In the San Francisco Bay, there is well known island that was the home to 1,545 prisoners. The place was isolated from the rest of the world, and “convicts would enjoy almost no contact with the outside world”. It was said to be escape proof, covered all the way around with water, and there was even rumors of sharks swimming about in the San Francisco Bay. This prison was Alcatraz, one of the most well known prisons in the US. The prison was so famous that dramatized movies were made about what happened inside its walls, like Clint Eastwood’s Escape From Alcatraz. But what was life really like for the inmates? Many people don’t know that Alcatraz has a lot more history besides being just a prison, and it even was home to one of the most successful American Indian occupations to date.

What Is Alcatraz’s History?

Alcatraz wasn’t just a prison. Actually it has a lot more history than being just a prison. Even before Spanish explorers discovered the area now known as California, 10,000 Indians occupied the areas around San Francisco Bay (“Alcatraz”). It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that Alcatraz served as a fort for the US, defending San Francisco Bay. The fort gradually evolved into a military prison. “Prisoners of war were housed here during the US Civil War (1861-1865) and the Spanish-American War (1898)” (McCullum). One thing I found interesting about this is that the Civil War was mostly held on the eastern half of the United States, and Alcatraz is all the way on the western coast! “High costs shut it down in 1934, though, and Alcatraz was handed over to the U.S. Department of Justice. It was remade into a maximum security federal prison” (McCullum). This is where it gained legendary status. The prison was thought to have no escape, and had “a mandate to punish, not rehabilitate” (Boisson). “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention,” stated Alcatraz’s rule number five. “Everything else you get is a privilege”(Boisson). Over its 28 years as a prison, Alcatraz housed over 1,545 prisoners (“Alcatraz”). Some of the well known criminals to stay at Alcatraz were Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and, perhaps the most famous, Al “Scarface” Capone. “Capone arrived on the Rock in 1934 from Leavenworth, where he was serving time for tax evasion. He toiled in the laundry room as prisoner AZ 85, but his bigshot swagger riled the more common hoods. One of them was inmate Jimmy Lucas, who knifed Capone in the shower room. As Alvin Karpis noted in his book, On The Rock, "Capone's wound turned out to be as superficial as Lucas' cheaply won notoriety." Released from Alcatraz in 1939, Capone died of syphilis in 1947” (Boisson). Housing many infamous criminals like Capone was one reason Alcatraz was so famous. The prison closed down in 1963 because it was too expensive to operate. Now, Alcatraz is just a tourist attraction for people who would like to visit the island (Boisson).

What Was Life Like for an Inmate at Alcatraz?

Inmates’ lives in Alcatraz were horrible, which they probably deserved. Again, the prison had “a mandate to punish, not rehabilitate” (Boisson). “The cells themselves are identical cubicles each with a cot, toilet, basin, shelf, folding table and seat. The walls are all trimmed in an institutional lime green” and a naked light bulb was in the center of the ceiling (Boisson). Inmates would spend 23 hours a day in these cells! I can barely stand being in one place for three hours. That means that they would only have one hour for meals and a very short recreation period. A lucky inmate with work duty would spend 18 hours in a cell. Cell Block D was for the worst criminals that stayed in Alcatraz. They were in these cells for 24 hours a day! Robert Stroud described his stay in Cell Block D as “a private purgatory where a few carefully chosen victims could slowly be driven mad” (Boisson). “Prisoners endured even worse treatment in ‘the hole’, one of six isolation cells on the first level designated for solitary confinement. Cons entered wearing only boxer shorts, socks, and a cover-all. Darkness was broken only by meals” (Boisson). Inmates were put “in the hole” for bad behavior (McCullum). I think that inmates would be crazy to do anything bad if this was the punishment, and I’m guessing a lot of them went insane after staying in one of the isolation cells. To me, it seems a lot like torture. One inmate, Jim Quillen, passed the time in one of these cells by flipping a button into the darkness, searching the floor, and when he found it, he would repeat this little game over and over again (Boisson; McCullum). This was his “fun” in Alcatraz. Seeing how this prison would be a horrible place to stay, inmates had tried to escape, but “officials believe no imate ever successfully escaped Alcatraz” (McCullum). One attempt that was close was by three imates in 1962. Their names were Frank Lee Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin. The last two were brothers. First, they chipped their way out of the back of their cell. To trick the guards, they put lifelike dummies in their beds. They also created inflattable rafts and vests to get across the water. Mysteriously, the three were never seen again, and no one knows if they are alive. Experts believe that they were dragged out to the ocean by the water currents, where they most likely drowned (McCullum). Another incedent occurred in 1946, when six prisoners took over the gun gallery. They held the guards hostage for two days. Marines had to come to help take “The Rock” back, but two guards and three prisoners died. “Two of the three surviving instigators were executed in the electric chair” (Boisson). As you can see, life was pretty harsh for the inmates of Alcatraz, and some criminals even tried to escape its terror.

What Was the American Indian Occupation Of Alcatraz?

Indians were the first to live on Alcatraz, and they felt that it was their land. Not only did they feel the island was their own, but they also needed a way to get Indian rights noticed to the public (“Alcatraz”). “Early in the morning on November 20, 1969, 79 American Indians, including students, married couples and six children, sailed to Alcatraz and began the 19-month occupation of the island. Despite the Coast Guard's attempted blockade, the group disembarked successfully” (“Alcatraz”). Over time, more Indians came to the island. The coast guard set up blockades to keep supplies and people from getting in, but that didn’t stop them. “The occupiers organized themselves immediately, electing a council and giving everyone a job. Everyone on the island voted on all major decisions. Within three weeks of the occupation, a school was set up” (“Alcatraz”). Not only did they get started right away, but they also made a list of demands for the government. The list included the return of Alcatraz to the American Indians and sufficient funding to build, maintain, and operate an Indian cultural complex and a university. The government agreed to negotiate, but turned down all of the occupiers’ demands. The island occupation started to get around to the public, and was favored in the public’s eye. Seeing that support was favored by the citizens, the government even met with the Indians on the island several times. “The occupiers held their grounds on demands” (“Alcatraz”). Although things started out great for the occupation, problems began to occur. “The island several times lost electricity and its main water source” (“Alcatraz”). A lot of the occupiers left to go back to school once challenges started to seep in (Many of the occupiers were college students). Overtime, leaders also left, which created a power struggle. Fighting caused violence and fires. This made the occupiers lose support from the public. In mid January 1971, two supertankers collided and dumped 800,000 gallons of crude oil into San Francisco Bay. The lighthouse was supposedly not a factor, but it was broken down at the time. In the public’s eye, this made the lighthouse a factor. The occupiers lost even more support, conditions worsened, and even more people left (“Alcatraz”). The government took its que. “On June 11, 1971, a large force of federal marshals, GSA Special Forces, Coast Guard and FBI agents removed the final 15 people - six men, four women and five children - from Alcatraz. They offered no resistance, and after 19 months and nine days, the occupation was over” (“Alcatraz”). Even though the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz ended in a bad way, it made people realize Indian right issues, and a lot of Indians started to be proud of their culture and heritage.

Works Cited

  • “Alcatraz Is Not an Island” . PBS. ITVS, 2002. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
  • Boisson, Steve. "Go to Jail!: The Rock: Perched atop an island in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz became legendary as an escape-proff prison. " American History 1 Oct. 2002: Research Library, Proquest. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
  • McCollum, Sean. "Escape to Alcatraz: after a one-night sentence served at America's most infamous prison, California scouts bust out with a new appreciation for the island's stormy past." Boys' Life Oct. 2007: 34+. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.