Living in Northern California means that when company comes to visit, you make your way to San Francisco. There are lots of historical places that people always want to check out. Ghirardelli Square, the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39 – and of course, Alcatraz is always on their list. Most of us who live in this part of the state are used to seeing the island with the prison on it, floating in the Bay. From pretty much any vantage point we can see it jutting up out of the water and we probably don’t even notice it much anymore.
But, how much do you really know about the history of Alcatraz? These photos are hauntingly beautiful, but not half as haunting as the stories behind the prison bars.
This tiny little island was used in 1868 as a military fortification, a military prison, and a lighthouse. But in 1935 it began to be used as a federal prison. The powers that be underestimated just how expensive it would be to run an island prison.
Prison Inmate Population
It's believed around 1,576 men were incarcerated here during the life of this island prison. Given this high security and the location of Alcatraz in the cold waters and strong currents of San Francisco Bay, the prison engineers believed Alcatraz was escape-proof and America's strongest prison.
Al Capone was one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century. A Chicago Prohibition mobster, he was behind numerous murders including the infamous St. Valentine's Day massacre. After being convicted instead on tax evasion, he spent many years at Alcatraz. His mind was slowly decaying from the disease syphilis and withdrawals from cocaine that had destroyed his septum. He was there the same time as "The Birdman of Alcatraz."
Alcatraz had its own infirmary where both medical and dental services were provided for inmates, prison staff, and lighthouse employees. Al Capone was so ill by the time he arrived at the prison that he spent more time in the infirmary than in the general prison population - or so the story goes.
In Full View
The prison can be seen from a majority of vantage points throughout San Francisco. It's such a common sight from "The City" that most of us don't even notice it much at all. It blends into the scenery.
The three-story cell house included four blocks of the jail - A-Block, B-Block, C-Block, and D-Block - the warden's office, a visitation room, the library, and the barber shop. D-Block housed the worst inmates. The prisoners named the last five cells at the end of the hall "The Hole," where badly behaving prisoners would be sent for periods of discipline and punishment, often brutally beaten.
Prisoners were segregated by color due to racial tensions. Each cell was 9X5X7 feet high. The cells were primitive at best. Each cell contained a bed, a desk and a washbasin and toilet on the back wall, and one blanket. Prisoners were awakened every single day at 6:25 am and after dinner were locked back up by 5 pm each night.
In November 1969, years after the prison closed, the island was taken over for more than 19 months. The occupiers were a group of aboriginal people from San Francisco who claimed to be part of a wave of Native activism across the nation.
10,000 - 15,000 books made up the Alcatraz library. Inmates were each issued a library card. They could request books on a slip of paper which they left outside the dining hall each day. Their book requests would be delivered to their cells. Inmates were allowed to have three to 12 books at any one time, along with the Bible and a dictionary. However, they were not allowed to read a newspaper or anything crime related. The prison chaplain worked in the library to ensure anything the men read was wholesome and without sex and violence. The prisoners could also read magazines like Better Homes & Garden. They were known to read much heavier literature than the average American does in a lifetime.
Water used to be kept underground in cisterns or on the roof as a freshwater source. But in 1941 this tower was built to hold over 250,000 gallons of water - providing all water used on the island for drinking, firefighting, and even laundry. Today it stands empty. During the occupation by the Indian movement it was the canvas for lots of graffiti.
These pale green padlocked doors were once the entrance to the prison morgue, which was built in 1910. Apparently, it was only used to store a dead prisoner just one time because it missed the boat to the mainland. Dead prisoners or officers were taken to the San Francisco Coroner's office.
Weekends were when the men could get a little exercise. Apparently, they loved playing baseball and softball. There are markings on the yard for basketball, too. Chess was encouraged to help keep their minds sharp. Machine Gun Kelly and Basil "The Owl" Banghart were said to be inseparable in the yard and would spend their whole time walking around it in conversation together.
Breakfast was served at 6:55 am every morning. It was well scripted by a whistle system - which cell blocks went at which time and where they would sit and eat for a total of 20 minutes. They were allowed to eat as much as they wanted within that 20 minute time period, but it would be reported to higher-ups when they wasted food. Rumor has it that Alcatraz had the best food in the federal penitentiary system. Both the prison guards and the inmates ate together - a total of 250 meals three times a day.
The Warden's House
This three-story, 15-room mansion was built in 1921 right beside the lighthouse. In the years the prison existed, a total of four wardens called this mansion home. Elaborate parties were hosted here where there was an almost-unbelievable view of San Francisco from any window. It stands in ruins now, burned to the ground by the Indian takeover in the 1970s.
Aerial Shot of Alcatraz
It's easy to see just how much of the island is taken up by Alcatraz. It's tough to see where one begins and the other ends. This photo gives you a good shot of the main cellblock, dining hall area, and the yard in front of it and just to the right.
Alcatraz has so much history and so many stories that one article just can’t cover them all. We haven’t even talked about the famous attempted escapes or the takeover by the inmates for two days! We don’t want to ruin all the surprises for you. But, it might be time to head over and take a tour yourself.
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