A Look Into the History of Alcatraz

Alcatraz is known for housing some of America’s worst criminals. This federal prison is located on Alcatraz island, in the bay alongside San Francisco. While Alcatraz is a prison that just about everyone has heard of, it was only open for roughly 30 years. With that being said, from 1934 to 1963, when this federal prison was open, it was only the most dangerous of criminals that were kept here. Some of the most notable criminals included Rober “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and John and Clarence Anglin.

This prison housed some serious criminals, so we can only imagine the stories that are housed within these walls. During the years of operation, dozens of escape attempts were made, with each attempt as curious as the next. Keep reading to learn more about this federal prison and some of the stories that have been carried on since its closing.

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Early Years

Alcatraz Island was discovered and mapped out in 1775 by a Spanish explorer by the name of Juan Maunuel de Ayala. He named it La Isla de la Alcatraces, which translates to Island of the Pelicans. Nearly 75 years after this initial discovery, President Millard Fillmore signed an order that reserved this island for military use. During the 1850s, a fortress was constructed on Alcatraz island. Over 100 cannons were installed around the island so that this military base would be able to protect the San Francisco Bay.

In the late 1850s, Alcatraz became a place to hold prisoners. The cold waters that surrounded the island made it an ideal place to hold criminals because there was simply no way that one could escape and swim across the bay — it was much too cold. It was during these years that the inmate population began to rise.

When more space was needed, the inmates were put to work to create a new cellhouse that offered approximately 600 new cells. This building still stands today along with the hospital, mess hall, and various other prison buildings. Over the years, this prison — due to the challenges faced with escaping — became THE place to house prisoners that were difficult, dangerous, or had a flight risk. Because of this, the prison was added to accommodate the additional prisoners and their needs. On average, Alcatraz held anywhere from 260 to 275 inmates, a very small amount in comparison to the federal prison population in its entirety.

Many of the prisoners that were sent to Alcatraz were expected to live under incredibly harsh circumstances where they were left with little privilege and extremely strict rules. If they were able to live under these restraints and continued to follow the rules, they may be considered for transfer to a different federal prison where they would then complete their sentence.

Famous Inmates

There are various reasons that Alcatraz is one of the most well-known prisons, but one of the reasons is the number of well-known inmates. Though recognition is the last thing that many of these prisoners deserve, it’s incredibly interesting to think about the types of people that were held in this federal prison. The level of criminal activity that most of them had participated in is what makes the idea of Alcatraz — and the stories within its walls — so interesting.

Below is a list of the eleven most well-known infamous inmates that were held in Alcatraz:

  • Al Capone
  • Machine Gun Kelly
  • Roy Gardner
  • Henri Young
  • Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker
  • Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis
  • Robert Stroud
  • Morton Sobell
  • James ‘Whitey’ Bulger
  • John Anglin
  • Clarence Anglin

These criminals were guilty of everything from murder and the illegal bootlegging of liquor to bank robberies and murder. With many of them serving sentences that would leave them locked up for the rest of their life, it’s not too surprising that there were so many attempts at escaping.

Escape Attempts

As we mentioned prior, there were more than a dozen escape attempts made from Alcatraz. These 14 attempts involved 36 inmates. Of those 36 inmates, 23 were captured, six were shot and killed, two drowned while crossing the bay, and five went missing. While their fellow prison mates might assume that they made it to the other side of the bay and were off living freely, it’s believed that these prisoners drowned during their escape attempts.

One of the most well-known attempts at escape was completed by six prisoners. These men were able to overpower the guards of their cell and get ahold of their weapons. Unfortunately, the one thing they were unable to get access to were the keys needed to actually escape the building. In the end, this became a full-blown battle between these six prisoners and the correctional officers of the prison. Unfortunately, this ended with the deaths of two guards and left another 18 prison guards injured. Three of the six prisoners involved were killed, and the remaining three were tried and sentenced to the death penalty.

Closure of Alcatraz

In 1963, Alcatraz was shut down due to its operating expenses. These costs were significantly higher than other federal prisons due to the prison being located on an island. The location as a whole required for food and supplies to be shipped across the bay, but it also meant that all prisoner transports were much more costly as well. On top of that, the building was beginning to fall apart due to the high amounts of salt that were building up. With little desire left to keep this building going, there was no other option but to shut the prison down.

Over the years, Alcatraz federal prison housed a total of 1,576 male prisoners.

Try Our Alcatraz Escape Room

Alcatraz had its fair share of escapes, both attempted and successful. The Alcatraz escape room at Trapped Escape Game challenges you — prisoner Frank Morris — to escape Alcatraz. You’ve been in early every federal prison within the U.S. and escaped them all. This is exactly why you’ve been sent to Alcatraz to live the remainder of your life. While they think that they’ve finally got you in a place where you can’t escape, you’ve been working diligently for six months to create an escape route, and tonight is the night that you put it to the test.

Do you have what it takes to escape from Alcatraz? Visit Trapped Escape Game in Nashville and try it for yourself!