How Alcatraz Worked


Welcome to Alcatraz.
Welcome to Alcatraz.
Paul Giamou/Aurora/Getty Images

Surrounded by strong currents and fortified by steel and concrete, Alcatraz federal prison was meant to be the highest-security prison in America, a place no one could escape from. The island on which it rests shuns even plant life. Alcatraz is essentially a rock surrounded by water -- hence its forbidding nickname, "The Rock." The only creatures that don't mind being around are the great white sharks that troll the chilly water. Beyond the prison's security measures, the island itself provided a strong deterrent to escape.

The name Alcatraz at one time represented the worst side of American life, home of the hardest criminals guilty of the worst crimes. It gained such mystique that some gangsters actually wanted to go there to enhance their reputation among other criminals.

The mystique grew further when Hollywood got hold of it. Movies depicted Alcatraz as haunted, dramatized life inside the prison and glorified the criminals that were sent there, giving Alcatraz a larger-than-life image. Escapees, kingpins and the most famous inmate of all, the Birdman of Alcatraz, continued to inflate the prison's reputation in the public eye.

Reality at the prison was sometimes stranger than fiction -- there were several daring escapes, complete with a few missing bodies and an account of chipping away at walls with spoons. In general, however, the story was often more mundane, because conditions at Alcatraz probably weren't much worse than at other prisons at the time.

Alcatraz has a history much greater than the almost 30 years it spent as a federal penitentiary. As a fort, a lighthouse, the site of a Native American occupation and a national park, Alcatraz has changed through the centuries, often reflecting changes in American society. In this article, we'll learn about the infamous federal prison, some of the notable people who were sent there and famous incidents in the prison's history. We'll also find out how Alcatraz became a prison and why it's an important location in the movement for greater Native American rights.­

The Escape-proof Alcatraz Prison

2008 HowStuffWorks

Alcatraz Island is actually the top of a mountain, a rough spit of sandstone jutting from San Francisco Bay. The bay was once a valley, but at some point tens of thousands of years ago, sea levels rose and the valley filled in with water. Very little soil covers the island, and as a result, very little plant life grows there naturally (some trees and bushes were brought there by construction crews in the past).

The waters around Alcatraz are especially treacherous. They're usually very cold, below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius), and the currents are strong. When the tide recedes, the current tends to draw out toward the Pacific Ocean, rather than toward San Francisco. To make matters worse, let's not forget the great whites.

Perched on this island rock is a concrete and steel prison. It was first built as a military prison in 1912. In 1934, it was completely remodeled, making it the most high-tech prison in the U.S. at the time.

An aerial view of Alcatraz Island
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The prison was built to accommodate about 600 prisoners, although as a federal prison, Alcatraz only held a maximum of 300 inmates (some of the cell blocks from the military prison era were closed off with wire grating). The initial 1912 design was innovative -- the island provided one barrier to escape, and the thick concrete walls and barred windows of the prison building created another. Within the prison building were cell blocks, rows of iron cells that had no point of contact with any outer walls. Each cell block was like a prison inside a prison. The 1934 remodeling replaced all the iron bars with hardened steel, called "tool-resistant" steel because it could withstand cutting with a hacksaw. It cost more to install the new steel bars in 1934 than it cost to build the entire prison in 1912: more than $200,000 [source: Barter].

A re-creation of the cell once occupied by Alcatraz escapee Frank Morris
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New steel wasn't the only new technology on the island. A mechanical locking system that allowed guards to open certain cell doors or groups of cell doors remotely, by pulling levers at a control panel, replaced the old system of a single key for each cell. Metal detectors, a relatively new technology in 1934, were also placed on prison grounds.

There were three cell blocks, A, B and C, all running parallel to each other. A Block was the shortest, while B and C ran the length of most of the main building. Each cell block was three tiers high. Each cell was 5 feet (1.5 m) wide by 9 feet (2.7 m) deep, and contained a bed, a sink, a toilet and a small desk for writing. Two shelves for personal items ran along the back wall. Three of the cell walls were solid concrete, while the front "wall" was made of the hardened steel bars. Only one prisoner lived in each cell.

Next, we'll see what life was like inside Alcatraz.

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Life on Alcatraz Island

A National Park Service ranger walks down "Broadway."
A National Park Service ranger walks down "Broadway."
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

For the prisoners living in Alcatraz prison, life was similar to life in other American prisoners of the era. That is to say, not especially pleasant, but neither was Alcatraz the brutal hellhole many blockbuster films make it out to be. In the mornings, each prisoner swept his cell clean, dressed and stood ready for a head count. Then they all marched to the mess hall for breakfast before moving on to work at the docks, in the laundry area or at one of the industrial buildings on the island. They could also spend time studying in the library. After dinner, inmates returned to their cells -- "lights out" was at 9:30 p.m.

