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Why Did Alcatraz Close?

The prison on Alcatraz Island was expensive to operate, as all supplies had to be brought in by boat. The island had no source of fresh water, and almost one million gallons were shipped in each week. Building a high-security prison elsewhere was more affordable for the Federal Government, and as of 1963 “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island” was no more. Today, the equivalent of the infamous federal prison on Alcatraz Island is a maximum-security institution in Florence, Colorado. It is nicknamed “Alcatraz of the Rockies”.

Alcatraz Island history

The National Park Service on Thursday will mark the 50th anniversary of the closing of Alcatraz prison on March 21, 1963. The following is a timeline of Alcatraz history, with information provided by the park service.

1853 — U.S. military begins construction of a fort on Alcatraz Island to defend San Francisco Bay. It was part of the North’s western defensive strategy during the Civil War.

1859 — 11 soldiers arrive on the island for confinement. During the Civil War era Alcatraz was used to imprison soldiers accused of desertion and other crimes as well as citizens accused of treason. On one occasion the crew of a Confederate ship was incarcerated there.

1907 — Alcatraz is decommissioned by army as a fortification, but it remains a military prison. By 1908 the army had begun a major rebuilding campaign, erecting a massive concrete cellhouse.

1934 — After being transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice, Alcatraz reopens as a federal penitentiary designed to hold high-profile riminals, including the gangsters who proliferated during the Great Depression. The prison was meant to isolate these men from contact with the outside world. The focus was strictly punitive there was no rehabilitative mission. Some famous inmates included Al Capone, “Doc” Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

1946 — A failed escape attempt leads to the Battle of Alcatraz. A small group of inmates take several guards hostage. Three inmates and two guards die during the standoff, which ends with a bombardment of the main cell block by the military. Two other inmates were later executed for their role in the battle.

1962 — Inmate Frank Miller leads the most famous of 14 escape attempts at Alcatraz. He and brothers John and Clarence Anglin dig away the concrete around the ventilation grates in their cells, allowing them into a utility corridor between rows of cells. With dummy heads made of papier-mâché in their beds to fool the guards during night rounds, they climb up pipes to the top of the cell block and onto the roof. They slip down to the ground, scale a barbed-wire fence and make their way to the shore, where they inflate a makeshift raft. The men are presumed to have drowned, though that is not known for certain. The escape inspired the 1979 Clint Eastwood film, “Escape from Alcatraz.”

1963 — Alcatraz prison, decaying and too expensive to maintain, is shut down by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

1972 — The property comes under the control of the National Park Service and becomes part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Today — Alcatraz receives nearly 1.5 million visitors a year, more than many national parks, including Kings Canyon.

How Alcatraz Worked

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.­

San Francisco Bay is notoriously difficult to spot from the ocean, even in daylight. At night in a typical fog, it can be very dangerous to navigate. A 40-foot (12.2-m) lighthouse was built on Alcatraz in 1854. In addition to the light, it had a bell that could be rung in dense fog to warn ships.

In 1909, new construction obstructed the lighthouse, so the old one was razed and a new one built. It still operates today.

The Escape-proof Alcatraz Prison

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.

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].

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.

What do you do when inmates in a jail misbehave? Put them in a more restrictive part of the jail. At Alcatraz, this purpose was served by D-Block, where prisoners spent almost every minute in their cells, with only one hour per week for exercise. Repeat rule breakers might end up in "the Hole," one of five special cells with an iron door that blocked all light. One final cell was for the worst of the worst. It had no toilet, just a hole in the floor. Prisoners were often left in this cell naked and without any blankets, and the food was meager.

Prior to D's construction, troublesome prisoners were sent to "the dungeon," a series of old cells in the basement, left over from the original building upon whose foundation the prison was built.

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.

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.

All inmates at Alcatraz were treated the same, even if they were famous. Crime boss Al Capone, who had it easy at his prior prison and ran his criminal empire from behind bars, came to Alcatraz expecting the same deal. He received no special treatment and spent most of his time at Alcatraz sick with syphilis.

