severe problems trying to build this other base, Alcatraz was to remain alone. “Out

in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, the island of Alcatraz is definitely a world unto

itself. Isolation is just one of the many constants of island life for any inhabitant on

Alcatraz Island. It is the most reoccurring theme in the unfolding history of Alcatraz

Island. Alcatraz Island is one of Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s most popular

destinations, offering a close-up look at a historic and infamous federal prison long

off-limits to the public. Visitors to the island can not only explore the remnants of the

prison, but learn of the American occupation of 1969 – 1971, early military fortifications

and the West Coast’s first and oldest operating lighthouse. These structures stand among

the island’s many natural features – gardens, tidepools, bird nests, and bay views beyond

compare.” (1) Fortress Alcatraz ran in operation from 1850 – 1933. It served as San

Francisco’s only major defense. It started off with only eleven cannons, that were

transported onto the island in 1854. By the early 1860’s, Alcatraz had 111 cannons.

Some were enormous, firing a fifteen-inch ball weighing over 450 pounds. 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. Seeing as it was the only

completed fort in the entire bay, it was vital in the protecting 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 were among the first inmates to be held within “The Rock.” Alcatraz’s notoriety

as a penitentiary overshadows its earlier, and longer use by the Army. Surprisingly, this

small island once was the most powerful fort west of the Mississippi River. There was

some limited modernization of the island’s defenses after the Civil War. Rifled cannons

were mounted. In 1854 some 450 electrically controlled underwater mines were brought

to the island to protect the Bay. However, as the ships of potential enemies became

more and more powerful, the defenses were increasing! ly obsolete. In 1907 Alcatraz

officially ceased being a fortress and became Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison.

Alcatraz Island’s use as a prison began in December 1859 with the arrival of the first

permanent garrison. Eleven of these 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, and 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. The prison population grew during the Civil War with the addition of

prisoners from other army posts, the crew of a Confederate privateer, and civilians

accused of treason. The Sally Port’s basement was filled, then one of the gun rooms, and

a wooden stockade was built just to the North of the Sally Port. During the next three

decades additional buildings were erected just north of the Sally Port to house up to 150

Army prisoners. These provided hard labor for construction projects both on and off the

island. 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 Army enormously, and the prison population also grew. A

prison stockade, known as the “Upper Prison” was hastily built on the parade ground

and by 1902 there were 461 prisoners on the Island. In 1904 the upper prison stockade

was expanded to house 300 inmates, and the lower prison buildings near the Sally Port

were used for other purposes. With modern weaponry making Alcatraz more and more

unsuitable as a site for a fort, in 1907 the Army dropped plans to mount new guns, and

instead designated the island “Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison.” The next year, with

plentiful prison labor available, work began on the Cellhouse which still stands today.

Completed in 1912 with 600 single cells, each with toilet and electricity, the Cellhouse

was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world! In 1915 Alcatraz was changed

from a military prison to “Pacific Branch, U.S. 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. During the great

depression of the 1930s military budgets were cut, and the Army was considering closing

the Disciplinary Barracks – a perfect match for the Justice Departments desires for a

super prison for incorrigible prisoners. Negotiations moved rapidly, and Alcatraz was

transferred to the Bureau of Prisons in October 1933. By early 1934 eighty years of the

U.S. Army on Alcatraz had ended – except for 32 hard case prisoners, who were left to

become the first penitentiary inmates. Some of the inmates included Al Capone and

Robert Stroud, also known as the birdman of Alcatraz. Capone’s exact cell is not

identified because records are not available. Former prisoners and Correctional Officers

indicate that Al Capone’s cell is located on the outside west end of Cellblock B. Capone

spent more time in the hospital than in the general population (GP).Robert Stroud

(Birdman of Alcatraz) arrived in 1942, spent some 90 days in the GP. and was then

transferred to D Block. Occupying more than one cell over a period of seventeen years,

Stroud stayed in D block cell for approximately six years and was then moved up to the

hospital in 1948, staying for eleven years, by request of Warden Swope. “Many times

the prison was almost shut down, but I never thought the government would actually shut

this place down. It was the best thing for the country. It lowered crime rates, because it

scared the citizens of the U.S. into believing they would go to “The Rock” if they were

even remotely bad. They shut it down, Oh God, they shut it down” (2) The prison ran

effectively, yet due to cost effectiveness, administrative changes in Washington, a change

in BOP’s operating philosophy (reinstitution rehabilitation). USPAZ. closed on 21 March

1963 (last prisoners removed on this day); Alcatraz was transferred to the General

Services Administration (GSA) in May of 1963. Alcatraz witnessed eight murdered by

other inmates (although records indicated only 7), five suicides, and 15 from illness.

