Today in 1963, the federal prison on Alcatraz Island, located in San Francisco Bay, was closed. The Rock, as the island became known, is probably the most famous prison in the US federal system and remains today, more than forty-five years after its closing, the stuff of legend.
Alcatraz Island was named by Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775 while he was exploring San Francisco Bay for Spain. He named the place La Isla de los Alcatraces or “Island of the Pelicans”. Except for the birds, the island was barren and surrounded by swift currents. The island was all but ignored until 1847, when the US Army first noticed the value of the Rock as a military installation. The discovery of gold in California the next year spurred the Army to begin building a fortress on the island. When finished in the mid-1850’s, the fort housed four gigantic, 15-inch cannons capable of engaging enemy warships at a distance of three miles. The cannons were only used one time against an unidentified ship; the single shot missed.
The Army began sending prisoners to Alcatraz in 1861 during the early months of the Civil War. Between that time and 1933, thousands of military personnel would be imprisoned on the island. In October, 1933, the Department of Justice acquired the island and turned it into a federal prison. The first civilian prisoners arrived in August, 1934.
Alcatraz became the place where the worst of the worst in American crime were sent to pay their debt to society. Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and many others found themselves on the windswept rock. The federal government claimed that escape from Alcatraz was impossible due to the tide and strong currents of San Francisco Bay as well as the fact that the closest point of land was over a mile away and that the average temperature of the Bay water is 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Despite this, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 men (two tried to escape twice) during the federal prison’s 29-year history. All but five of the prisoners are accounted for: 23 were caught, six were shot and killed and two were drowned. The remaining five are presumed to have drowned but there is no conclusive proof of this. Despite urban legends to the contrary, it is not impossible to swim from Alcatraz Island to the mainland; dozens of people have made the swim under monitored conditions. Also, the rumors of man-eating sharks in the Bay are not true as the sharks in that area tend to be bottom-dwellers of a smaller variety.
By early 1960’s, Alcatraz had become the most expensive federal or state prison to operate. The federal government decided that other, newer institutions could serve same purpose for less expense to the taxpayer. Another issue was the effect the pollution from the island was having on San Francisco Bay. The prison was closed on March 21, 1963.