The prisoners nicknamed the long concrete walkways between the cell blocks. The central walkway was Broadway, and the others were named Park Avenue and Michigan Avenue. The area in between the mess hall and the cell blocks was called Times Square. At either end of the main cell block area was a "gun gallery," a multilevel walkway enclosed in bars and mesh and patrolled by armed guards who had a clear view (and a straight shot) at any point on the cell block.

An empty guard house near the prison recreation yard as the sun sets on Alcatraz
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There were some key differences at Alcatraz, however. The first warden, James Johnston, upheld absolute discipline and a very rigid routine. For the first few years of operation, the prisoners weren't allowed to talk at all except for brief periods, even at meals. Speaking out loud resulted in a stay in the dungeon or on D Block. This enforced silence was one aspect of life at Alcatraz that really grated on the inmates. Eventually, they began talking out en masse, realizing that there weren't enough isolation cells to hold them all, and the talking ban was relaxed [source: Barter].

It's true that the treatment of prisoners in the isolation cells was inhumane, and there were protests regarding prisoner treatment at Alcatraz at the time. These led to gradual reforms that removed some of the harshest punishments. On the other hand, many Alcatraz prisoners were happy to be there instead of another prison. The intense discipline and routine meant the prison was kept very clean, and it was relatively safe compared to other places.

Convicts weren't the only ones living on the island. The guards and their families lived there too. The children took a boat off the island to attend school every day. In fact, nothing was produced or grown on the island, so a boat ride was required for every shopping trip. The island did have a movie theater and other recreational opportunities. But life was also a bit strange. Children weren't allowed to have toy guns, because a prisoner could get a hold of one and use it to bluff a guard and escape. Magazines had to be carefully destroyed, because the prisoners weren't allowed to receive news of the outside world and definitely weren't allowed to read about sex or crime. Razors, knives and silverware had to be thrown into the bay [source: Babyak].

Next: inmates who tried to escape the escape-proof prison.

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Escape from Alcatraz

Alcatraz may not have been escape-proof, but that doesn't mean it was easy to break out.
Alcatraz may not have been escape-proof, but that doesn't mean it was easy to break out.
Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Despite the intense security, things didn't always run smoothly at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. There were several escape attempts from the escape-proof prison, including one that might have been successful.

Joseph Bowers was shot and killed while climbing a fence in 1936. Two prisoners managed to escape in 1937, but it's generally believed that they drowned, although their bodies were never found. The next year, three inmates attacked and killed a guard during an escape attempt. One was killed by another guard, a second was wounded and the third gave up.

A 1939 escape attempt was the seed of a fictionalized film,"Murder in the First," starring Kevin Bacon as Henri Young. In real life, Young tried to escape along with three others. They were found on the beach, where one escapee was shot and killed, another wounded, while Young and Rufus McCain were nearly incapacitated by the cold water. A year later, Young stabbed McCain to death in the prison workshop. Young's trial brought attention to the miserable conditions of the solitary confinement cells, where he was kept for extended periods. This eventually resulted in a conviction on a reduced charge, but Young wasn't quite the sympathetic character portrayed in the movie.

It's a 1962 escape that is perhaps the most famous. Brothers Clarence and John Anglin and Frank Morris spent long months patiently working at their plan. They chipped away with spoons at the rotted concrete around the ventilation grates in their cells, using cardboard painted to look like the original grate to disguise the work. When the holes were large enough, they could move into an open maintenance space, reserved for pipes and conduits. There, they constructed life vests and a raft out of raincoats they accumulated. Their absence from their cells at night was disguised by clever papier-mâché heads left on each pillow. Finally, the trio climbed ventilation shafts to the roof, hopped a fence and escaped into San Francisco Bay. Later, some personal items belonging to one of the Anglin brothers were found floating in a plastic bag, leading prison officials to declare the men drowned. They were never seen or heard from again, but the legend persists that they successfully made their way to nearby Angel Island or were picked up by a waiting boat.

Alcatraz during the prison riots of May 1946
Charles E. Steinheimer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In the first season of the TV show MythBusters, the show's crew tested the Anglin/Morris escape strategy, attempting to paddle across the bay on a similar makeshift raft. They successfully made it to shore after a difficult, unpleasant journey. While the experiment doesn't prove that the 1962 escape succeeded, it shows that such an escape was technically possible.