These were all of the deaths that took place on the island. Some people heard that many

prisoners were killed in the gas chamber located on Alcatrz Island, they are wrong.

Although Federal courts do impose capital punishments, the reason why there is a gas

chamber, but the actual carrying out of that sentence is attended to in the nearest State

facility (in this case the death sentence was fulfilled at San Quentin State Prison). Is was

rumored that no one ever escaped this island, but that is not exactly the case. Thirty-six

prisoners were involved in attempts: 7 shot and killed, 2 drowned, 5 unaccounted for,

the rest recaptured. 2 prisoners made it off the island but were returned, one, in 1945

(Giles) and one in 1962 (Scott). As for June 1962 escape, Morris and the Anglin

brothers were successful in escaping both institution and island, but survival is very

questionable. So to say that no one ever escaped the island, that is not true. But if they

survived, we may never know. Some people heard that many prisoners were killed in the

gas chamber located on Alcatrz Island, they are wrong. Although Federal courts do

impose capital punishments, the actual carrying out of that sentence is attended to in the

nearest State facility Which in this case the death sentence would be fulfilled at San

Quentin State Prison. There were several families that were housed on the island. The

families were distributed in 64 Building, four wood frames houses, one duplex and three

apartment buildings. Warden resided in large house adjacent to cell house, Captain and

Associated Warden lived in duplex. The question that most people wonder, is how many

guards actually upheld the island of Alcatraz, their answer is, 90 officers were required to

cover the three 8-hour shifts, plus sick leave and vacation time. Two-thirds of the

custody staff resided on the island with the rest in the San Francisco and local areas. The

actual amount prisoners that were contained on the island is somewhat vague due to the

lack of accurate records. But as far as we know, it is somewhere in the vicinity of 1545

total, with 1576 numbers issued (some 30+ were returned to the institution with same

number reissued). The most that was ever held in the prison at one time was 302, and as

few as 222, but the typical average was around 260. Born of necessity, perhaps even

political expediency, Alcatraz represents the federal government’s response to

post-Prohibition, post-Depression America. Both the institution and the men confined

within its walls are a part of this era, and in order to be studied with any degree of

understanding, it must be attended to with a focus on this time period. Prisons are a

reflection of society and the reflection offered by Alcatraz is one of great clarity. The

collaborative effort of attorney general Homer Cummings and Director of the Bureau of

Prisons, Sanford Bates, produced a legendary prison that seemed both necessary and

appropriate to the times. The emergence of persistent assertions about J. Edgar Hoover’s

interest and influence with regard to Alcatraz cannot be corroborated, but neither have

they been completely denied. With the public peace constantly threatened by crime, a

response had to be made and Alcatraz was that response. An in-house memo issued by

Cummings shortly after taking office addressed the subject of creating a special prison

for kidnapers, racketeers, and individuals guilty of predatory crimes. A remote site was

sought, one that would prohibit constant communication with the outside world by those

confined within its walls. Although land in Alaska was being considered, the availability of

Alcatraz Island conveniently coincided with the government’s perceived need for a

super-prison. Having taken possession of the former Army prison and having

circumvented the San Francisco citizens who were concerned at the prospect of vicious

criminals in the near vicinity, the Bureau of Prisons set about selecting a warden who

could do the job. A well-organized, no-nonsense businessman and prison administrator

with twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections, James A.

Johnston was to be that man. Johnston had retired at the time of his appointment by the

Department of Justice, and its acceptance resulted in his serving as warden of Alcatraz

for the next fourteen years. Classified as a concentration model, where

difficult-to-manage prisoners from other institutions would be concentrated under one

roof, Alcatraz served as an experiment. Segregation on this scale had not before been

practiced, and only time would indicate its success or failure. Warden Johnston and the

second Director of the Bureau of Prisons, James V. Bennett, both were men well ahead

of their time. Visionaries in the field of penology, their knowledge enabled Alcatraz to

function as it had been hoped and to serve later as a model for the federal prison located

in Marion, Illinois. Contrary to popular myth, Alcatraz was to confine only a few of the

infamous headline-makers of the era. Of the 1545 men to do time within its walls, the

vast majority were not to be found on wanted posters adorning post office walls. “I was

doctor on that hell-hole. I served diligently for the better of three years. I attented to

some of the most notorious criminals, and I got to really know them. I found out that they

were people just like anyone else, but just with a severe case of bad luck.”(3) Alcatraz

was, of course, home to Al Capone for slightly under four and a half years. Transferred

from USP Atlanta in August of 1934, Capone was among the first “official” shipment of

prisoners to be received. His arrival generated bigger headlines than the opening of the

institution, giving birth to the endless myth of Alcatraz. The most difficult aspect of

Capone’s management in Atlanta was his constant contact with family members who

took up residence at a nearby hotel. Through this channel of communication Capone

continued to run his organization in Chicago. He also worked at corrupting officers and

enlisting fellow prisoners as personal servants. Influence and privilege were lost at

Alcatraz where Capone was assigned menial jobs and treated in accordance with others.