The legendary Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, was known for breeding and studying dozens of birds in his cell at his former prison. No birds were allowed in his cell at Alcatraz, despite his growing fame outside prison walls. In fact, when his own biography was published, he wasn't allowed to read it because it had chapters about his criminal life [source: Oliver].

Civil War at Alcatraz

Fort Alcatraz during the late 19th century. The citadel and lighthouse are at the top of the island.

The National Park Service is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (1861 – 1865.) We acknowledge this defining event in our nation’s history and its legacy in continuing to fight for civil rights, or as Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, “that this nation….shall have a new birth of freedom.” To learn more about the National Park Service’s Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the Civil War, please visit The Civil War: 150 Years page.

Early Military Planning for Alcatraz

After the U.S. government took control of California from the Republic of Mexico in the late 1840s, it identified Alcatraz Island as a place of great strategic military value. Located in the middle of the bay, the island offered 360-degree military protection. The Army’s Corps of Engineers designed a "Triangle of Defense", planning to install guns on Alcatraz, Fort Point and Lime Point (ultimately never constructed) to guard the entrance of San Francisco Bay. The 1848 discovery of gold in California catapulted the territory to the center of national attention and prompted the need for additional military protection. To learn more about Civil War events and personalities in California and the San Francisco Bay Area, please visit the Civil War at Golden Gate page.

The Fort Alcatraz citadel, constructed of brick walls with rifle-slit windows, was completed in 1859. (photo circa 1885)

Building Fortress Alcatraz

Originally, the army’s plans for developing the fort at Alcatraz Island was part of the “Third System of U.S. military fortifications” identified as the third generation of American forts. Traditionally, the military plan for constructing such a fort was to select a strategic location, cut the site down to sea level and then construct a multi-tiered masonry fort with thick stone and brick walls. However, the nature of Alcatraz Island’s geology did not lend itself well to this traditional military plan. Because of the island’s natural height and isolation, the site already had great strategic potential. Instead of cutting the rock and soil down to sea level, the Army Corp of Engineers incorporated Alcatraz’ rugged topography into its defense plan.

Army construction started on Alcatraz in 1853. Blasting at the rock and laying brick and stone, laborers created steep walls around the island. Behind the walls, the army placed cannon at the north, south, and west sides to enable gunfire at incoming enemy ships. When the work was finished, the army had constructed emplacments for 111 cannons that encircled the island. To the north and south, masonry towers jutting out from the island midway between gun batteries held smaller guns to protect the sides of the island. For more information on the guns of Fort Alcatraz, please visit the Alcatraz fortifications page.

Crowning the island near the lighthouse (the first built on the Pacific coast in 1854) was a defensive barracks called the Citadel. The Citadel was the final defense if the island was attacked. Constructed of sturdy brick walls with rifle-slit windows, the two upper stories provided living quarters, and the basement featured kitchens, dining halls, and storage for food, water and ammunition. Soldiers entered the Citadel by crossing a drawbridge over a deep dry moat surrounding the building. The Citadel could hold 100 men during peacetime and double that number under attack. By rationing provisions, troops could withstand a four-month siege. With the army’s state-of-the-art military construction, Alcatraz Island became the most powerful of all Pacific Coast defenses.

Nature seems to have provided a redoubt for this purpose in the shape of Alcatrazes [sic] Island…..situated abreast the entrance directly in the middle of the inner harbor, it covers with its fire the whole of the interior space lying between Angel Island to the North, San Francisco to the South, and the outer batteries to the West. a vessel passing directly to San Francisco must pass within a mile.

- The Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast, 1852

The lighthouse on Alcatraz Island, constructed in 1854, was the first lighthouse activated on the West Coast.

The Evolution of Alcatraz as a Military & Civilian Prison

Though Alcatraz is now famous for its role as a federal prison, its history as a holding place for criminals began before the Civil War. The army first used the guardhouse’s basement cell room in 1859 to contain soldiers who had committed crimes. Because of the island’s escape-resistant location in the middle of San Francisco Bay, other army posts began to send their hardcore soldier prisoners to Alcatraz for safekeeping. By 1861, the government designated Fort Alcatraz as the official military prison for the entire Department of the Pacific.

