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What is the History of Alcatraz Prison?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 23, 2024
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Alcatraz prison, situated on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay off the coast of California, has had a storied past. It opened in 1861 as a military facility for detaining Civil War prisoners. At that time the island was used exclusively as a ground troops fortification, and the prison was just part of a larger military installation there. It also held prisoners of war during the Spanish-American conflict in 1898. In 1933 it was transferred to the United States government for use as an all-purpose federal incarceration facility, and in this capacity it housed a number of famous — and infamous — convicts. There is a lot of lore surrounding both the prison and the island, including myths about dungeons and the island’s impenetrability, but most are little more than exaggerations. The prison closed in 1963, but remains a popular tourist attraction.

Military Use

The island, which was named for the Spanish word for “pelican,” was a military fortification soon after it was discovered by Spanish explorers. It was first claimed by Mexico, but the Mexican governor reportedly gifted it in its entirety to an American named Julian Workman in 1946, and he later sold it to the U.S. government for use as a military installation. At first the island was used as a fortification, presumably to guard the bay and the city of San Francisco from water-based warfare, but the military also built a prison there in 1861.

The first inmates were captured Confederate sympathizers during the American Civil War. That war pitted the northern states, known as the “Union,” against those in the south, which were known as the “Confederacy.” California and the west were not directly involved in the conflict, but generally aligned with the ideologies of the north. These prisoners were usually captured in the west and were often accused of being privateers.

War prisoners were also detained here during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Spanish nationals and those fighting for control over Cuba and other regions in the Caribbean were held as prisoners of war, and caused the population of those incarcerated to more than quadruple.

Transfer to Civilian Control

The first civilian prisoners came from the main San Francisco prison in 1906, when a massive earthquake rendered that building severely damaged. The island, by contrast, was more or less untouched. The military ultimately closed its fort and relocated its prison in 1933, at which time it transferred the island and all of its facilities to the United States for use as a wholly civilian installation. From that point on, it was used as a federal penitentiary that housed prisoners from all over. Almost any inmate could be sent to Alcatraz, but lore holds that only the most dangerous and devious were ever transferred there.

Capacity and Conditions

On the whole, the prison had the capacity to hold 336 prisoners but was at no time filled. Many of the prisoners claimed that the conditions in the prison as good as if not better than to other prisons. Alcatraz held only males.

One of the myths surrounding prison was that it was inescapable. Although the waters surrounding the island are extremely cold and full of strong currents, there are no man-eating sharks or other life-threatening terrors, things often portrayed in films. It also sits only 1.5 miles (about 2.4km) from the harbor. In recent years two 10-year-old children actually swam to the island from the wharf in San Francisco to prove that it could be done. The difference for them, of course, is that there were no prison guards actively watching during their jaunt.

There were a number of escape attempts from the federal prison. In total 36 men attempted 14 separate escapes. Twenty-three were caught, two were drowned and six were shot and killed during their escape attempts. There are still five prisoners who escaped who are listed as "Missing Presumed Drowned."

Well-Known Inmates

In sum, the prison housed 1,576 prisoners before it shut down in 1963. Much of the popular history of the island showcases the most famous or notorious criminals who served time there, and indeed some well-known individuals were incarcerated behind its walls. Most of the prisoners, however, were just ordinary criminals.

Some of the most talked-about inmates included Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Arthur "Doc" Barker. One of the most famous films made of Alcatraz's history was The Birdman of Alcatraz, which starred Burt Lancaster as real life prisoner Robert Stroud, who was rumored to have raised birds in his cell. Scholars and researchers are often quick to note that Hollywood took liberties with the actual story, however. In real life Stroud did breed and study sparrows and canaries, and he did write two books about canaries and their diseases while he was incarcerated. However, some of the birdcages and equipment in his cell were eventually discovered to be part of a still for brewing alcohol, so the story didn’t have quite as happy or wholesome an end as the film seemed to suggest.

