Closing of Alcatraz
The Closing of an Icon
After two decades of intense scrutiny relating to operating costs and confinement practices, on Thursday, March 21, 1963, the end of an era arrived with the official closure of Alcatraz. The physical structures on Alcatraz were indicating wear and tear that would cost the government millions of dollars to keep the prison running to standard. A new prison would be constructed at Marion, Illinois to continue incarceration of inmates whose character did not “readily accustom themselves to the discipline of ordinary penitentiaries or avail themselves of the opportunities for training and self improvement.” The Marion facility, more centrally located to service the network of federal prisons would take over the role that Alcatraz held for nearly three decades. Whether it simply a perception or an origin of truth, the brutality conditions at Alcatraz proved too controversial in an era when prisons were supposedly committed to the rehabilitation of prisoners.
In late August of 1962, the rumors of Alcatraz closing were confirmed when transfer orders for prisoners started flowing in with the first official chain of six inmates was set for permanent departure to USP Leavenworth on September 10, 1962. On August 9, 1962, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, James Bennett wrote an official statement to the press announcing its closure and offered insight into their decision. Following an extensive engineering study of the physical structures to determine safety and operational effectiveness, it was determined that Alcatraz deteriorated to the point where it was potentially unsafe for both inmates and staff. The support structures were at the point where it “soon would be unable” support the cell blocks, or withstand an earthquake of significant magnitude. Included in his report were references that the catwalks for officers were no longer safe, and the electrical system was subject to a catastrophic “at any time.” It was concluded by an assessment firm that it would cost over $4,000,000 and take nearly five years to bring the prison back to standard. In brief, he made clear that Alcatraz’s days were now numbered.
The last group of inmates walk down Broadway for the last time.
James Bennett was quoted stating:
“The magnitude of the amount has caused us to reevaluate, with great care, the role which Alcatraz plays in our prison system. We continue to believe that we need an institution of this kind for the escape artists, the hostile, aggressive inmates who cannot or will not adjust in other institutions, and for big-time racketeers, gangsters, and hoodlums. We believe also that a maximum security institution of this kind, having strict regime with minimum privileges, is a crime deterrent of importance. We do not, however, believe that it would be an economically sound policy for the Federal Government to invest over $4,000,000 in repairing Alcatraz…”
Once its pending closure was announced, the population was gradually reduced by redistributing the inmate back to other federal prisons. On March 21, 1963, the press would be invited to watch the final twenty-seven inmates march down Broadway one last time.
Frank Weatherman (AZ-1576), who had been issued the last inmate number when he arrived in December of 1962, would also be the last inmate to walk the gangway to board T-Boat T-451 a converted transfer vessel that had been built during the Korean War and held the name “Warden Blackwell” christened on her bow.
When Weatherman was asked his final thoughts on Alcatraz by members of the press, he stated simply:
"Alcatraz was never no good for nobody..."
Frank Weatherman seen above and left, he was the last inmate to be transferred to Alcatraz, and the last inmate to walk down the gangway and leave the island.
An officer holding a calendar showing the last day of operations, March 21, 1963.
Officer Jim Lowry looks down Broadway with members of the press waiting for the last group of inmates to walk down Broadway one last time.
Staff and officers' family members watch as the last group of inmates board the transport vessel the "Warden Blackwell."
Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Fred Wilkinson shows the press the desperate state of the prison structure below the cell block. He chipped away pieces of cement which after 50-years had deteriorated and become unstable.