It was during the Civil War that the military began to house a different kind of prisoner. When President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeus corpus in 1863, the judicial system could arrest individuals and imprison them without trial in a court of law. The Union government in San Francisco now used the Alcatraz guardhouse to imprison private citizens, accused of treason, as well as soldiers. At this time, treason was broadly defined to encompass any pro-Confederate or anti-Union sentiment, from rejoicing in the Union’s loss of a battle, refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Union, or recognizing the Confederate States of America, to plotting or privateering for the Confederate cause. Many local politicians and citizens, whose loyalty to the Union was suspect, were arrested and jailed on Alcatraz to serve time. These prisoners could be detained without a trial and despite a lack of sufficient evidence of their crimes.

A Fort Alcatraz soldier stationed at a mounted Rodman gun, one of the scores of heavy guns mounted in barbette batteries that ringed the island in all directions.

Photo courtesy of Bancroft Library, PARC, GGNRA

Fort Alcatraz’ Military Significance

By 1859, as the country was heading towards a civil war, Fort Alcatraz stood as the only permanent completed military fortification on San Francisco Bay (and west of the Mississippi River.) Unfortunately, the “Triangle of Defense” was not yet operational. Fort Point was still under construction and would not be finished until 1861 and the army’s Lime Point construction had stalled due to land ownership issues. The plans for forts on Angel Island, Yerba Buena Island and Point San Jose were even farther behind and only existed as drawings on engineers’ maps.

In contrast, the army continued to work on Alcatraz throughout 1860 and 1861, expanding and improving the island’s existing fortifications. The military also used the island as a training ground for soldiers. New troops continually arrived on the island, underwent training, and departed for other assignments. With many new enlistees, the military personnel on Alcatraz increased to over 350 by the end of April 1861. The army slowly increased the number of men assigned to Alcatraz throughout the Civil War, reaching a high point of 433 men in early 1865. The army shipped most of these soldiers out to the Southwestern frontier however, some were sent to battlefields in the East.

Protecting San Francisco from Enemies of the Union

From the very beginning of the Civil War, the government considered Fort Alcatraz to be one of the strongest and most formidable military fortifications in the entire United States. As rumors came to light that Southern sympathizers were plotting to separate San Francisco and its wealth from the Union, Fort Alcatraz’s coastal defense position became even more significant. A series of events at Fort Alcatraz illustrated both some admirable aspects of war as well as some chilling ones. During the Civil War, the country’s new division pitted brother against brother, turning former friends and allies into enemies. Fort Alcatraz became a political backdrop, illustrating how war and rumors called certain people’s military allegiance into question.

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston

I have heard foolish talk about an attempt to seize the strongholds of government under my charge. Knowing this, I have prepared for emergencies, and will defend the property of the United States with every resource at my command, and with the last drop of blood in my body. Tell that to our Southern friends!

- Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston,
Commander of the Department of the Pacific,
U.S. Army, 1861

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston’s role during the Civil War tells a compelling story about duty and loyalty during wartime. Johnston, born in Kentucky and raised in Texas, served in three different armies: the Texas Army, the United States Army and the Confederate States Army. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, considered Johnston to be the finest military officer in the United States. By January 1861, while still a member of the Union Army, Johnston was rewarded with the appointment of Commander of the Department of the Pacific in California one of his many responsibilities included the protection of Fort Alcatraz.

Despite Johnston’s great military experience and leadership capabilities, his southern roots and association with Jefferson Davis undermined the public’s faith in his commitment to defend the Golden Gate from potential southern attack. Many San Francisco citizens who questioned his loyalty spread rumors that local confederates had approached him to seek his help in attacking the city.

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston

However, while Col. Johnston served the Union Army, he did faithfully fulfill his duty to calm the threat of war locally and to protect San Francisco. Fearing an attack on Benicia Arsenal, he ordered the transfer of rifles and ammunition to Alcatraz for safekeeping. Johnston also ordered the acceleration of Fort Point’s construction and demanded that they position its first mounted guns to defend against attacks from the city. Col. Johnston directed those under him to maintain calm among San Francisco’s civilian population and provided additional troops to defend their posts against any attempts to seize them.

