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Welcome to Alcatraz...
Imagine yourself cold and shivering on a damp and thickly fogged-in morning. Heavy steel shackles squeeze your wrists and ankles, and the constricting metal seems to amplify the cold. Your movements are constrained, which makes it difficult to maintain your balance as you embark on the island ferry. You catch a brief glimpse of what will soon be your new home across the foggy bay…

Your new roommates are considered the most hardened criminals in the American penal system. Their resumes boast crimes ranging from kidnapping to espionage, bank robbery to murder. As you disembark with the firm assistance of a correctional officer, he smiles, looking up toward the cellhouse, and utters words that will never leave your memory: "Welcome home, welcome to Alcatraz."

Each year over one million tourists board the Alcatraz ferry and visit what was once considered the toughest Federal prisons in America. Today, Alcatraz is one of the biggest tourist magnets and most famous landmarks of San Francisco. The island's mystique, which was created primarily by books and motion pictures, continues to lure people from all over the world to see firsthand where America housed its most notorious criminals. Cramped cells, rigid discipline, and hard-line routine were the Alcatraz trademarks, and it was the last stop for the nation's most incorrigible prisoners.
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On any given day, you can find thousands wandering the island and taking in its unique history. The cellhouse, now empty of the dangerous criminals who were once housed there, still carries remnants of the dark events to which these walls once bore witness. This is a journey into a dim part of the American past, and few walk away fully comprehending. The clichéd expression, "if these walls could talk," is taken to a deeper level when probing the rigid silence of Alcatraz.

The island received its name in 1775 when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the San Francisco Bay, and named this tiny speck of land La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translated to "Island of the Pelicans." The small uninhabited island had little to offer, with its swift currents, minimal vegetation, and barren ground.

Seventy-two years later in 1847, the U.S. Army took notice of "The Rock" and of its strategic value as a military fortification. Topographical engineers began conducting geological surveys, and by 1853, U.S. Army Engineers had started constructing a military fortress on the island, along with the Pacific Coast's first operating lighthouse. In 1848, the discovery of gold along the American River in California brought shiploads of miners from around the world to the West Coast in search of the precious metal. As word spread around the globe of abundant wealth in California, the United States Government would invoke security measures to protect its land and mineral resources from seizure by other countries.
English sea voyager Sir Francis Drake passed the San Francisco Bay during his Western expedition in 1579. Alcatraz would remain undiscovered until 1775 via land expedition.
After several years of laborious construction and various armament expansions, Alcatraz was established as the United States’ western symbol of military strength. The new military fortress featured long-range iron cannons and four massive 36,000-pound, 15-inch Rodman guns, which were capable of sinking mammoth hostile ships three miles away. The guns of Alcatraz could fire 6,949 pounds of iron shot in one barrage. Though the fortress would eventually fire only one 400-pound canon round at an unidentified ship, and miss its target, the island had lived up to its self-made reputation as an icon of U.S. military power. But within a few decades the island's role as a military fortress would start to fade away, and its defenses would become obsolete by the standards of more modern weaponry.

Because of its natural isolation, surrounded by freezing waters and hazardous currents, Alcatraz would soon be considered by the U.S. Army as an ideal location for holding captives. In 1861 the island began receiving Civil War prisoners, and in 1898 the Spanish-American war would bring the prison population from a mere twenty-six to over four hundred and fifty. Then in 1906, following the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake, hundreds of civilian prisoners were transferred to the island for safe confinement. By 1912 a large cellhouse had been constructed on the island's central crest, and by the late 1920's, the three-story structure was nearly at full capacity.
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Drake's ship the Golden Hind.
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Alcatraz was the Army's first long-term prison, and it was already beginning to build its reputation as a tough detention facility by exposing inmates to harsh confinement conditions and ironhanded discipline. The prisoners were separated into three classes based on their conduct and on the crimes they had committed, and each class held distinct levels of privilege. For example, prisoners in the third class were not allowed to have reading material from the library or visits and letters from relatives, and a strict rule of silence was rigidly enforced at all times. Prisoners who violated these rules faced strict disciplinary measures. In addition to losing their earned class rankings, violators were assigned punishments that included but were not limited to working on hard labor details, wearing a twelve-pound ball and ankle chain, and enduring solitary lock-downs with a severely restricted bread and water diet.
Alcatraz Island as depicted in a 1876 wood cast engraving.
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The average age for law-offending soldiers was twenty-four years, and most of the prisoners were serving short-term sentences for desertion or lesser crimes. However, it wasn't uncommon to find soldiers serving longer sentences for the more serious crimes of insubordination, assault, larceny and murder. One interesting element of the military order was that prisoners’ cells were used only for sleeping, unless the inhabitant was in lock-down status. All prisoners were prohibited from visiting their cells during the day. Inmates with first or second class rankings were allowed to go anywhere about the prison grounds, except for the guards’ quarters on the upper levels.

