The United States, as its proud people will tell you, is a vast, beautiful country, offering something for everybody. The hustle and bustle of the big city, the peaceful majesty of nature… anything you could ask for in a trip, the US has you covered.
If you want to get right in there on ground level with the busy lives of the locals, you’ll want to spend more than a New York minute in the Big Apple. If you’re not a city person and would rather see some of Mother Nature’s incredible work, the Grand Canyon or the like would be more to your taste. Every traveller will have their own itinerary in mind when journeying across America, and whatever they seek, they’re likely to leave satisfied.
When it comes to that, there’s the usual checklist of US sights to bear in mind. The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Biggest Ball of Twine In Minnesota (at least according to ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic)… those are givens. Missing out if you’re in the area would be like taking a trip to Paris and not stopping to check out the Eiffel Tower.
The infamous Alcatraz Island, on the other hand, may not be the first tourist attraction to come to mind. Once playing host to the most notorious prison of all time, visitors to San Francisco still head out into the bay to visit the island.
If you’re interested in making the journey yourself, and you’d like to hear more about Alcatraz’s famous residents (including Al Capone), its oddly beautiful gardens and the sad fate of those who tried to escape, this one’s for you.
25 Alcatraz’s ‘Esteemed’ Residents
Just one look at this bleak, foreboding island makes one thing crystal clear: this is not a place for a glamorous vacation. It’s isolated, barren, cold and damp. In short, it’s the perfect place to teach some of the country’s most hardened criminals a lesson! The intent was to serve as a place for those who were uncooperative and disruptive in other prisons, and eventually for them to be returned to complete the rest of their sentences afterwards.
Over its time as a federal prison (1934 to 1963), Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary played host to the likes of George Celino Barnes (‘Machine Gun Kelly’), Harvey Bailey (dubbed ‘The Dean of US Bank Robbers’) and Scarface himself, Al Capone.
24 Al Capone, Banjo Star
Yep, that’s right, the very same Al Capone who made a name for himself as a super-sweet player of the banjo.
You heard me, friends. As History reports, the notorious man was among the first Alcatraz inmates, and soon found that there was no preferential treatment to be had here (“It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” he’s rumoured to have admitted to his guards).
With that, he proved to be a relatively cooperative inmate, and became the enthusiastic banjo player of Alcatraz’s resident band, the Rock Islanders. It turns out, he had a musical side too.
23 Not A Lot Of Closet Space
If you live in a big city, you’ll know that the expense to apartment size ratio can make it difficult to afford anything bigger than… well, about the size of a washer/dryer. If you think you’ve got it tough, though, spare a thought for the inmates of Alcatraz.
As TripSavvy reports, the cells of B and C blocks were about as teeny as you can imagine. The dimensions were 5ft by 9ft, the very smallest possible size that could still accommodate a sleeping cot, sink and toilet. Conditions weren’t supposed to be lavish, of course, but man that’s small.
22 D Block’s Cells Were Bigger, But There Was One Heckola Of A Catch
So, you don’t fancy being confined to a diminutive 5ft by 9ft cell? That sounds like a perfectly sensible life decision to me. Luckily for the inmates, not all of Alcatraz’s cells were that paltry.
According to Alcatraz History, D Block sported cells that were relatively spacious (in comparison, that is, we’re not talking five-star penthouses here). They were still totally unpopular with the inmates, though. Why? Because these were the darn solitary confinement cells, that’s why.
Prisoners were confined to D Block cells 24 hours a day, barring a weekly visit to the recreation yard (also by themselves).
21 There Were No Confirmed Escapes… Technically
Now, this is a super controversial point, and it all depends on how pernickety you want to be. Over the years, as the movies have shown, detainees attempted all manner of break-outs from the prison.
According to History, there were 36 potential escapees in total, and their fates make for negative reading: 23 were recaptured, six were harmed in the attempt and two never made it out of the water.
This leaves five unaccounted for. They were John and Clarence Anglin, Frank Morris and two accomplices, who made it out to the bay itself after gradually chipping away at an unguarded wall. Some of their personal items were recovered, floating in the bay, but their bodies never were. Did they actually escape to dry land? Nobody knows for sure, but a story from Oregon Live that appeared in January 2018 brings up a letter that was allegedly written by one of the men, 'proving' their survival.
Whatever the truth is, their attempt in 1962 inspired the movie Escape From Alcatraz.
20 No Escapes While It Was A Prison, At Least
So, yes. The supposedly inescapable prison’s record seems to check out. There were escape attempts, granted, but there isn’t a single confirmed successful case.
All of this refers to the time that the fortress was a federal prison, you understand. Before that, it was a military post. As reported by the National Park Service History Of Alcatraz, some of the prisoners would be sent to serve on bases on the mainland.
In the course of their assigned work there, some would simply slip away to freedom when an opportunity presented itself.
Hardly heroic escapes worthy of movie adaptions.
19 The Gardens Are Beautiful
Now, this one will be a surprise. Some people travel all over the world to take in the stunning gardens of palaces, stroll through fantastic parks like those of New York City and London, and just generally appreciate how gorgeous nature can be.