Native American Claims

The prison was closed in 1963, largely as a matter of cost. It was an expensive facility to maintain and its proximity to the water resulted in extensive salt erosion over the years that proved very costly to maintain and restore. It wasn’t left abandoned for long, though. A group of Native Americans sought to occupy the island, including the prison structure, in 1969; some of them claimed that the island was rightfully theirs, but most just wanted to make a larger statement about how the United States’ policies were negatively impacting indigenous peoples. They stayed for nearly two years, and many of the buildings on the island still show damage from the fires and vandalism that occurred as that conflict wore down.

Tourism

In 1986 the island and the prison were listed as National Historic Landmarks, and the facility opened its doors to tourists shortly thereafter. The island is open to the public, but is managed by the National Park Service and the prison is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The only endorsed way to get to the prison is by chartered ferry, and a number of companies run boats out of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, a well-known tourist area. People can usually walk around the island freely, but entering the prison usually requires a guide. Some parts of the building are still in workable order, but others are in various states of disrepair. Tours typically also include ruins of the original military garrison and viewings of some of the underground cells.

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Discussion Comments
By anon352080 — On Oct 19, 2013

I think its haunted I read all the comments and I'm going there soon so I'm going to see if it's haunted.

By anon325213 — On Mar 14, 2013

If it's not haunted, then why did a person die in a strip cell screaming that a monster was killing him slowly? He screamed all night and then there was silence, and when the guards when to check on him he was strangled to death by someone else. He didn't kill himself.

By anon319952 — On Feb 15, 2013

what happened to the prisoners from Alcatraz after it closed?

By anon246300 — On Feb 08, 2012

You can't say it's not haunted because you weren't there at the time. You don't know how the inmates were treated and you don't know how many people died there. It's full of misery and I think it's haunted. Horrible times call for a horrible story. It was a prison in the 1900's -- think about it.

By anon241004 — On Jan 16, 2012

Whether or not it's haunted, I don't know. But I went there years ago and that was when I saw a dead body for the first time. On the ferry ride back from Alcatraz a woman jumped off the boat and died. The boat turned around and went back looking for her and we (my classmates and I) saw her dead, floating in the water. It's an image that even now 14 years later I can't get out of my mind. I don't think I'll ever go back.

By anon167959 — On Apr 14, 2011

I think it is haunted, I was there (daytime) but I still saw some weird things. In the library I saw a book slide out from under a shelf or something and slide back in, it only got out like 2 centimeters though.

By anon127283 — On Nov 15, 2010

i doubt it's haunted. my mom said there is no such thing as ghosts, only spirits like demons and stuff and if they are real the bible says not to mess with them. They won't mess with you if you don't mess with them.

By anon126306 — On Nov 12, 2010

is it haunted? If it is, why don't you spend the night after hours when no one is there. Just avoid security, if there is any. Take a video camera and a flashlight and videotape this so called haunting? Put it online.

By anon121211 — On Oct 23, 2010

Haunted? Horse hockey. People will believe whatever they want to scare themselves into believing. It's an old, decrepit prison where "spooky" sounds happen. As for "Ghost Hunters" what a laugh. Anything for a buck, anything for a rating. I have seen that load of crap they try to peddle. Pure junk and bunk.

Alcatraz is a fascinating place for it's history, a look into the past and the lives of those criminals who needed to be kept out of a civilized world. Also a look at an island that holds a truly historical existence well before the military and Federal prison eras.

If you go looking for spooks, you will find them as the mind has an unlimited amount, only limited by your imagination. Personally, I go for the history and it is a very rich and rewarding experience.

By anon109494 — On Sep 07, 2010

i do believe it is is haunted. my mom once went there and she said it was awesome.

By anon106621 — On Aug 26, 2010

Guys it's haunted. If you don't believe me watch Ghost Hunters. It's amazing what they find at the end. "Harry Brunette" and I don't think they could have faked that stuff.

