Alcatraz, sixty years on
A quick search on the internet reveals the place that Alcatraz Prison holds in our collective imagination: terms such as ‘escape’, ‘film’ and ‘sharks’ shape the legend behind one of the planet’s best-known jails. Far from having been forgotten after transferring its last inmates six decades ago, the penitentiary remains alive thanks to the 1.5 million visits it receives every year. To mark the anniversary of its closure as a working prison, we look at Alcatraz’ history and some of its most notorious escapes.
El origen de un mito
After the United States extended its sovereignty over Alcatraz Island in the mid-19th century, the government decided to turn it into a fort to defend San Francisco Bay during the Gold Rush years. But after the rapid advances made in military technology during the American Civil War, the fort’s defences became obsolete. The US Army discovered that the cold strong water currents surrounding the ‘Rock’ – as Alcatraz is popularly known – provided the perfect isolation. The first military prisoners were taken there in 1859, and certain Confederate leaders and some Hopi Native Americans were also imprisoned there.
The number of prisoners on the Rock grew during the Spanish-American War. In 1909, construction began on the famous cell block that now serves as a symbol of the place. The US Government’s Department of Justice acquired the complex on 12 October 1933. In August 1934, it designated the site as a high-security federal prison with the aim of sending troublesome inmates from other US prisons there. The first 137 prisoners from Kansas arrived at 9.40am on 11 August. Sixty FBI special agents were waiting for them. The fame that Alcatraz was the country’s strictest penitentiary was established from the very beginning, as it introduced test models for controlling prisoners, such as the 1x3 custody system – one caretaker allocated for every three inmates – that would then be extended to other federal prisons.
The goal of Alcatraz, as set out by its first warden, James Johnston, was for the prison to become a disciplinary centre for the worst criminals – rehabilitation had no place here. Each prisoner had an individual cell to promote extreme isolation, silence was mandatory at all times except for weekend breaks, and everyone involved in misconduct was sent to the ‘hole’, an underground space where they might spend weeks.
A destination for famous criminals
Those that the federal government considered America’s most dangerous criminals were sent to Alcatraz: Rafael Cancel Miranda, a member of the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party responsible for an armed attack on Washington’s Capitol in the 1950s; George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, one of the best-known gangsters of the Prohibition era; and Alvin Karpowicz (nicknamed ‘Creepy Karpis’), who was ‘public enemy number 1’ on the FBI’s list in the 1930s. However, the most famous name on the list is that of Al Capone, the notorious Chicago mobster sent to Alcatraz after the authorities were unable to dampen the influence and power he continued to wield when incarcerated in Atlanta Penitentiary.
Out of a movie
Despite Alcatraz’ geographical isolation, electrified fences, control towers and disciplinary guards, there were 14 escape attempts made by a total of 36 prisoners during the 29 years the prison was in operation. According to official government records, no inmates managed to escape alive: 23 were caught while fleeing, six were shot by the centre’s guards and died from their wounds, two drowned, and the remaining five were considered by the authorities to be “missing and presumed drowned”.
The two most famous incidents were the Battle of Alcatraz, a failed escape attempt in 1946 in which six prisoners managed to get some guns, killing two guards and wounding 18 others, before being rearrested. The other is the famous escape by the prisoners Frank Morris and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin. This attempt has become legendary. It took place on the night of 11 June 1962, when – after having spent months expanding the ventilation ducts under the sinks in each cell and having managed to set up a clandestine workshop where they could build a raft with stolen raincoats and utensils – the three inmates gained access to the upper ventilation duct and then slid through the kitchen ducts outwards.
Once outside, they broke through two security fences and took advantage of a blind spot on the island’s northeast coast to inflate their boat (with a concertina stolen from a prisoner) and launch it into the sea. It was not until the next morning that the guards realised that what was sticking out of the three prisoners’ beds were fake heads carved with wax and soap, and they raised the alarm. Days later, remnants of waterproof material, an oar and the wallet of one of the Anglin brothers were found in the waters near Alcatraz, leading the authorities to believe that the three escapees had lost their lives in the rough waters surrounding Alcatraz. The FBI closed the case, but the escape remains in Americans’ memories. It inspired the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. And in 1996, the escape returned to the big screen with director Michael Bay, who shot The Rock with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.
The closing of Alcatraz
The prisoners’ living conditions had been improved by the 1950s, for example, by allowing them to play musical instruments, but some structural defects had also been identified that called the safety of the compound into question. A report was submitted in 1959 that it was three times more expensive to maintain Alcatraz than any other US federal prison, and that it needed $5m worth of repairs due to its exposure to wind and salt. State Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered it to be closed on 21 March 1963. On that day, the last inmates were transferred to other prisons across the country.