While the Union Army was confident that Col. Johnston would not do anything dishonorable, they feared that he was still too vulnerable to potential Southern influence. In April 1861, Col. Johnston was relieved of his post. After returning to the South, Johnston accepted a commission as general in the Confederate Army and died at the battle of Shiloh as one of the greatest heroes of the Confederacy.

The first threat to California's security occurred in March, 1863. The Union government learned that a group of Confederate sympathizers planned to arm a schooner, the J.M. Chapman, use it to capture a steamship which would raid commerce in the Pacific, and threaten to blockade the harbor and lay siege to the forts. However, the Confederates' plans were thwarted when their ship captain bragged about their scheme in a tavern. On the night the Chapman was to sail, the U.S. Navy seized the ship, arrested the crew and towed the Chapman to Alcatraz, where an inspection revealed cannons, ammunition, supplies, and fifteen hiding men. One of these men, a prominent San Franciscan, had papers signed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis ensuring him an officer's commission in the Confederate Navy as a reward for this daring plot.

Rather than becoming Confederate heroes, the three ringleaders were arrested as traitors and confined in the Alcatraz guardhouse basement during the investigation. After a quick trial and conviction for treason, they were spared ten years imprisonment on Alcatraz by a pardon from President Lincoln. The Unionists in San Francisco were shocked by the incident and feared that other Confederates were plotting in their midst.

In October 1863, an unidentified warship entered San Francisco Bay. Because there was no wind, the flag hung limp and men in rowboats towed the ship. The ship did not head toward the San Francisco docks but instead, made way towards Angel Island and the army arsenal and navy shipyard. The commanding officer at Alcatraz had a duty to ensure that no hostile warship entered the bay.

Captain William A. Winder, Post Commander, ordered the Alcatraz artillery to fire a blank charge as a signal for the ship to stop. The rowboats continued pulling the ship. Winder then ordered his men to fire an empty shell toward the bow of the ship, a challenge to submit to the local authority. The ship halted and responded with gunfire, which Winder confirmed was a 21-gun salute. Through the smoke, the Alcatraz troops could finally see the British flag waving on the H.M.S. Sutlej, flagship of Admiral John Kingcome. Alcatraz responded with a return salute.

Soon messages were exchanged rather than gunfire. As Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy's Pacific Squadron, Kingcome wrote that he was displeased at his reception in San Francisco. Captain Winder explained his actions by saying, "The ship's direction was so unusual I deemed it my duty to bring her to and ascertain her character." The U.S. Commander of the Department of the Pacific supported Winder and replied that Kingcome had ignored the established procedures for entering a foreign port during war. Winder later received a letter of gentle reminder to act cautiously. Many San Franciscans applauded Winder's actions knowing that Great Britain favored the Confederacy.

The Bradley and Rulfolson Photography Controversy

Fortunately, eight of the fifty Bradley & Rulfolson photos have been recently found. A descendent of a Civil War soldier station at Alcatraz donated them to the City of Sacramento. (photo circa 1864)

Out of pride for Alcatraz’ grand fortifications, the Fort Alcatraz commander Captain Winder authorized noted commercial photographers Bradley and Rufolson to take photos of the island in the summer of 1864. The photographers were very thorough, capturing fifty different views of the island, including the Citadel, the dock, the soldiers’ barracks and every road and gun battery on the island. In order to offset the photographers’ expenses, prints of the photographs were to be made into portfolios and sold to the public for $200 a set.

However, the War Department in Washington, D.C. did not commend Winder for his initiative and pride in his post, but rather questioned Winder's motives because his father was an officer in the Confederate Army. The Secretary of War ordered all the prints and negatives to be confiscated as a threat to national security. Later, Captain Winder humbly requested a transfer to Point San Jose, a small defense post on the mainland, later renamed Fort Mason.

The Winder Family: One of Many Divided Families during the Civil War

Besides dividing the nation, the Civil War sometimes divided families, especially in the border states of Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky where slaveholding was legal but Union sentiment was also strong. The family of Captain William A. Winder was one example, and their commitment to the Confederacy cast the pall of suspicion on the commander of Fort Alcatraz.

