The first civilian prisoners arrive at the Federal prison on Alcatraz Island (August 11, 1934) - History Key

The first civilian prisoners arrive at the Federal prison on Alcatraz Island (August 11, 1934)

Surrounded by the cold water of the largest bay on the West Coast of the United States of America, Alcatraz Island had the most feared maximum security prison. For 29 years no one has escaped from there, or at least that is what they say.

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island © Don Ramey Logan /CC BY-SA 3.0/Image Source: Wikipedia

Isla de los Alcatraces

Long before it became a famous prison, Alcatraz was a wild island, avoided by the Natives because they believed it was haunted by evil spirits. The Natives used the island as a punishment place where they send those who violated the rules of the tribe.

The first Europeans to visit the island were the Spanish. In 1775, explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first who crossed the San Francisco Bay and named one of the three islands: Isla de los Alcatraces (Pelican Island). Later the name was shortened to what we now know as Alcatraz. When the Spanish began their expeditions in southern California, many of the Native Americans used the island as a hiding place to avoid Christianity imposed by Europeans.

Fortress

The first registered owner of the island was Julian Workman, who was appointed in June 1846 by Mexican governor Pio Pico to build a beacon. In 1848, at the end of the war between the Mexicans and the Americans, Alcatraz (along with California) became the property of US. In the early 1860s, when the Civil War broke out, Alcatraz served as a protective and storage facility for San Francisco firearms.

By realizing its strategic position, on the island was built a fortress equipped with eleven cannons. During the war, the Confederates sympathizers were sent on the island and when the prison was constructed in 1868, it was formally designed to serve as a long-term detention facility for military prisoners.

View of Alcatraz Island in 1895, showing the lighthouse and prison buildings
View of Alcatraz Island in 1895, showing the lighthouse and prison buildings © Image Source: theclio.com

Federal prison

From 1909 to 1911 a new prison was built. The new building, later known as “The Rock” was built by prisoners. The island was under the jurisdiction of the United States Army until 1933. Since 1934, the island was under the property of the Department of Justice. From that moment it was decided that Alcatraz would become a federal prison of maximum security, with minimum privileges granted to the most dangerous criminals from US.

The first civilian prisoners were brought in on August 11, 1934, by FBI agents. The first director of the prison was James A. Johnson who managed the institution with an iron fist until 1948. Absolute silence was kept by the prison authorities and the presence of the press was forbidden.

The Devil’s Island

Prison staff counted about 150 people initially living with their families on the island. Usually there were 250 criminals locked in each with its own cell. Although the island was nicknamed as “The Devil’s Island”, many prisoners wanted to be transferred there because the living conditions were more than decent compared to other prisons from the US. At Alcatraz prisoners had four fundamental rights: food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

Guards of Alcatraz
Guards of Alcatraz © Carl Sundstrom/Image Source: Wikipedia

Any other privilege had to be won: physical work, family correspondence, visits, library access, painting or sculpture. When the prison staff considered that the prisoner was no longer a threat, he was sent to another federal prison to finish the rest of his punishment.

Inmates in the dining hall
Inmates in the dining hall © Carl Sundstrom/Image Source: Wikipedia

From 1934 to 1939 one of the most famous gangsters was imprisoned there: Al Capone. Until 1963 there had been 14 escaping attempts which involved 36 people of whom 23 were captured, 6 were shot dead, 2 were drowned and the rest were allegedly drowned in the sea.

Al Capone’s Alcatraz Cell
Al Capone’s Alcatraz Cell © Image Source: alcatrazhistory.com

Alcatraz was closed in 1963 due to the high costs of transporting supplies on the island. In 1969 a group of American Indians claimed the island until 1971. In 1971 they were evicted by the authorities. Currently the island is open to visitors.

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