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Alcatraz Island; a History

Alcatraz Island; a History
August 12
08:24 2022

“The Rock” Becomes a Federal Prison

Al Capone

Eighty-eight years ago, this week – August 11, 1934 – the first boatload of civilian prisoners would land on Alcatraz as it officially became a maximum-security federal penitentiary meant to house the most dangerous prisoners – including “Scarface Al” Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

Alcatraz Island is a 22-acre rocky outcrop situated 1.5 miles offshore in San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz was an uninhabited seabird haven when it was explored by Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces, or “Island of the Pelicans.”

The Spanish fortified the island, eventually selling it to the United States in 1849.

In 1854, it had the distinction of housing the first lighthouse on the coast of California.

Just before the Civil War began a U.S. Army detachment was garrisoned at Alcatraz in 1859. Beginning around 1868 Alcatraz was used to house military criminals.

In addition to recalcitrant U.S. soldiers, prisoners included rebellious Indian scouts, American soldiers fighting in the Philippines who had deserted to the Filipino cause and Chinese civilians who resisted the U.S. Army during the Boxer Rebellion.

In 1907, Alcatraz was designated the Pacific Branch of the United States Military Prison.

But in 1934, Alcatraz – also known as The Rock – was fortified into a high-security federal penitentiary designed to hold the most dangerous prisoners, especially those with a penchant for escape attempts.

Although some three dozen men made the attempt, no prisoner was known to have successfully escaped Alcatraz. But the bodies of a few escapees were never found, and it is presumed they drowned in the treacherous water.

One prisoner, John Giles, caught a boat ride to the shore in 1945 dressed in an army uniform he had stolen piece by piece. But he was questioned by a suspicious officer after disembarking and sent back to Alcatraz.

Only one man, John Paul Scott, was recorded to have reached the mainland by swimming, but he came ashore exhausted and hypothermic at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Police found him lying unconscious and in a state of shock.

Maybe the most famous of the Alcatraz “tenants” was Richard Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

A convicted murderer, Stroud wrote an important study on birds while being held in solitary confinement in Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

Regarded as extremely dangerous because of his 1916 murder of a guard at Leavenworth, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. Stroud was not allowed to continue his bird studies at Alcatraz.

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Alcatraz closed in 1963, citing the high expense of its maintenance.

In March 1964 a group of Sioux Indians briefly occupied the island, citing an 1868 treaty with the Sioux allowing Indians to claim any “unoccupied government land.” In November 1969, a group of nearly 100 Native American students and activists began a more prolonged occupation, remaining there until they were forced off by federal marshals in June 1971.

In 1972, Alcatraz was opened to the public as part of the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is maintained by the National Park Service.

More than one million tourists visit Alcatraz Island and the former prison annually.

Alcatraz Island; a History - overview

Summary: “The Rock” (Alcatraz) Becomes a Federal Prison

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