Of all the places you’d think of going to do so, Alcatraz would not be first on your list. Regardless, though, the former prison’s gardens are quite a sight.
While the jail was in operation, TripSavvy reports, “its officers and their families planted gardens. The hardy plants they chose survived decades of neglect after the prison closed. That is until 2003 when Gardens of Alcatraz partnered with the National Park Service to restore and maintain them.”
18 Visitation Rules Are Super-Strict
Needless to say. Alcatraz prison did not take it easy on the inmates, in any regard. They were permitted the basic right of visitation, but there was a very thorough code to adhere to while the guest was there.
As Alcatraz History explains, “no physical contact was allowed and rules dictated that inmates were not allowed to discuss current events, or any matters concerning prison life. Inmates talked with visitors via intercom and a correctional officer monitored the conversations… the majority of the time.”
Prisoners were granted this privilege only once each month, and were in danger of having it withdrawn if they didn’t comply with these rules.
17 Shh, No Talking!
As we can see, then, there were no games being played here. Absolutely zero. Inmates had to strictly comply with the code of conduct vis a vis visitors, or risk losing the right to have them. But what of everyday life in Alcatraz? That could certainly be bleak too.
Earlier in the fortress’s time as a federal prison, there was one ruling that was deemed to be harshest: “inmates were not allowed to talk to one another except during meals and recreation periods,” Alcatraz History goes on. Not only that, but “this rule was considered harsh and inmates were disciplined for even minor violations of this code.”
Eventually, this was determined to be too tough even by the notorious fortress’s standards, and the silence rule was scrapped in the late thirties.
16 It’s Named After Pelicans
During its dubious heyday, the very name of Alcatraz became synonymous with all things tough, harsh and relentless. Today, the prison has been closed for decades, but that reputation lives on.
It’s interesting, then, that the name itself derives from something so harmless. As reported by History, the island was originally named by the Spanish La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans. Or possibly gannets, there's some debate about that; though pelicans is the generally accepted translation. It was given this name by the first known European to sail the area, Juan Manuel de Ayala, back in 1775.
Still, if you’ve ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie The Birds, you’ll know that the feathered friends can be darn frightening when they want to be.
15 The Birdman of Alcatraz… Didn’t Actually Have Any Birds At Alcatraz
Robert Stroud was originally an inmate of Leavenworth Prison. While there, History reports, he studied birds and diseases of such extensively. He raised them in his cell, for a time, but was forbidden to have any during his time at Alcatraz.
In his 17 years at the island jail (from 1942), he was without his avian friends, but the legend of the Birdman of Alcatraz is still alive in popular culture. Again, a movie was made on the subject, this one in the early sixties. It has slim to zero bearing on the actual truth of Stroud’s time at the prison.
14 The DIY Jail
As we’ve seen, then, the island was in use before the notorious prison was built. The foreboding prison that springs to most people’s mind when they hear the name of Alcatraz was not the first fortress here.
Mental Floss explains that the Alcatraz we can see today was constructed over a period from 1909 to 1911. It was used as a disciplinary barracks until 1933, when the Department of Justice took ownership and developed the building into the high-security federal prison we now associate with the complex.
13 Full To Capacity? Hardly
So, yes. The image of Alcatraz in the public consciousness is of a dark, foreboding fortress, like Dracula’s castle but with Al Capone playing the banjo in the background. That’s the general look of the place, but how do you picture the inside, how it would have looked while it was in operation?
Probably cramped, crowded, full to the seams. Knowing what we do about the size of the cells, you’re not wrong, but the idea of a packed-full Alcatraz is a little off. As Gray Line of San Francisco states, “The highest number of prisoners ever reported to be incarcerated at Alcatraz was 320, but the average was actually 260 and sometimes there were as few as 222.”
12 When Softball Gets aggressive
Now, I can see how this happened. Anybody who’s played any kind of sport on the schoolyard will have seen this happening. Things get heated, it all goes from 0 to several million in a heartbeat… it’s easily done, it really is.
Now, hardened criminals don’t have anything on the vicious nature of the average schoolchildren, but the Alcatraz inmates had their share of quarrels too. "The teams were integrated, and that occasionally (lead) to racial tensions,” Mental Floss reports. “During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.”
11 Water Woes
Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons, where Homer and Bart are rafting with Ned Flanders? They get swept out to sea and lost, and Homer’s wasting all of their provisions. Ned berates him for wasting what’s left of their water, and Homer’s response is “Excuse me, Mr. Let’s Ration Everything, but what do you think we’re floating on?”
That’s just Homer being Homer, but it raises the same issue that Alcatraz faced. It’s situated right on the bay, but as Factinate reports, there was no source of freshwater anywhere on the island. Almost one million gallons of the stuff had to be transported to the fortress every week.
10 You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat
When it comes to making a prison as escape-proof as it’s possible to be, you need to have nature on your side too. Security in the building itself is one thing, but being on a totally barren rock in the middle of freezing, unpredictable waters has got to be a plus too.
