History of Alcatraz
What do you do with extremely dangerous prisoners? The answer is Alcatraz: “The Rock”, a small island off of San Francisco, California. Alcatraz kept some of the most ruthless killers and big name criminals locked up, safely away from society from 1943 to 1963. Today, Alcatraz no longer functions as a prison, but is open to the public as a tourist attraction. This prison is arguably one of the most famous in the country due to its unique beginning and notoriety of the criminals held there. In Gennifer Choldenko’s novel Al Capone Does My Shirts, civilian interaction on the island is shown through several fictional characters and their connections to Alcatraz and its prisoners. Because Alcatraz was the most well-known high security prison in the U.S.A, it will always be iconic in the history of America.
Alcatraz is an island located in the San Francisco Bay, California. The island covers 12 acres in the San Francisco Bay area. The first people to walk on the island were said to be the Ohlone Tribe. The U.S. Army had an interest in it because it could be helpful as a military base. In 1850 the Army built a fort on the island. The fort’s original purpose was to defend the new state of California and its seaport. After about ten years the island became a military prison for incarcerated soldiers. The fort expanded its holding capacity in the 1860’s to accommodate 450 prisoners. In the early 1900’s the military prison was shut down and by 1933 it was shut down as a U.S. Army prison (“Alcatraz“). At the end of the 1920’s the Great Depression was starting, and before that, prohibition was enforced. Crime was high in big towns like San Francisco. Robberies, murderers, and kidnappings were some of the worst crimes authorities had been dealing with. The police force and the U.S. government needed a place to put these criminals. When the Army didn’t want the island and facilities anymore, the U.S. Department of Justice made the military prison ready to be the highest security, top-notch prison in the U.S.A. The Federal Bureau of Prisons managed Alcatraz. Alcatraz would be home to the most violent, brutal, and most likely to attempt to escape prisoners.
The Bureau of Prisons modified the prison to a great extent to be able to have non-military inmates. The security was the best of the time with metal detectors, electronic locking systems, and other structural components in each cell (Biddle). The staff was highly trained and was the best in the security business. One of the biggest differences of Alcatraz from most other prisons was each cell could have only one prisoner, with no exceptions. This rule made nearly impossible for inmates to get ideas on how to escape together and would decrease violence in the prison. Alcatraz tried many things like a silent prison to keep order and control over their prisoners. The prisoners were only allowed to talk to their lawyer and only on special occasions could they talk to anyone else. The silent system was supposed to reduce all communication with the other inmates so they could not get any “big” ideas. Since only the worst criminals in the community were sent to Alcatraz, the inmates became almost celebrities in their own way. The staff could not give any special treatment to the inmates because of their previous celebrity status or anything in that regard. The rule at Alcatraz was once you entered, your status was erased and you were just another criminal doing time.
Alcatraz is seen to be a dark, run down, dreary prison in the San Francisco Bay. These ideas are completely wrong. Alcatraz had some of the highest sanitation standards in a prison. Alcatraz had a huge library, full hospital, musical instruments, outdoor activities, and even educational opportunities. The University of California offered schooling for the inmates. Within the big facility there was also an auditorium where they could see movies and go to church. In the 1940’s prisoners could even listen to the radio in their rooms with a speaker they could control (Roberts). Alcatraz focused on running a prison in the best shape possible. The facility could hold around 400 prisoners, but the Bureau would not allow more than 302 prisoners at a time. This was because they were dealing with prisoners that were some of the worst criminals in the nation. The lower inmate count helped the staff to not feel overwhelmed by all the prisoners. The least amount of inmates ever was just under 200 and Alcatraz held a total of 1,557 prisoners from 1934 to 1963 (Skulnick).
Alcatraz has precisely 14 escape attempts during their years of operation. Less than 40 of the 1,557 inmates were involved. Three men in the history of Alcatraz ever escaped, but they then went missing. Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Frank Anglin were the only men to ever get out of Alcatraz. They created drills from supplies they found and broke through a wall behind their room. They built life-boats out of raincoats glued together and tried to paddle their way to shore (Ostler). The men were never seen or heard from again. A few ships in the Bay said they had seen small rafts that night, but they did not think anything of it. Another time, a group of six men stayed back in the cell block instead of going with the other prisoners to where they should have been, and held nine guards hostage. They used the guard’s keys to go and steal many weapons. The six inmates were trying to start a riot but it didn’t work. The Marine Corps came in and threw grenades that killed three of the prisoners, as well as two guards. The other three inmates were captured and executed (Skulnick).
