Off the coast of San Francisco, a city in California, stands a rocky island aptly nicknamed “The Rock.” However, it is officially known as “Alcatraz,” based on the name “Isla de los Alcatraces” (Spanish for “Island of the Pelicans”), which is what a Spanish explorer called it in 1775. Today, Alcatraz Island is a popular tourist destination, primarily because it served as a federal prison for some of the United States’ most dangerous criminals from 1934 to 1963.
Today, the U.S. National Park Service owns Alcatraz Island, which still contains the aging prison buildings used by notorious criminals in the mid-20th century. Tourists must book a ticket through Alcatraz Cruises in order to ride a boat to get to the island. There are different touring options available, but the cheapest (which is still pricey) includes the basic Cellhouse Audio Tour. The audio tour is available in several languages, and allows you to learn about the history of the island at your own pace. If you have the time, and are willing to pay, it is worth the visit.
Alcatraz’s most famous inmate was the Chicago gangster, Al Capone. Capone lived on Alcatraz from 1934 to 1939. The goal of keeping dangerous criminals on the isolated island was (1) to isolate them from the rest of the world (Capone was still involved in criminal activity while in a mainland prison), and (2) to make it more difficult for criminals to escape. Several dozen inmates did attempt to escape Alcatraz, but none succeeded. However, a few disappeared, so there is room for doubt.
Prior to becoming a federal prison, Alcatraz Island served as a military prison. After it closed in 1963, due the growing expenses of general maintenance, it was left abandoned. From 1969 to 1971, a group of Native Americans occupied the island as a form or protest, because they desired the land which they claimed was theirs based on a former treaty. Instead, the U.S. government gave the land to the National Park Service.
Alcatraz has captured the imagination of many, thus leading to the creation of dozens of films and books about it. Some famous films include the 1962 film with Burt Lancaster, Birdman of Alcatraz; the 1979 film with Clint Eastwood, Escape from Alcatraz; and the 1996 film with Sean Connery, The Rock. There is even a children’s book series called Tales from Alcatraz by Gennifer Choldenko, which describes a fictional account of a boy and his family who live on Alcatraz Island, because the boy’s father is a prison guard. Alcatraz’s prison guards actually lived on the island with their families.
Although Alcatraz’s name comes from the Spanish word for “pelican,” sea gulls are the birds that seem to be swarming all over the island. The deteriorating stone buildings and screeching sea gulls definitely make you feel as if you have walked into a creepy movie, albeit an interesting one.
Sources and Further Reading
“Al Capone.” Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/170/al-capone (accessed July 10, 2020).
“Alcatraz.” History. June 7, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/crime/alcatraz (accessed July 10, 2020).
“Alcatraz Island.” National Park Service. May 26, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm (accessed July 10, 2020).
Birdman of Alcatraz. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Hollywood: Norma Productions, 1962.
Choldenko, Gennifer. Al Capone Does My Shirts. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Alcatraz Island.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/place/Alcatraz-Island (accessed July 10, 2020).
Escape from Alcatraz. Directed by Donald Siegel. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1979.
The Rock. Directed by Michael Bay. Burbank, CA: Hollywood Pictures, 1996.
“Tour Options.” Alcatraz Cruises. https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/tour-options/ (accessed July 10, 2020).