It also tends to help if there’s a threat of HUGE, SLAVERING MAN-HUNGRY SHARKS in those waters as well. There aren’t any sharks in San Francisco Bay (other than harmless bottom-feeders), sure, but Factinate reports that there was a rumour that there were.
“A popular myth about Alcatraz was that escape was impossible because the waters were full of man-eating sharks,” they report. “The myth was perpetrated by the guards to try and deter prisoners from even attempting to escape.”
9 Strictly A Private Men’s Club
Alcatraz operated in a curious way. Felons weren’t given a particular sentence to serve there, but, as I’ve said, incarcerated until they were ready to return to their prior prison. City Pass explains that “prisoners remained on Alcatraz until they were no longer considered to be disruptive or incorrigible – an average of 8 to 10 years.”
At the time, female criminals could not be declared incorrigible, they explain. As a result, there were no females on the island, except for the families of the guards and those visiting the inmates.
8 Communication By Sewer Pipe?
So, yes. We know that, at one time, Alcatraz implemented a strict silence rule (no talking to fellow inmates except for mealtimes and recreational times). We’ve also seen that this was scrapped after a time, considered just a little too oppressive.
Even while it was in force, though, canny prisoners still found a way to communicate. Alcatraz History reports that it involved one of the few things that guards could not control- their charges’ bowel movements:
“Some inmates commonly emptied out the water from their toilets and created a primitive communications system through the sewage piping.”
It’s disgustingly brilliant.
7 Light In The Darkness
Alcatraz Island, needless to say, is most famous for its fortress prison. The building is still a popular tourist attraction, for those who like to take in a darker, grimmer sight than the usual big-ticket tourist sights.
There’s another notable feature of the barren island that bears mentioning, though: the lighthouse. It’s quite historically significant itself.
As reported by City Pass, it was the first lighthouse on the Pacific coast, and has been faithfully operating since 1854. The one brief exception occurred in 1970, when the lighthouse keeper’s home caught fire and the light was compromised.
6 The Alcatraz Triathlon
Now, I’ll admit, I’m a little conflicted here. There’s something a little distasteful about this, in my eyes. Still, the annual Alcatraz Triathlon is most definitely a thing. It has been since 1980, according to Factinate, and is a snarky sort of proof that it is possible to escape the island.
The average inmate, quite understandably, couldn’t handle a 1.5-mile swim in shonky waters to the shore, but the contestants punish themselves further with an 18-mile bike ride and then a run of eight miles. Now that’s a tall order for the best of us.
5 The Birds Bite Back
While the island remains a popular site for tourists, it no longer has any resident humans. What does this mean? It means that the Island of Pelicans can go back to being the darn island of pelicans, that’s what it means. More precisely, we’ve got all manner of birds populating the island now; nine different species of them according to Factinate.
It’s not especially big, as islands go, covering an area of around 22 acres (the Encyclopaedia Britannica reports). Our avian friends aren’t fussy about real estate, though, and there’s ample room for the population of around 5,000.
4 Maybe It Wasn’t As Bad As It’s Reported To Be
From everything we’ve seen over the course of this rundown, it’s pretty plain that Alcatraz was no picnic. It was a correctional facility in the most literal of ways. Conditions were cramped, cold and various other unpleasant words beginning with C.
Nevertheless, you can’t believe everything you see in the movies. It was a tough place to be, there’s absolutely no denying that, but it actually had its upsides (relatively, that is, as prisons go).
According to Gray Line Of San Francisco, “it actually had some advantages that made it attractive so some inmates. Its single-cell occupancy rule and the apparently high-quality food meant that some prisoners actually asked to be transferred there.”
3 Why Not Take A Tour?
In recent years, I’ve become a real advocate of cruising. I never thought I’d see the day, but there it is. There’s something about the leisurely and luxurious nature of it all that just fits my partner and I like a glove.
Having said that, there’s nothing remotely leisurely or luxurious-sounding about the name Alcatraz Cruises. Nevertheless, it’s a real company, as Mental Floss reports. You can tour Alcatraz (now a protected national park) by booking one of their ferries. It’s a darn popular option, too, with around 1.5 million people visiting the island every year.
2 The Priciest Prison Around
So, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary has been closed since 1963. One thing that we haven’t covered is the reason why it ceased operating. Well, that’s an easy one: the usual. Financial reasons.
With the fact that huge quantities of freshwater and other supplies were having to be transported to the island every day, and the water of the bay damaging the building itself, Alcatraz prison was proving super expensive to run and maintain. This was why the decision was made to cease operations on the island.
1 Potentially Paranormal Penitentiary
While it was operating, Alcatraz prison didn’t have any facilities for capital punishment. It was very rare for inmates to perish, and the prison only had a sort of makeshift morgue as a result. Nevertheless, those interested in spooky happenings also frequent the island, because there have been curious reports from all kinds of visitors to the site.
As ThoughtCo documents, “odd events experienced over the years include guards smelling smoke, but finding no fire; sounds of unexplained crying and moaning (and) unexplained cold spots in areas of the prison.”
References: History, TripSavvy, AlcatrazHistory, Mental Floss, National Park Service History Of Alcatraz, Gray Line of San Francisco, Factinate, CityPass, ThoughtCo.