One local newspaper stated that while commanding Alcatraz, Captain Winder “was feeding the rebel prisoners held there on the fat of the land and off from silver plates.” This printed exaggeration was a particularly charged assertion because his father, Brigadier General John H. Winder, was vilified in the North as the Confederate officer in charge of prisoner-of-war camps for Union Soldiers, camps notorious because of near-starvation rations and unhealthy conditions.

Two of Captain William Winder’s half-brothers were also captains in staff positions for the Confederate Army, while his second cousin, Brigadier General Charles S. Winder died in combat at the head of the famous Stonewall Brigade, an elite unit once commanded by Stonewall Jackson himself!

Given the number of Confederates in Captain Winder’s family, it was no wonder that criticism mounted in the wake of the Bradley and Rulfolson photography fiasco to the point that that Alcatraz garrison was reinforced by a contingent whose officer-in-charge outranked Winder. Chastened and humbled, Captain Winder sought transfer and the army reassigned him to the command of the Fort Mason post for the remainder of the war. Shortly thereafter, he resigned his commission. Nevertheless, in later years, Winder received testimonials for his loyal service from a number of influential officers, including the Commander of the Department of California, Brigadier General George Wright, who wrote, “I was fully convinced of his loyalty to the Government. At the frequent inspections I made of Alcatraz during his command, I always found everything in the most perfect order and satisfactory condition. His system of alarm signals to prevent surprise, and general preparations to meet any emergency, evinced a thorough knowledge of his duty and responsibility of the most important defense of the harbor and city of San Francisco.” (from a report in an 1894 Congressional Edition)

The End of the War

As the Civil War lingered on and the Union seemed likely to win, the U.S. Army was willing to devote more resources to the Pacific Coast. The end of the bloodshed came in sight when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. Unlike the news of the beginning of the war, which took twelve days to reach California on horseback, the news of its end quickly reached San Francisco via telegraph. The city erupted in great celebration, with citizens cheering in the streets and guns booming from many of the forts around the bay. Less than a week later, on April 15th, another telegraph came bringing less joyous news: this telegraph told the city of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This time the city descended into chaos. Pro-Union mobs ransacked the offices of a local Confederate newpaper and attacked many citizens thought to be pro-Confederate. The military ordered artillerymen from Fort Alcatraz into the city to maintain order, prevent rioting, and punish anyone was bold enough to rejoice in the tragedy. Confederate sympathizers throughout California who celebrated Lincoln’s death, were arrested and imprisoned on Alcatraz. During the city’s official mourning period, Alcatraz’ batteries were given the honor of sending out a half-hourly cannon shot over the bay as a symbol of the nation’s grief.

To learn more about Civil War events in California and the San Francisco Bay Area, please visit the Civil War at Golden Gate page.

To learn more about how Californian historical events and personalities played a role in the Civil War, please visit the California Role in the Civil War page.

To learn more about Point San Jose military reservation (later Fort Mason), please visit the Civil War at Fort Mason page.

For More Reading:

Alcatraz at War by John Martini (2002)

Fortress Alcatraz Guardian of the Golden Gate by John A. Martini (2004)

Artillery at the Golden Gate by Brian B. Chin

For other Alcatraz-related books, please visit the Parks Conservancy online bookstore.

4 Uncle Sam&rsquos Devil&rsquos Island

Before becoming a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz had been been a military prison for decades. During the US Civil War, the prison housed many Confederate sympathizers and even San Francisco civilians who celebrated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Later, it was used to imprison Native Americans.

Despite its history, Alcatraz wasn&rsquot officially designated a prison until 1907. From that point until it became a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz was commonly known as &ldquoUncle Sam&rsquos Devil&rsquos Island,&rdquo a name popularized by conscientious objectors imprisoned there during World War I. Philip Grosser, the most prominent conscientious objector and one of the country&rsquos leading anarchists, spent three years in Alcatraz and wrote a pamphlet entitled Uncle Sam&rsquos Devil&rsquos Island upon his release.