There were also several riots and protests by prisoners at Alcatraz, many due to the general conditions in the prison. In the 1950s, racist white prisoners rioted because of the presence of black prisoners in the same cell blocks. But the bloodiest incident in Alcatraz history happened in 1946. A band of six prisoners overpowered a guard and launched an effort to take over the entire prison. Several more guards were locked up (and later shot). Guards from nearby San Quentin prison joined with military troops to retake Alcatraz by force. Two guards were killed and three of the prisoners who had started the incident also died. Two of the surviving three were later killed in San Quentin's gas chamber.

In the next section, we'll find out how a nondescript island became a notorious prison.

History of Alcatraz

Alcatraz: for the birds
Alcatraz: for the birds
Mark Oatney/Digital Vision/Getty Images

We don't know much about the early days of Alcatraz Island, because no one called it home. There is speculation that Native Americans used it as a place of exile for those who broke tribal law. More likely, local tribes visited the island to gather eggs, since birds were the only creatures who lived there. In fact, the name Alcatraz comes from a Spanish word for gannets or pelicans: alcatraces.

In 1847, the first official survey of the island took place. Lieutenant William H. Warner of the U.S. Army noted that the island overlooks the entrance to San Francisco Bay and would make a perfect location for a fortification to guard the area [source: Oliver]. The army built a dock and reshaped the island to construct defensive positions. Several buildings had been constructed by the 1860s, when dozens of artillery pieces were placed to help defend against possible Confederate incursions during the Civil War. A large building called the Citadel was erected to house the troops stationed there -- the prison at Alcatraz would later be built on the Citadel's foundations.

No major military events occurred at Alcatraz, although the island's guns were fired several times, always due to a misunderstanding or misidentification of a ship. As the years passed, the military began shipping prisoners to the island, usually soldiers who had deserted or committed other crimes. The commanding officers would stick these prisoners wherever they would fit (in the Citadel's basement, at first), building new places for them almost haphazardly. At the end of the Civil War, it was decided officially to convert the island into a military prison. The Citadel was converted and expanded in the 1870s.

By the dawning of the 20th century, the old military prison was overflowing and outdated. The massive earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906 shunted almost 200 city prisoners to Alcatraz, proving once and for all that a modern prison was needed. The Citadel was torn down, and the United States Military Prison, Pacific Branch, Alcatraz Island was completed in 1912.

By the 1930s, military officials had begun to question the need for a prison like Alcatraz. The military wasn't in the business of running prisons, and it was creating a drain on their budget. At the same time, Prohibition and other factors had led a high crime rate nationwide. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, was spearheading efforts to crack down on criminals. He needed a fearsome prison to send criminals to, and Alcatraz fit the bill. The change of ownership and renovation of the prison took place between 1933 and 1934, when the first prisoners arrived under a shroud of secrecy.

Sioux tribesmen staking claim to live and farm on Alcatraz.
Jon Brenneis/Time Life Pictures/ ­Getty Images

Alcatraz's life as a federal prison ended for many of the same reasons it stopped being a military prison. Everything on Alcatraz had to be shipped in -- every meal, magazine and pack of cigarettes -- which made running Alcatraz far more expensive than a mainland prison. In addition, the old concrete building was deteriorating due to the constant contact with saltwater. It would cost millions to repair. The final nail in the coffin was the escape of 1962. If the prison wasn't truly escape-proof, what purpose did it serve? In 1963, it was closed down permanently.

The history of Alcatraz wasn't over, however. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the island was occupied by a band of Native Americans from several tribes who demanded that they be given ownership of the island. Ultimately, their demands weren't met and the takeover failed, but it brought a great deal of attention to the inequalities suffered by Native Americans. In the aftermath, government policies changed to allow tribes to determine their own fates and exist as political and commercial entities [source: Johnson].

In 1973, Alcatraz Island became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The prison still stands, and millions of visitors have taken tour boats to the island to experience a small piece of U.S. history.

For more articles on prisons and other history stuff you might like, try the next page. 

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Sources

  • ­Babyak, Jolene. Eyewitness on Alcatraz, Life on The Rock as told by the Guards, Families & Prisoners. Ariel Vamp Press (July 1988).
  • Barter, James. Alcatraz. Lucent Books (January 2000).
  • Johnson, Dr. Troy. "We Hold the Rock." National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/alca/historyculture/we-hold-the-rock.htm
  • Oliver, Marylin Tower. Alcatraz Prison in American History. Enslow Publishers (September 1998).
  • Presnall, Judith Janda. Life on Alcatraz. Lucent Books (August 2000).