Arguably the most notorious prison in American history, Alcatraz has inspired a number of myths and legends. People have spun stories about the former 'inescapable' prison since its closure in 1963, and even earlier. While these tales often make for good entertainment, they’re usually far from the truth.
In reality, Alcatraz was different to many people's images of it. While still a maximum-security penitentiary, the island prison might have been a place that some inmates actually preferred over other prisons. If you want to know the truth about the infamous Birdman of Alcatraz, keep reading for some curious, eerie facts about the prison.
10 The High Crime Rate Of The 1920s Forced The Government To Take Action
The Federal Government decided to open a penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in order to deal with an outbreak of crime that took place in the 1920s and extended into the 1930s. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, crime was widespread during this time. The government had no choice but to open the prison.
Alcatraz was opened as a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary. The most difficult inmates from other prisons were sent there, in the hopes of setting an example for the public. The only inmates ever interred there were men. No female prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz.
9 The Majority Of Prisoners Were Sent From Other Prisons
Because Alcatraz was used to dealing with the most irredeemable inmates, the majority of its prisoners were actually sent there from other prisons. At their original prisons, they were considered too violent or dangerous to be dealt with.
Inmates who did not want to follow the rules and regulations were also sent to Alcatraz, where there was a focus on the importance of following a strict routine. Also, anybody who was deemed to be an escape risk was sent there, as Alcatraz was notoriously harder to escape from other prisons.
8 No-One Ever Officially Escaped From Alcatraz
It’s common knowledge that Alcatraz was difficult to escape from. In actual fact, there were no recorded official escapes at all during the prison’s operating years. Between 1934 and 1963, 36 men were involved in 14 escape attempts (two of them tried to escape twice). None of these were recorded as being successful.
Of these, the majority (23) were captured before they could escape. Six were killed during their escape and two drowned. There were five prisoners who were missing and remain unaccounted for, but it is assumed that they drowned.
7 There Are No Dangerous Sharks In San Francisco Bay (Usually)
The legends say that it was so hard to escape from Alcatraz because San Francisco Bay is packed with sharks lurking beneath the water, but this is just a myth. While there are bottom-feeding sharks in the Bay, they aren’t the kind that would eat a prisoner trying to escape. Interestingly, though, a great white shark was discovered near the island in July 2019!
The prison was so difficult to escape because it was more than a mile’s swim to shore, normally in cold temperatures and with strong currents to contend with. These obstacles would have been especially insurmountable for those lacking energy and fitness due to prison life.
6 There Was One Guard For Every Three Prisoners
Alcatraz was known as a maximum-security prison. Another reason that it was so difficult to escape from (aside from the natural elements) was that there were so many guards on duty. The first warden at Alcatraz, James A. Johnston, established that there should be one guard for every three prisoners.
Because of this reputation, inmates who were at risk of escaping from other prisons were often sent to Alcatraz. Every prisoner at Alcatraz had his own cell, meaning it was more immediately noticeable if someone was missing.
5 The Birdman of Alcatraz Never Had Birds
The infamous inmates who were interred at Alcatraz have added to its notorious reputation. Aside from gangster Al Capone, another of the most famous inmates to be interred at Alcatraz was the Birdman, real name Robert Stroud.
It comes as a shock to most that the Birdman of Alcatraz never actually had any birds while at Alcatraz. He was given this nickname because he began to study ornithological diseases and raised birds while at Leavenworth. Afterwards, when he was transferred to Alcatraz, he was banned from having any birds.
4 Some Inmates Actually Wanted To Go To Alcatraz
Modern depictions of Alcatraz portray it as a hell on earth. Due to its strict, maximum-security nature, it seems like the kind of place you’d never elect to go if you could help it. However, several inmates from other prisons actually wanted to be transferred to Alcatraz.
This was mainly due to the living conditions there, which were reported to have been better than those of other prisons at the time. One of the most enticing features, as we've mentioned, was that each prisoner would have a whole cell to himself.
3 Native American Activists Are Connected To The Island
When Alcatraz closed down in 1963—a decision made because the prison was too expensive to run—the island was, for all intents and purposes, abandoned. It wasn’t until 1969 that Native American activists took over the island, on the grounds of an 1868 treaty granting unoccupied federal territory to Native Americans.
Their intentions were to found a university and cultural center, which attracted much support from all over the country. With too many people flocking to the island, though, things soon got out of control and much of the area was damaged. The activists were eventually removed by Federal marshals.
2 There Was A Prison Band
Because Alcatraz is so often described as a dark, cold, and glum place, it may come as a shock that they actually had their own prison band. They were known as the Rock Islanders and gave weekly performances for other inmates. They also put on Christmas performances in the Dining Hall.
Al Capone was allowed to join the band as a banjo player after showing good behavior and cooperation while inside the prison. This was after he had been transferred from another prison, where he had been given special treatment by the guards.
1 Prisoners At Alcatraz Had Only Four Rights
Being a minimum-privilege prison, Alcatraz did not afford its inmates an abundance of rights. In fact, in theory, they only had four on arrival to the island prison. By default, every prisoner had a right to food, clothing, shelter, and medicine from the moment they stepped foot in Alcatraz. Everything else was a privilege.
If a prisoner showed good behavior, they could earn privileges such as access to recreational activities, such as painting and music. They could also gain access to the prison library and have visits from family members.