Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. Often referred to as “The Rock”, the small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison (1868), and a federal prison from 1933 until 1963. Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Aboriginal peoples from San Francisco who were part of a wave of Native activism across the nation with public protests through the 1970s. In 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the island’s facilities are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. Hornblower Cruises and Events, operating under the name Alcatraz Cruises, is the official ferry provider to and from the island. Hornblower launched the nation’s first hybrid propulsion ferry in 2008, the Hornblower Hybrid, which now serves the island, docking at the Alcatraz Wharf.
It is home to the abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools and a seabird colony (mostly Western Gulls, cormorants, and egrets). According to a 1971 documentary on the History of Alcatraz, the island measures 1,675 feet (511 m) by 590 feet (180 m) and is 135 feet (41 m) at highest point during mean tide. However, the total area of the island is reported to be 22 acres (8.9 ha).
Landmarks on the island include the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Library, Lighthouse, the ruins of the Warden’s House and Officers Club, Parade Grounds, Building 64, Water Tower, New Industries Building, Model Industries Building, and the Recreation Yard.
Native Americans kept well away from the island, calling it “Evil Island” and believing it to be cursed. The first Spaniard to document the island was Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted San Francisco Bay and named one of the three islands he identified as the “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which translates as “The Island of the Pelicans,” from the archaic Spanish alcatraz (in English: “pelican”), a loan word from Arabic القطرس al-qaṭras, meaning Albatross. Over the years, the English version “Alcatraz” became popular and is now widely used. In August 1827, French Captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly wrote “…running past Alcatraces (Pelicans) Island…covered with a countless number of these birds. A gun fired over the feathered legions caused them to fly up in a great cloud and with a noise like a hurricane.” The California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) is not known to nest on the island today. The Spanish put a few small buildings on the island, little else.
The earliest recorded owner of the island of Alcatraz is Julian Workman, to whom it was given by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June, 1846, with the understanding that Workman would build a lighthouse on it. Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puente and personal friend of Pio Pico. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Fremont, champion of Manifest Destiny and leader of the Bear Flag Republic, bought the island for $5,000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically as a United States military reservation, for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. Fremont had expected a large compensation for his initiative in purchasing and securing Alcatraz Island for the U.S. government, but the U.S. government later invalidated the sale and paid Fremont nothing. Fremont and his heirs sued for compensation during protracted but unsuccessful legal battles that extended into the 1890s.
Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay. In 1853, under the direction of Zealous B. Tower, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858, eventuating in Fortress Alcatraz. The island’s first garrison at Camp Alcatraz, numbering about 200 soldiers and 11 cannons, arrived at the end of that year. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the island mounted 85 cannons (increased to 105 cannons by 1866) in casemates around its perimeter, though the small size of the garrison meant only a fraction of the guns could be used at one time. At this time it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Confederate sympathizers. Alcatraz built as a “heavily fortified military site on the West Coast” formed a “triangle of defense” along with Fort Point and Lime Point, ensured security to the bay. The island was also the site of the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. Alcatraz never fired its guns offensively, though during the war it was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast.
Because of its isolation from the outside by the cold, strong, hazardous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861.
Following the war in 1866, the army determined that the fortifications and guns were being rapidly rendered obsolete by advances in military technology. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed (the so-called “parade ground” on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). Instead, the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation. In 1867, a brick jailhouse was built (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868, Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were confederates caught on the west coast, and some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.
In 1898, the Spanish-American war increased the prison population from 26 to over 450, and from 1905 to 1907 it was commanded by George W. McIver. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison, later Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1915. In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island’s dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit (creating a dry “moat”) to enhance its defensive potential. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of “dungeons” below the main cell block. The Fortress was deactivated as a military prison in October 1933 and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
During World War I, the prison held conscientious objectors, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island about his experiences.
The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island became a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison in August 1934. Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. At 9:40 am in the morning of August 11, 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz, arriving by railroad from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas at Santa Venetia, California, before being escorted to Alcatraz, handcuffed in high security coaches and guarded by some 60 special FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and railway security officials. Most of the prisoners were notorious bank robbers and murderers. The prison initially had a staff of 155, including the first warden James A. Johnston and associate warden J. E. Shuttleworth, both considered to be “iron men”. The staff were highly trained in security, but not rehabilitation.
During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda (a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954), Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker, James “Whitey” Bulger, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946, when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz. On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised.
Because the penitentiary cost much more to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta), and half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963. In addition, citizens were increasingly protesting the environmental effects of sewage released into San Francisco Bay from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island. That year, the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, on land, opened as the replacement facility for Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Island was occupied by Native American activists for the first time on March 8, 1964. The event was reported by, among others, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner.
Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans called United Indians of All Tribes, mostly college students from San Francisco, occupied the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians. Some of them were children of Indians who had resettled in the city as part of an urbanization program encouraged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) from the 1930s to the 1950s. The BIA hoped to give Indians new opportunities in the cities, as many Indian reservations were isolated from job markets.
The occupiers, who stayed on the island for nearly two years, demanded the island’s facilities be adapted and new structures built for an Indian education center, ecology center and cultural center. The American Indians claimed the island by provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux; they said the treaty promised to return all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal lands to the Native peoples from whom it was acquired. (Note: The Treaty of 1868 stated that all abandoned or unused federal land adjacent to the Great Sioux Reservation could be reclaimed by descendants of the Sioux Nation.) Indians of All Tribes then claimed Alcatraz Island by the “Right of Discovery”, as indigenous peoples knew it thousands of years before any Europeans had come to North America. Begun by urban Indians of San Francisco, the occupation attracted other Native Americans from across the country, including American Indian Movement (AIM) urban activists from Minneapolis.
The Native Americans demanded reparation for the many treaties broken by the US government and for the lands which were taken from so many tribes. In discussing the Right of Discovery, the historian Troy R. Johnson states in The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, that indigenous peoples knew about Alcatraz at least 10,000 years before any European knew about any part of North America.
During the nineteen months and nine days of occupation by the American Indians, several buildings at Alcatraz were damaged or destroyed by fire, including the recreation hall, the Coast Guard quarters and the warden’s home. The origin of the fires is disputed. The U.S. government demolished a number of other buildings (mostly apartments) after the occupation had ended. Graffiti from the period of Native American occupation are still visible at many locations on the island.
During the occupation, President Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy, designed by earlier administrations to end federal recognition of tribes and their special relationship with the US government. He established a new policy of self-determination, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.
In 2011 a permanent multimedia exhibit was opened on Alcatraz examining the 19-month occupation. Located in the former band practice room in a cellblock in the basement, the space serves as the cultural center the Native American occupiers requested upon their occupation. The exhibit, called “We Are Still Here,” features photos, videos and sound recordings gathered by staff and students at San Francisco State University and California State University, East Bay. Curators of the exhibit interviewed descendents of occupation leader Richard Oakes, and others who participated.