One of the most famous inmates ever to be held at Alcatraz was Al Capone. He was known for being the leader of an organized crime ring in Chicago. Originally, Capone just ran errands did jobs for Johnny Torrio, a prominent New York criminal at the time. However, when Prohibition outlawed the sale and manufacture of liquor, the two moved to Chicago to start bootlegging alcohol. When Torrio retired, Capone inherited the empire of crime the two had built, which now included gambling and prostitution. He tried desperately to eliminate enemy gangs, often in shootouts. The most famous of these events is known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which Capone and four other members of his gang killed seven members of a rival gang in a garage in Chicago on February 14, 1929. Eventually, Capone was caught and his career as a criminal was brought to an end. Surprisingly, he was charged with federal income tax evasion, a crime that was not linked to his gang-related activities. The prosecution felt they had a better chance of convicting him on those charges. The jury found him guilty on five counts and Capone was sentenced to 11 years at the Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary. He later transferred to Lincoln Heights Jail. On August 11, 1934, Capone was transferred to Alcatraz, a newly established prison at the time. He was rumored to be the one doing the prison’s laundry for work during his imprisonment, which earned him fame with the island’s civilians (Choldenko). In the novel, Matthew, or “Moose”, is lured into Piper’s plan to have her classmate’s laundry done by Al Capone at Alcatraz. The two believe they can profit from a scheme that charges classmates to have their laundry done at the prison by one of the most famous criminals in the country. It turned out to be pretty easy for the two, as Piper is the warden’s daughter (Choldenko). However, Capone was not known to be a huge troublemaker, and actually finished his sentence at Alcatraz as his mental health deteriorated, spending the last year in the prison’s hospital. He was released on January 6, 1939, and then had to serve one year in the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in California for contempt of court, but was paroled in November of the same year. Capone then moved to Florida where he lived until he died in 1947 at age 48 (“Capone, Al -LSB-Alphonse-RSB-(1899-1947)”).
Al Capone was known to give guards an especially harsh time, which they did not appreciate. Guards at Alcatraz already endured harsh work conditions and did not live a luxurious life, often working many hours a day under great pressure (ProQuest Staff). Many of the employees at Alcatraz were individuals who had lost a federal job due to the Great Depression. One example of this is the Flanagan family in the novel, where Moose’s father Cameron takes on two jobs at the prison to support his family. He worked both as a guard and an electrician (Choldenko). This reflects the fact that this type of job wasn’t regarded highly in society, but was adequate for providing for a family. Moose looks up to his father greatly, particularly his work with the prison’s advanced electric locking system, a technology not seen in many prisons at the time (Choldenko). In addition to this, standards for employees were extremely high at Alcatraz. Because this was a maximum-security prison for America’s most dangerous criminals, all staff underwent extensive background checks and had to pass government testing prior to being hired. Some of the most talented people in the corrections and justice industry worked at Alcatraz and saw it as a great opportunity to work through the ranks and receive promotions. On the other hand, it was extremely stressful and many people realized other civil service positions offered the same pay for less effort than what they were putting in at Alcatraz. Because of this, the prison saw a very high turnover rate for the entry-level jobs. While employed, the majority of corrections officers and guards lived in apartments on the island and commuted to work, but a few had living quarters on the prison campus. The average pay for staff was only about $1,700 a year (“Alcatraz Prison“).
All in all, Alcatraz is one of the most-recognized names in the history of criminal justice in America, and rightfully so. The island has a rich history that involves Native Americans as well as the U.S. Army’s presence, and even heavily influencing civilian life, as shown in Gennifer Choldenko’s novel Al Capone Does My Shirts. After the prison was opened, it represented change in history because of its unheard of before policies of silence and limit to one inmate per cell. Also notable were its excellent sanitation and staff that was the best in the business. But the most memorable of all is the prison’s inmates. It held Al Capone and several others of the most dangerous criminals in the U.S.A. When asked the question of what to do with the country’s most dangerous prisoners, everyone is able to feel confident and safe when the answer is Alcatraz.