In failing health due to syphilis, he was transferred to FCI Terminal Island in January of

1939, and then on to USP Lewisburg, released from there in November of that same

year. “Yes I served on the rock. I was a prison guard for some of the meanest criminals

I’ve ever seen. I still have nightmares today of being there. We were commanded to be

cruel. We were taught that the only way we would survive, was to show no fear, or else

those criminals would eat you for breakfast. I’ll never forget the look on the inmates face

as they came onto Alcatraz, the most repulsive look, like they had nothing else to live for.

I’ll never forget happened there, my dreams won’t let me.” (4) Arriving on the second

“official” shipment to Alcatraz in September of 1934 was George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

Involved first in bootlegging, he was apprehended and sentenced to Leavenworth. At the

conclusion of a three-year stay, Kelly emerged from prison in touch with some of

America’s best bank robbers, and immediately pursued a new line of work. From

lucrative bank jobs, he advanced to kidnaping in 1933, holding for ransom a wealthy

Oklahoma oil magnate. His capture resulted in the first Lindbergh Law trial and it was a

courtroom sensation. Kelly was given a life sentence and returned to USP Leavenworth,

within months being transferred to Alcatraz. He was considered a model prisoner by the

officers with whom he came in contact, causing some question regarding his transfer to

the more secure institution. Headlines and Hoover must here be considered. After

seventeen years on Alcatraz, Kelly suffered a mild heart attack and was returned again to

Leavenworth in 1951. Within months of being paroled in 1954, a final attack ended his

life at the age of 59. From early days as a petty thief, Alvin Karpis moved on in his

career to join Ma Barker and form the Barker-Karpis partnership literally laying waste to

the Midwest between 1931 and 1936. His flamboyant style of robbery and kidnaping

earned him the absolute wrath of J. Edgar Hoover. Karpis soon found himself with a new

title, that of Public Enemy No. 1, and his name was recognized throughout the country,

Avoiding capture for some fifteen months after the Barkers were apprehended, Karpis

was finally taken into custody in New Orleans on May first, 1936. By August of that

year, Karpis was residing on Alcatraz where he would spend the next 26 years,

transferred to USP-McNeil Island in April of 1962, and released from the federal prison

system via deportation to Canada in 1969. Leaving that country to assume residency in

Spain, Karpis committed suicide in 1979. The most complete media coverage to be

accorded an Alcatraz inmate was given to Robert Franklin Stroud. He was to gain world

wide attention and notoriety as the Birdman of Alcatraz, regardless of the fact he was not

permitted to continue his avian studies during his 17 years on the island. Following

incarceration in USP McNeil Island, where he was sentenced to 12 years for

manslaughter in 1909, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth after serving only three

years. A history of violence dictated the move, and Stroud had been in Leavenworth less

than four years when he attacked and killed a custodial officer in front of better than

2,000 other inmates. His trial resulted in the death sentence, but was commuted to life

after his mother requested the intervention of President Wilson. Stroud’s hostile and

sometimes violent nature left prison administrators no choice but to keep him away from

other inmates and officers, and prison officials interpreted this to mean he should spend

the remainder of his life in segregation of some sort. The keeping of birds and the

studying of avian diseases gained international attention for Stroud, but it was also to

figure prominently in his ultimate transfer to Alcatraz. He began to openly violate prison

rules and regulations in favor of continuing his experiments and communications with bird

breeders and fanciers around the world. Stroud was literally packed up and moved out

in the middle of the night, with his destination being San Francisco. Arriving on Alcatraz

in 1942, he was to enjoy the company of fellow inmates within the confines of D Block

until there occurred a change in administration with the retirement of Warden James

Johnston and the arrival of Warden Ed Swope. The enigmatic Swope was not to be

challenged in any way by Robert Stroud and immediately moved him into a private room

in the prison’s hospital. Using ill health to justify the move, Swope was able to segregate

Stroud in such fashion that few, if any, were ever able to again see him. Genuine ill health

forced Stroud’s transfer to the Federal Medical Facility in Springfield, Missouri in 1959.