Grosser exposed the cruel tactics used in Alcatraz. According to him, objectors were singled out and tortured by being stuck in cages 58 centimeters (23 in) wide and 30 centimeters (12 in) deep. Depending on the prisoner, a board would sometimes be bolted to the back of the cage to reduce its depth even more. The prisoner was forced to stand upright for eight hours straight then sent to solitary confinement for the remaining 16 hours of that day. The process was repeated each day for months on end. The experience eventually contributed to Grosser&rsquos suicide in 1933.

Why A Group Of Native American Activists Laid Claim To Alcatraz Island 50 Years Ago

Thanksgiving marks the 50th anniversary of the Alcatraz take over, when activists claimed the former prison island, citing a treaty that said all unused federal land would return to Native Americans.

If you want to hear more about the Alcatraz occupation, you can find Latino USA's episode about the life and legacy of one of its leaders Richard Oakes: By Right of Discovery, which was produced by Antonia Cereijido and Janice Llamoca.

Fifty years ago, Alcatraz Island briefly became an Indigenous mecca. This Thanksgiving, hundreds will gather on the island to honor this anniversary. Antonia Cereijido of NPR's Latino USA podcast tells the story of the occupation of Alcatraz and its impact.

ANTONIA CEREIJIDO, BYLINE: In the late 1960s, there was a burgeoning Indigenous movement whose goal was to fight for self-determination. Kent Blansett, professor of Native American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says mainstream news organizations were trying to capture what was going on.

KENT BLANSETT: The press was having a field day in the sense of covering what is this new Native movement and trying to figure out what is red power.

CEREIJIDO: Red power worked to bring Indigenous history and issues to the forefront of policy. There was a focus on reclaiming Indigenous land.


RICHARD OAKES: We, the Native Americans, reclaim this land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.

CEREIJIDO: This is one of the movement's leaders, Richard Oakes, speaking to KRON4 News in 1969. He was a Mohawk and San Francisco State student. Alcatraz Island, the famous former prison off the shore of San Francisco, had been abandoned for many years, but news got out that there were plans to build a casino in its stead. When the Native activists heard about this, they had an idea.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Richard, can you describe for me again what it is you hope to build out here on Alcatraz?

CEREIJIDO: His argument - for centuries, conquerors and settlers stole land from Indigenous tribes and struck up treaties they never intended to follow. Citing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which set aside lands west of the Missouri River for the Sioux and Arapaho tribes, the activists laid claim to the island. And they go in front of news cameras and offered a familiar deal.


R OAKES: We wish to be fair and reasonable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land and hereby offer the following treaty. We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for $24 and glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.

CEREIJIDO: The offer might have been tongue-in-cheek, but activists had serious plans to move onto Alcatraz. Within a month, they managed to organize a radio station, a ferry system that would take food to the island and even a small school for children who came with their parents. A bill was presented in the House of Representatives in December of 1969 to, quote, "give Alcatraz back to the Indians." But six weeks into the occupation, tragedy struck. Leonard Oakes, Richard Oakes', son was one of the children on the island.

LEONARD OAKES: My older sister, she had fallen, and she hit her head on the corner of a brick slab. It had split her head from one temple to the other.

CEREIJIDO: They moved Yvonne Oakes, Richard Oakes' daughter, off the island and into a hospital in San Francisco. But she didn't make it. Morale on the island started to slip after that. Here's a news report from NBC in 1970.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Things have fallen apart in the year they've been here. The buildings seem to be burning down one by one. The garbage is piling up.

CEREIJIDO: The government accused occupiers of stealing and selling copper wiring from the buildings on Alcatraz. Nineteen months after the occupation began, the Coast Guard came in and removed the activists.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: What had started as a symbolic invasion in November of 1969 and later turned into a bitter struggle for the small band of Indians who vowed to hold Alcatraz forever was ended here today.

CEREIJIDO: A newspaper reporter interviewed Richard right away about Alcatraz, to which he said what would become his most famous quote - Alcatraz is not an island it's an idea. Here's indigenous scholar Kent Blansett again.

BLANSETT: Alcatraz is not an island it's an idea - that what happens on Alcatraz is beyond just the island itself it's a movement and that this movement will slowly begin to kind of take over America.