By anon104139 — On Aug 15, 2010

Alcatraz is such a funny place. i have been there and it was not that scary.

By anon96955 — On Jul 17, 2010

Alcatraz is most definitely haunted, and those of you who don't believe so should go there yourselves. i have been there, so i know. these are not stories either. there's evil in that place and if you're scared the tiniest bit by the paranormal i really do suggest you not go there. i'm still shaken up about it.

By anon89087 — On Jun 08, 2010

I'm going to visit it one day.

By anon89085 — On Jun 08, 2010

Alcatraz or Alcatraz is a place with lots of paranormal activities especially in cell 14, which belonged to Frank Norris who haunts the place.

Believe me: and my mates have been in there and my bag went flying.

By anon78619 — On Apr 19, 2010

I read that it is mainly in one area but i can't remember where! and i have been there!

By anon75619 — On Apr 07, 2010

wow, guys. alcatraz is haunted. i've been there.

By anon74312 — On Apr 01, 2010

No, i don't think it's haunted! i think it's just a story somebody tried to come up with. people bore very easily these days and if someone really wanted to know the truth they should go to the museums and see for themselves.

By anon73755 — On Mar 29, 2010

i think it's haunted and that's my opinion.

By anon73258 — On Mar 26, 2010

wow. pretty scary. i would want to go see for myself if it's really haunted.

By anon71474 — On Mar 18, 2010

i don't think al capone would be there as a ghost because he was set free from Alcatraz.

By anon69041 — On Mar 05, 2010

Alcatraz is not haunted by ghosts, or haunted by convicts, murderer, hardened criminals. It's a big old dirty prison that was abandoned because it was too costly to run. Yikes. What's the fascination of that?

By anon68752 — On Mar 04, 2010

Honestly. Alcatraz is not haunted. It's just disturbing knowing that I myself have stood where Al Capone and George Kelly have also. There is no such thing as ghosts.

By anon67979 — On Feb 28, 2010

Alcatraz is awesome.

By anon67797 — On Feb 26, 2010

I really don't think that Alcatraz is haunted. it does seem creepy but not in a haunted way.

By anon64184 — On Feb 05, 2010

alcatraz was on a ghost show and they proved that it was haunted and i do believe in some things and that is one of them. now some of the stuff may be fake but i do believe there is something there.

By anon55175 — On Dec 05, 2009

haunted, really? yeah right. i've been there myself. its not haunted -- just really big and dirty! I can't believe that people really think alcatraz is haunted. If there is such thing as alcatraz phobia, people who think alcatraz is haunted have it!

By anon51854 — On Nov 09, 2009

well there's a show, the othersiders on cartoon network, and they went there and they heard clanks and bangs and even heard al capone playing his banjo. because that was a report and al capone did have a banjo while he was at alcatraz and he would play it because he was so bored.

By anon51819 — On Nov 09, 2009

i wonder if any one ever got out of the prison successful? what cell was al capone in?

By anon50837 — On Nov 01, 2009

im wondering if it is. i think it is just because it's so old.

By anon50331 — On Oct 27, 2009

*gulp* my friend says there are spirits there at night. it's scary.

By anon49874 — On Oct 23, 2009

you can say it's haunted once you prove it.

By anon36877 — On Jul 15, 2009

anon, I hate to bust your buble but Alcatraz is not haunted. I worked there for five years as a park ranger and a guard (not the prison type). I knew the park ranger who started the shark with the fins cut off rumor. (she did it to see just "how stupid can people be") If you are a history buff by all means go there. it is a historic site, though most of the interesting stories I don't believe are told. have fun but no ghosts. rick

By anon35955 — On Jul 08, 2009

well... there were a lot of deaths at Alcatraz... I have a pretty good idea that it's haunted... maybe.

By anon21166 — On Nov 11, 2008

i wonder how haunted this prison really is...i want to go one day and see for myself.

By anon8785 — On Feb 20, 2008

is this prison really haunted??...I wonder....

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