Built in 1847, Alcatraz is often referred to as “The Rock” and one of the most notable prisons in America. The island was home to the first lighthouse on America's Pacific shores, a light that has guided ships in and out of the magnificent bay for almost 125 years. The island also served as a military installation and was intended to play a role in the defence of San Francisco Harbor. The island was a federal prison from 1933 to 1963 and was notorious as being “escape proof” due to the cold rushing waters below, strong currents, and sharks in the waters surrounding the island. One reputed successful attempt was made by the Anglin Brothers and Frank Lee Morris on the night of June 12th, 1962, which ended in them never being found. The 1979 Clint Eastwood film, “Escape From Alcatraz”, was based on the 1962 escape. The 1996 film, “The Rock”, starring Nicholas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris was filmed on the island. The former prison was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Backstory and Context
Before becoming the home of the famous prison, the islands of San Francisco Bay were first discovered by Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala during the days California still belonged to Mexico. He named the island La Isla de los Alcatraces, translated to “The Island of the Gannets,” and it would be later labeled on Ayala’s chart of San Francisco Bay. English naval officer Captain Fredrick W. Beechey designated the prison island as Alcatraz Island. The Spanish version “Alcatraz” became a much popular name for the island. The island was also known to be covered with many kinds of pelicans and many explorers regarded it as “The Island of the Pelicans” on occasion.
Construction on "Fort Alcatraz" began in 1853 and the owner of the island was Julian Workman. He was given control of the island by Mexico Governor Pio Pico in 1846. It later became one of the most powerful of all Pacific Coast defenses and one of the most famous Federal prisons. Alcatraz's historical significance reaches much further back in time and possesses more facets than the story of bank robbers and kidnappers. Often referred to as “The Rock”, the small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison. On the island stood the first lighthouse on America's Pacific shores, a guiding light for ships that has been in operation for close to 125 years.
For nearly 75 years, the island served as a military prison for army convicts from both the western states and overseas. Alcatraz also played a key role in the defenses of San Francisco Harbor. The island was mounted with 85 cannons during the Civil War. It was also used for the purpose of creating a “triangle of defense” for the Bay Area in coordination with Fort Point and Lime Point, but Lime Point was never built. Instead, Alcatraz mainly housed and imprisoned Confederate prisoners of war and sympathizers supporting their cause.
The site also holds great importance to American Indian populations. This was for both in prehistory and those in relation to the Indian Occupation of 1969–71. This brought the plight of American Indians to the attention of mainstream media and launched a significant period of Indian activism. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, American Indians, such as the Ohlone of present-day San Francisco and the Miwok of present-day Marin County, visited the island and used it for a variety of purposes. They used it as a campsite, a place to gather eggs and shellfish, and a way station or site of social ostracism for those who had violated laws or taboos.
The Department of Justice gained control of the island in 1933, and in 1934, Alcatraz Island reopened as a maximum-security federal penitentiary. For the next 29 years, Alcatraz established its enduring legacy in public memory as an inescapable fortress where the toughest, most hardened criminals were incarcerated and forced to spend most of their lives there. One notable prisoner was gangster Al Capone, who ran the Chicago Outfit crime gang during the Prohibition era. He became a notable name in the community getting cheered by people and donating to various charities, but his public image was tarnished in 1929 with the incident of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. This incident ended with seven members of the North Side Gang of Chicago murdered in a shootout on February 14. Capone would be charged with multiple accounts of tax envasion and was imprisoned at 33 years old.
Another notable prisoner was political activist and member of the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party Rafael Cancel Miranda. In 1954, himself and three other members open fire on the United States Capitol Building which resulted in the injuries of five congressmen. They were calling for pleas for Puerto Rico independence during the attack. Afterwards, they were all arrested and convicted for their crime, but Miranda’s sentence was commuted by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He became the only Nationalist jailed in Alcatraz.
In 1962, three prisoners, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, made the first successful escape from Alcatraz despite the prison’s reputation as the most secured federal prison. The men were never heard from again and the wardens believed they drowned in their attempt. Despite this, it was a possibility they escaped the prison and swam back to shore, but it is refutable since the waters were freezing cold and had very aggressive currents. The only prisoner to complete this feat was John Paul Scott. However, police would recapture him and return him to prison.
Due to the prison costing too much to operate further and salt water eroded the prison walls, Alcatraz shut down in 1963. In 1964, Native American activists occupied the island in a peaceful protest led by Belva Cottier, a Lakota Sioux activist. On November 20, 1969, in a highly publicized demonstration that attracted national attention, 89 American Indians who called themselves “Indians of All Tribes” landed on Alcatraz Island and began a 19-month occupation, demanding the right to Indian self-determination. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.
In order to preserve the history of the island, the General Services Administration announced the transfer of administration of the island to the Department of the Interior. Alcatraz Island was later added to the newly-established Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and it opened to the public the following year. This followed with it being placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Many movies detailed the prison and it’s many criminals as they tried escaping. The 1979 Clint Eastwood film, Escape from Alcatraz, was based on the famous 1962 escape by Frank Morris and The Anglin Brothers. Filmed on the island, it cost Paramount Pictures half a million dollars ($500,000) to restore the prison and give it a cold, isolated feel. The 1996 film, The Rock, starring Nicholas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris was also filmed on the island and inside the former prison.
“Alcatraz Cultural Landscape Report,” National Park Service. Accessed April 13, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/alcatraz-clr.htm.
“We Will Hold The Rock,” National Park Service. Accessed April 13, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/we-hold-the-rock.htm.
“Alcatraz Origins,” BOP. Accessed April 13, 2017. https://www.bop.gov/about/history/alcatraz.jsp.
“Occupation of Alcatraz Collection,” San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. Accessed April 13, 2017. https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/2589.