CEREIJIDO: The red power movement ended in the late 1970s, but it laid the foundation for future fights in places like Standing Rock in North Dakota and the Amazons in Brazil. And last year, after decades of Indigenous activist organizing, San Francisco recognized October 8 as Indigenous People's Day rather than Columbus Day. Hundreds gathered on Alcatraz to celebrate.

For NPR News, I'm Antonia Cereijido.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR&rsquos programming is the audio record.

Alcatraz escape of June 1962

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Alcatraz escape of June 1962, jailbreak from the supposedly escape-proof maximum-security federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, California, on the night of June 11, 1962. After six months of meticulous preparation, three inmates managed to break out, though it is uncertain if they reached the mainland. The escape is thought by some to have factored into the decision to close Alcatraz prison less than a year later.

A guard making a routine cellblock head count on the early morning of June 12, 1962, came upon three inmates apparently still sleeping in their cells. Further investigation revealed that the “inmates” were in fact dummy heads, made from painted papier-mâché with hair glued on, and that the actual occupants of the cells—the convicted armed robber Frank Morris and the convicted bank-robbing brothers Clarence and John Anglin—were nowhere to be found. The guard raised the alarm, and the warden in charge promptly notified state and federal authorities as well as the U.S. military. An intensive manhunt began.

In the cells of the missing men, guards discovered that grille openings in the concrete back walls, which were 8 inches (20 cm) thick, had been laboriously enlarged with tools fashioned from spoons stolen from the mess hall. Fake grilles—also made from papier-mâché (with paper taken from magazines in the prison library)—had been used to hide the areas of excavation while work was still in progress. Authorities traced the path of Morris and the Anglin brothers through a utility corridor and up the back wall of the cellblock, using plumbing piping as steps, to the cellblock roof. From there the three lifted themselves up through a large ventilation shaft and reached the roof of the building. They next used a large exterior pipe to slip 50 feet (15 metres) to the ground. Then the men cut through the barbed wire at the top of the perimeter fencing and scrambled down a steep embankment to the water’s edge. Their subsequent movements are unclear.

No one was known to have successfully escaped from Alcatraz—located some 1.5 miles (2 km) offshore, in San Francisco Bay—since it became a federal penitentiary in 1934. For this reason, prisoners with a history of successful or attempted escapes elsewhere were often sent there. All three of the escapees fit into that category, and Morris, the ringleader, was flagged as an “escape artist” on prison records. He was also highly intelligent, and his plan made allowance for the difficulty of swimming to shore in the cold water and strong current of the bay. It was his idea to build an inflatable raft by gluing together rubber raincoats that had been stolen from the prison shop where they were manufactured. Many details about the plot were supplied by Allen West, an inmate who was an active participant but had failed to get out of his cell in time to join the others. West helped build both the raft and rubber life jackets, using a makeshift workshop on the cellblock roof, which he had been assigned to paint by guards who did not monitor him. The plotters used the same roof to store other equipment, such as the makeshift drill they used to remove the cover from the ventilation shaft.

It is fairly certain that Morris and the Anglins escaped from Alcatraz Island, but it is not known whether they successfully escaped to the mainland. Fragments of their rubber equipment were found on or near Angel Island, a former immigration station that was their intended intermediate destination. From Angel Island the men had intended to swim to the Marin county mainland, according to West, and then steal new clothes from a retail store. However, no such crime was reported. Some speculated that the men had died before reaching shore. Although no bodies were found in the bay, they could easily have been swept out to sea by the current.

In the ensuing years there were supposedly several sightings of the escapees and messages from them. Reports of their survival were offered to the media by family members and former associates. The Federal Bureau of Investigation remained skeptical and closed its case in 1979, concluding that the three had drowned in the bay. Their story was dramatized in the film Escape from Alcatraz (1979), starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris.

Inmate #117: George &aposMachine Gun&apos Kelly

George Celino Barnes, better known as "Machine Gun Kelly," 1933.