Despite the stringent rules and harsh standards for hardened criminals, Alcatraz primarily functioned in a minimum-security capacity. The types of work assignments given to inmates varied depending on the prisoners, their classification, and how responsible they were. Many inmates worked as general servants who cooked, cleaned, and attended to household chores for island families. In many cases, select prisoners were entrusted to care for the children of staff members. Alcatraz was also home to several Chinese families, who were employed as servants, and made up the largest segment of the island’s civilian population. The lack of a strict focus on prison security favored some inmates who hoped to make a break to freedom. But in spite of their best efforts, most escapees never made it to the mainland, and usually turned back to be rescued from the freezing waters. Those who were not missed and failed to turn back eventually would tire and drown.
James "Birdseye" McPherson was a Lieutenant from New York assigned to complete building the military fortress at Alcatraz in 1858. In letters he wrote of his extreme dislike of being stationed on the Rock.
The public disliked having an Army prison as a sterile focal point in the middle of the beautiful San Francisco Bay, so the Military made arrangements to have soil from Angel Island brought over, and it was spread throughout the acreage of Alcatraz. Several prisoners were trained as able gardeners, and they planted numerous varieties of flowers and decorative plants to give the island a more pleasing appearance from the mainland. The California Spring and Wild Flower Association contributed top-grade seeding, ranging from rose bushes to lilies. The island residents enjoyed tending their gardens, and it was said that the landscape work assignments were among those most favored by the prisoners.

Over the decades the prison's routine became increasingly more relaxed, and recreational activities grew more prevalent. In the late 1920's prisoners were permitted to build a baseball field, and were even allowed to wear their own baseball uniforms. On Friday nights the Army hosted "Alcatraz Fights" that featured boxing matches between inmates selected from the Disciplinary Barracks population. These fights were quite popular, and often drew visitors from the mainland who had managed to finagle an invitation.
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Alcatraz as seen during the Civil War era from Point San Jose in San Francisco
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Due to rising operational costs, the Military decided to close the prison in 1934, and ownership shifted to the Department of Justice. Coincidentally, the Great Depression became the root of a severe crime surge during the late 20's and 30's, which ushered in a new era of organized crime. The gangster era was in full swing, and the nation bore witness to horrific violence, brought on by the combined forces of Prohibition and desperate need. The American people watched in fear as influential mobsters and sharply dressed public enemies exerted heavy influence on metropolitan cities and their authorities. Law enforcement agencies were often ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught, and would frequently cower before better-armed gangs in shoot-outs and public slayings.

A public cry went out to take back America's heartland, and so the die was cast for the birth of a unique detention facility – one so forbidding that it would eventually be nicknamed Uncle Sam's Devil's Island.
Fortress Alcatraz as seen in 1870, from a stereograph card image taken by Eadweard Muybridge and originally published by Bradley & Rulofsen.
Alcatraz was the ideal solution to the problem. It could serve the dual purpose of incarcerating public enemies while standing as a visible icon, a warning to this new and ruthless brand of criminal. Sanford Bates, the head of the Federal Prisons, and Attorney General Homer Cummings led the project, and they kept a hand in the finely detailed design concepts. One of the nation’s foremost security experts, Robert Burge, was commissioned to help design a prison that was escape-proof as well as outwardly forbidding. The original cellblock, built in 1909, would undergo extensive upgrades and renovations.

In April of 1934 work was begun to give the military prison a new face and a new identity. The soft squared bars were replaced with modernized tool-proof substitutes. Electricity was routed into each cell, and all of the utility tunnels were cemented to completely remove the possibility that a prisoner could enter or hide in them. Tool-proof iron window coverings would shield all areas that could be accessed by inmates. Special Gun Galleries would transverse the cellblock perimeters, allowing guards to carry weapons while protected behind iron rod barriers. These secure Galleries, which were elevated and out of reach of the prisoners, would be the control center for all keys, and would allow the guards the unique ability to oversee all inmate activities.
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Alcatraz Island as depicted in 1907 with a steamer seen in the distance.
Special teargas canisters were permanently installed in the ceiling of the Dining Hall, and they could be remotely activated from both the Gun Gallery and the outside observation points. Guard towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter, and new technology allowed the use of electromagnetic metal detectors, which were positioned outside of the Dining Hall and on the Prison Industries access paths. The cellhouse contained a total of nearly 600 cells, with no one cell adjoining any perimeter wall. If an inmate managed to tunnel their way through the cell wall, they would still need to find a way to escape from the cellhouse itself. The inmates would only be assigned to B, C, and D blocks, since the primary prison population would not exceed 300 inmates. The implementation of these new measures, combined with the natural isolating barrier created by the icy Bay waters, meant that the prison was nearly ready to receive the nation's most incorrigible criminals. az-citadel.jpg
The Alcatraz Citadel photographed in 1898 following the Civil War. Note the ornamental canon balls along the perimeter.
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