Back Story, Features

Alcatraz: It all depends on your point of view

Hard times on the island in the bay
Alcatraz has a long and storied history. photo: Oran Kenyon

San Francisco is a city that likes it views. I’m not referring to points of view on city politics, neighborhood gentrification, or restaurants. There are plenty of viewpoints on those subjects. San Franciscans are an opinionated bunch. Here I’m referring to views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Top of the Mark, views from the top of Hyde Street “where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars,” and of course, views from Telegraph Hill across the bay to Alcatraz and its grim reminder of the maximum-security federal prison that operated there from 1934 to 1963.

Yes, that Alcatraz view, day or night, is a knockout, and worth big bucks on the real estate market. Great for having guests over and nursing a few cocktails while the sun goes down. But let’s reverse that. While the view of San Francisco Bay with Alcatraz in the middle distance is beautiful and awe inspiring, the view from Alcatraz when it was a federal penitentiary for incorrigible criminals was equally awe inspiring. But the attitude of the beholder was entirely different — rueful and resentful. It all depends on your point of view.


Long before it was a federal prison, the distinctive, 22-acre island was used as a campground and for gathering food like birds’ eggs and fish by the Miwoks and the Ohlone, native tribes that settled the area from 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. There is little record of these settlements, but that’s what some historians believe. Others assert that these natives may have used Alcatraz for the banishment of wrong-doers. If that conjecture is correct, it is a fascinating prefiguring of how the island was used many centuries later — again as a place of banishment.
Jumping ahead in our timeline to 1969, six years after the notorious federal prison closed, American Indian activists seized the island and attempted to reclaim the land, citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which called for abandoned federal land to be returned to the native peoples. The occupation continued for 18 months, and was a defining moment in American Indian rights activism, bringing awareness to their plight, and ultimately changing their relationship with the government.


It wasn’t until 1775 that Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish explorer, sailed into San Francisco Bay and began charting it. He named the rocky island La Isla de Los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Over the years the name of the pelican island was anglicized to Alcatraz.
When California became a U.S. possession in 1848 at the end of the war with Mexico over this valuable territory, suddenly Alcatraz became important. The U.S. Army took over Alcatraz and it became the largest military fort west of the Mississippi River. And in 1854, a lighthouse was built on the island’s highest point to help guide ships into the bay.


As early as 1860, the army was using Alcatraz to imprison soldier convicts. Gradually the fortifications there became obsolete and the importance of the military prison grew. It was formally designated a military prison in 1907. Army prisoners constructed most of the buildings on the island. The last army prisoners and their guards departed in 1933, and the following year, Alcatraz became a federal maximum-security penitentiary and remained as such until 1963.


Alcatraz had many famous prisoners. Among them were:
The Chicago mobster Al Capone, who gained fame during the Prohibition era, was a master of extortion, bootlegging, and murder, but the government finally got him on a tax charge and he wound up in Alcatraz.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly was the first “Public Enemy No.1.” His most famous crime was kidnapping an oil tycoon. Other transgressions included bootlegging and armed robbery. He spent 17 years in Alcatraz.
Alvin Karpis, another of J. Edgar Hoover’s public enemies, and as other criminals of his time, had a number of specialties — bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder. He was incarcerated on Alcatraz from 1936 to 1962.
Mickey Cohen was a Los Angeles crime boss. Gambling was his principal illegal game, but violence broke out whenever he was present. He was finally convicted of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz.
Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” was probably the most fascinating prisoner of the bunch. A career criminal, he ran a prostitution ring, later murdered a prison guard, and was considered incorrigibly dangerous. While serving time in Leavenworth Federal Prison he began raising canaries, wrote a book about bird disease, and soon was a respected ornithologist. He was transferred to Alcatraz after it was discovered that he was making alcohol in his cell. The last 54 years of his life were spent in prison, with 42 of those years in solitary confinement.


Most of the prisoners were not well-known gangsters. Instead they were incorrigibles from other prisons who refused to conform to regulations or were considered violent and believed to be escape risks. Once in Alcatraz, prisoners were forced to accept rigid rules and regulations. A prisoner at Alcatraz had four rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Privileges were granted for good behavior — visits from family members, access to the prison library, and recreation activities. On Sundays prisoners were allowed to play softball. If a batter hit the ball over the wall, it was not a homerun but an out.

Almost every minute of the day was strictly monitored. There were 13 official counts of inmates every 24 hours. During weekdays, prisoners were required to arise at 6:30 a.m. when the morning whistle blew. It was time for morning ablutions and time to clean their cells. The day proceeded with official whistles signaling what to do next — meals, laundry, and recreation. Lights out was 9:30 pm.

But perhaps more oppressive than the strict environment of Alcatraz was the view of San Francisco — when prisoners were allowed outside and could look at it. There it was — San Francisco — on the prisoner’s limited horizon.


Fevered thoughts and planning for escape were ever-present. Did anyone ever escape? Well, that depends on how you define escape. Over the 29 years that the prison operated, 36 men were involved in 14 escape attempts (two prisoners tried to escape twice). Twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape attempt, and two drowned. Whether anyone ever succeeded in escaping requires parsing the word escape. Do you define escape as successful if the prisoner got out of the cell house, reached the water of San Francisco Bay, made it to land, or reached land and did not get caught?

The National Park Service, which now operates Alcatraz, officially says no one ever succeeded in escaping, but to this day there are five prisoners who are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.” Did they really drown? Or are they out there somewhere, perhaps reading this story in the Marina Times?

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