17 Fun and Weird Facts about Alcatraz Island and Prison
With a rich legendary past and the object of many tales of lore, Alcatraz Island and its infamous former prison has many stories to tell. Whether or not you have had the chance to tour this historic island, here are a few fun facts that you may or may not know.
The island of Alcatraz was a military outpost before it became a prison.
Back in the 1850s, the U.S. government outfitted the island with 100 cannons in an effort to ward off foreign invaders looking to cash in on the Gold Rush. Later, they were used to strongly discourage the Confederates from seizing control of California.
The First Lighthouse on the West Coast
Before it became a prison, the first lighthouse on the West Coast was built on Alcatraz in 1852. After the earthquake of 1906 destroyed the original structure, a stronger one was built that is still in use today.
Inmates of Alcatraz were forced to build their own prison.
Once the U.S. Army left the island, the base was deconstructed, leaving only the basement foundation. Military prisoners were then put to work to build a structure to be used as disciplinary barracks for the West Coast.
Alcatraz wasn’t all that bad.
The general consensus is that Alcatraz prison housed only the worst of the worst criminals. Not so. Due to its strict schedule and segregation practices, prisoners were often given their own cell. This greatly reduced the violence other prisons often experienced.
They even had hot showers.
One ‘luxury’ of Alcatraz prison was that inmates had access to nice hot water for showers.
And the kitchen was considered the best in the Federal prison system.
Alcatraz inmates had plenty of good food with a balanced diet and three meals a day. Because of all these ‘luxuries,’ it is thought that prisoners would be too lazy and fat to face the frigid waters of the bay for escape.
But then again…
During the 1930s, prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other apart from mealtimes and recreation breaks. Failure to abide by this resulted in strict military punishment and the practice was eventually revoked for being too cruel.
And yet some tried to escape.
We all know the odds of a successful escape from Alcatraz, due to the heavy guarding protocol and frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. Out of 36 men who tried to flee during 1934 – 1963, only 5 apparently vanished – maybe they drowned or perhaps made it to shore.
Prisoners earned their keep.
Some prisoners had jobs in the kitchen, the laundry room, or tending the docks and actually earned between 5 – 12 cents an hour.
Softball was a regular pastime.
Another reason why Alcatraz wasn’t completely barbaric is that prisoners did have the opportunity for physical exercise, and softball was a popular outlet.
Al Capone was an Alcatraz prisoner.
The most infamous gangster in American history did time here, along with Machine Gun Kelly. Capone even played banjo in the prison band.
Prison guards lived on the island with their families.
What was once Civil War barracks became housing for Alcatraz’s workers and their families. Families had separate facilities with a pool and bowling and often left the island for Marin County to stock up on supplies and groceries.
Alcatraz shut down in 1963 due to finances.
Because of its location in the frigid bay and the saltwater conditions, the prison became too costly to maintain. The issues were saltwater erosion of the structures, and the cost to feed and shelter the inmates was three times that of normal prisons due to the remote location.
The longest stay was by a Creepy Canuck.
Alvin Francis “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz served the longest time at Alcatraz (25 years) and even had to be transferred to another prison when Alcatraz shut down. He was eventually deported to his native Canada.
Native American activists protested on Alcatraz in 1969.
A group of Native American activists occupied the island in protest of the U.S. government’s policy of terminating the tribal sovereignty of Native Americans. Their occupancy lasted 19 months before the authorities moved in, but not before President Nixon heeded their call and effectively ended the government seizure of Indian lands.
Alcatraz has gone to the birds…literally.
Gone are the prisoners to be replaced by nature’s aviary residents. Western seagulls flock to the island, and visitors often have to watch their step so they don’t walk in bird poo. In fact, about 5,000 birds across nine species call Alcatraz home.
Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most visited attractions.
With its rugged location and legendary status, “the Rock” as it is often called, was converted into a park as part of the U.S. National Park System in 1972. More than 1.5 million people visit the tiny island every year.
Alcatraz Cruises is the Official Tour and Ferry Operator for Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz City Cruises offers in-depth visits to Alcatraz. Your visit will include round-trip transportation to the Island.
Learn More about Alcatraz and Plan a Trip
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