Alcatraz: A Closer Look at the Legendary Correctional Facility

by tylercook on October 10, 2013

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The name ‘Alcatraz’ comes from the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, the first European to sail and map the San Francisco Bay. He named one of the three islands Alcatraces, which eventually became known as Alcatraz. While the translation is often debated, it is most commonly believed to mean ‘pelican’ or ‘strange bird.’ Today, however, when most people hear the name Alcatraz, they immediately associate it with the famous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.


In 1850, the island was set aside for potential military use via a presidential order. With the California Gold Rush in progress and the economic boom of the San Francisco economy in full swing, the need to protect the bay area became apparent, and a large citadel was built atop the island of Alcatraz. The army also stored more than 100 cannons on the island, making it one of the most protected areas in the United States. In the late 1850s, the first military prisons were housed at Alcatraz. In 1909, the army tore town the citadel, leaving its basement as a prison. This prison later became known as “the rock.”

The Rock

In 1933, the island was transferred to the United States Department of Justice for use as a correctional facility. The facility operated as a maximum security, minimum privilege penitentiary, soon becoming a prison for the country’s most dangerous and heinous criminals. Alcatraz housed about 1% of the federal prison population, holding roughly 275 inmates at a time.

A Famous Inmate

Convicted of manslaughter in 1909, Robert Stroud, commonly known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was one of prisons most notorious residents. Before being transferred to Alcatraz, Stroud was incarcerated in Kansas. There, he became famous for watching and studying birds, eventually writing two books about canaries and their diseases. But his bird watching wasn’t an entirely innocent endeavor: contraband items were often found hidden in his bird cages, and some of his requested equipment also served as a home for his home-brew. As a result of this bad behavior and Stroud’s extremely violent nature, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, where he died in the medical center seventeen years later.

Attempted Jail Breaks

In the twenty-nine years that Alcatraz was used as a federal prison, thirty-six men participated in fourteen different escape attempts. Twenty-three of these men were caught, six were shot, and two are confirmed to have drowned. Two of the men who were caught were also later executed. While there are no recorded successful escapes from Alcatraz, there are, to this day, five prisoners who were reported missing and who are presumed to have drowned. Their official fate remains a subject of disagreement.

The most famous attempted escape was made into a movie. The movie follows the events of June 11, 1962 when Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin slipped through holes they dug in their cells. They eventually made it on to the roof through ventilation shafts, shimmied down a drainpipe to the water, and used prison raincoats to make a raft and life vests. What happened to the three is unknown, as they were never seen or heard from again. While presumed dead, they were nonetheless placed on the FBI’s most wanted list as well.

Alcatraz was closed in March of 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain operation costs. Today, Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service Unit, and the museum welcomes thousands of tourists every year.


Kyle Kittles is a freelance writer with an abiding interest in law, politics & justice. Lately he has taken a particular interest in old prisons, criminal sentencing & bail bonds; those interested in learning more about the latter should take a peek at




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