Four years after being received at the FMC, Stroud died of natural causes. The man

about whom the world knew, the man about whom books were written and films were

made was to be ignored in death as the date of his passing followed by one day the

assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On the morning of his death, Stroud was

found by a fellow inmate who is probably more widely recognized on an international

scale than any other confined on Alcatraz – recognized not so much by his own name

than by the defendants with whom he was tried in 1951. Charged with conspiracy to

commit treason, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing Prison in 1953,

and Morton Sobell was to arrive on Alcatraz the year before, 1952, and would spend

the next five years as the federal system’s most famous political prisoner. Sobell’s case

could easily be an example of J. Edgar Hoover’s influence. He simply did not fit the type

generally selected for incarceration on Alcatraz, but he most assuredly did meet the

criteria for the type particularly targeted by the FBI director. At this point, it is again

emphasized that the historic era must be given clear and serious focus, as the red witch

hunt for Communist subversives spread across the country, led by Joseph McCarthy a!

nd J. Edgar Hoover. Sobell alleged that Hoover dictated his placement in this maximum

security institution, and there really exists no denial regarding this allegation. Following the

five years inside Alcatraz, Sobell finished out the remainder of his sentence in USP

Atlanta for a total of eighteen and a half years out of the original thirty set forth by Judge

Irving R. Kaufman, Taken by the beauty of the Pacific and the Golden Gate, Sobell

expressed a desire to return to San Francisco when freedom was again his to enjoy.

Morton Sobellresides today in the city, and is part of the living history of Alcatraz. By

1962 the era on which the Federal Prison history of Alcatraz is predicated was coming

to an end. Times were changing and the Bureau of Prisons knew that they would have to

respond to that change. Alcatraz offered no concept of rehabilitation, and the bureau was

reconsidering its philosophy as it examines the pros and cons of warehousing as opposed

to rehabilitation. The physical structures on Alcatraz were indicating wear and tear that

would cost the government millions of dollars to upgrade to required security. Always an

expensive institution to operate, 1961 found the daily cost of inmate upkeep approaching

one-hundred dollars, and an overall cost for continuing operation at better than

six-million dollars. A new prison could and would be constructed at Marion, Illinois for

ten-million, so to continue incarceration of inmates on Alcatraz was economically

unsound. It is said that J. Edgar Hoover expressed displeasure at the closure of the

prison, but his decades-long power base could not stand up to the new attorney general

who made it quite clear to Hoover that a contrary decision had been made – a decision

that would be backed by the attorney general’s brother in the White House. On

Thursday, 21 March 1963, the end of an era arrived with the offic! ial closure of

Alcatraz. The population had been gradually reduced commencing in February, with the

final twenty-seven inmates taken off on the aforementioned date. For the first time in its

long and controversial history reporters were permitted on the island to cover the news

story that would make headlines across the country. “ALCATRAZ CLOSES!” In

looking for lessons to be learned from the operation of Alcatraz, lessons that can be

applied to our present society, one can only wonder as we examine overcrowded

prisons and the continuing attendant problems. Perhaps consideration should be given to

the prophetic words of a long ago Alcatraz prisoner, reflecting upon his plight: “Can

anything be worth THIS?” We can either learn from what valuable lessons that were

taught at alcatraz, or we can be ignorant and let it happen again. Alcatraz was considered

hostile, cruel, and unjust, and it was. But there was a lesson to be taught, now if we don’t

learn that human life is the most precious gift that we take for granted, then Alcatraz was

a good idea and it needs to be reinstated. But when you allow a man to lose his

freedoms that our forefather fought for, with impunity, it is simply the worst thing to

happen. Alcatraz was built for a good reason, it served for a good reason. Then it was

transformed into “The Rock.” Al! l the good that went into was lost. We as a country lost

sight of what was important to us, and now if we don’t learn from it, we are only asking

ourselves for it again. Bibliography 1. The Alcatraz WWW Homepage, Yahoo Search

Engine, 1996 2. Professor Clyde W. Richins, University of Michigan, 1990, Vol. 1 of “In

the life of Alcatraz” pages 1944- 46 3. Doctor William M. Hellem, Medical Physician on

Alcataz Island, 1983, Vol. 1 of “In the life of Alcatraz” pages 132-134 4.Lutenient

George R. Hendershaw, Guard that seved on Alcatraz Island,

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