Photo: Adoc-Photos/Corbis/Getty Images

Conviction: Kidnapping

Time Served at Alcatraz: 17 years (1934�)

Post-Term: died of a heart attack in jail

It couldn’t be said that many of the criminals who ended up in Alcatraz were from good families, but Machine Gun Kelly was raised in a well-off Memphis household and even attended some college. A sudden marriage led him to drop out of school, and he got involved in bootlegging during Prohibition. Kelly didn’t really hit the big time, though, until he met and married a more experienced criminal named Kathryn Thorne. Thorne groomed her new husband for success, buying him a Thompson machine gun and encouraging him to learn how to use it. Soon, the two robbed banks Bonnie and Clyde-style throughout the South and word of “Machine Gun Kelly” spread.

The couple misstepped when they kidnapped an Oklahoma oil tycoon named Charles Urschel. They successfully obtained a $200,000 ransom and began to live large, but the Bureau of Investigation (soon to become the F.B.I.) was on the case. In two months’ time, the Barneses were caught, convicted, and sentenced to life. When Kelly bragged that the tough Leavenworth Prison couldn’t hold him, alarmed officials immediately shipped him to Alcatraz. He arrived not long after Al Capone and Roy Gardner.

Unlike Gardner, who was anything but a model inmate, “Machine Gun” Kelly served his time at Alcatraz quietly. He was so well-behaved that other inmates began to refer to him as “Pop” for “pop gun.” He worked in the office, served as an altar boy, and reportedly regretted his life of crime. When he left Alcatraz in 1951, however, it wasn’t to go free he was transferred back to Leavenworth, where he died in 1954.

Alcatraz Prison History and Facts

Since its creation in 19th century, to its peak in the middle of 20th century when some of the greatest prisoners of USA were held there, the famed prison Alcatraz slowly built his reputation that made him the world's best known prison. Often called as "The Rock", this famous prison was built on the small rocky island in the Bay of San Francisco. Its remote location was first used as a place for bay's first lighthouse, but over years American military took control of the island and slowly transformed it into a prison.

Island Alcatraz was discovered by famous Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who was the first European who entered San Francisco Bay. He named the island as "La Isla de los Alcatraces" (which translates as "the island of the pelicans"). By the middle of 19th century, Mexican governor Pio Pico commissioned the construction of lighthouse on that island. Shortly after the end of Mexican-American war and the acquisition of California in 1850, by the order of 13th president of the United States Millard Fillmor Alcatraz became the property of US military. In the following ten years army started building fortifications and defensive cannons to the island, which were never fired during the length of American Civil War. It was during that time that island received its first prisoners. Remote location and fortified military complex proved to be great spot for a prison, and after military decided to move their forces off the island, only prison remained. Population of the prison slowly rose through the decades, and biggest addition to its size happened after Spanish-American war in 1898 and 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

In 1907, Alcatraz officially became designated as Western U.S. Military Prison, and construction work on its expansion began. By 1912 the main prison block and surrounding buildings were complete, and slowly prison started increasing its population. The majority of prisoners that were sent there caused problems at other prisons, and maximum security provided by the facilities and islands natural defenses proved to be instrumental for its fame. During the age of 1930s prohibition, many famous gangsters and criminals were housed there, most notably Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. During its entire history, no prisoner managed to successfully escape Alcatraz. In total of 14 escape attempts, 36 prisoners tried to escape, 23 were caught, 8 died on the run, and five remaining are considered missing and drowned.

Because of its increasing cost and remote location, Alcatraz prison was officially closed on March 21, 1963, only two years after the most famous prison escape attempt of all time. After the complicated and daring plan, inmates Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin managed to exit the prison complex walls and enter the icy waters of San Francisco Bay. Their bodies were never found and although the officials claim that they most certainly drowned, U.S. MarshallOffice still investigates this case.

In the years after the prison closed, Alcatraz Island became a home of large group of Indian protestors who fought against the US government about rights of Indian people. In 1986 Alcatraz Island was declared a National Historic Landmark, and tourist comes from around the world to explore this interesting historic site. The fame of this island continues to rise even today, with never-ending tributes that are made in countless pieces of written and film media. Many books and movies tried to describe conditions inside its prison during its peak, and the legends about Alcatraz prison entered into pop culture as one of the best known prisons of the world.

Watch the video: National Geographic - Alcatraz: No Way Out


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