Possibly the most famous prison in history, Alcatraz sits eerily in the San Francisco Bay, as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
Aside from harbouring some of America’s most uncontrollable convicts, and being the focus of a major Hollywood blockbuster – just how much do you know about Alcatraz?
Here are 8 facts you may not know about the criminal island.
- Al Capone the Musician
One of the most famous and notorious gangsters in history spent more than four years within the impenetrable prison. Although he may have bribed his way through his previous dwellings he was no match for Alcatraz, becoming so cooperative he was even allowed to join the prison band, the Rock Islanders where he played the banjo at regular Sunday concerts.
- Pelican Playground
Before criminals and tourists took over ‘The Rock’, it played home to large colonies of brown pelicans. Originally named ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’ by Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, it translates to ‘Island of the Pelicans’. Over time the name Alcatraces became more westernised before resulting in what we call it today, hence the name Alcatraz.
- The First Lighthouse
On the island you’ll find a rather delightful lighthouse, which has stood there since 1909. However, the rocky mound previously housed a slightly smaller lighthouse that became active in 1854. In doing so it also became the first of its kind on the West Coast of the United States.
- No Girls Allowed
The prison was wholly manned by male prison officers, and filled with male prisoners. In fact, female prisoners weren’t declared ‘incorrigible’ until 1969, way after Alcatraz shut its doors. However the island wasn’t completely female free, with the wives and daughters of officers living there.
- Escape from Alcatraz
This is one of the biggest talking points when it comes to the unbreakable penitentiary, with many trying and ultimately failing to escape; there was even a film based on the most famous attempt. However one John Paul Scott managed to break free in 1962 and swam across the waters of San Francisco Bay. He was later picked up by police at the Golden Gate Bridge suffering hypothermic shock and was promptly returned. Today people take part in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon every year, where hundreds swim the 1.5 miles between the bay and the island.
- Prisoner Hotel
Despite its reputation as the toughest prison to ever exist, this is somewhat fictionalised by Hollywood and folk tales. Whilst no five star hotel, many prisoners often requested to be transferred here. This was largely due to its one prisoner per cell policy, good food (the first warden believed poor food was the reason for riots), alongside good privileges for those who behaved. We still wouldn’t want to holiday there though.
- Other Residents
Before the prisoners and guards, there were the pelicans, but Alcatraz is also home to some other wildlife; besides birds. This includes deer mice, which are believed to have reached the island by swimming across the bay, banana slugs and slender salamanders.
- Activists Unite
Although the prisoners left after Alcatraz shut in 1962, a few years later nearly 100 Native American activists took over the island in 1969. Led by Mohawk Richard Oakes, the group cited a 1968 treaty that granted unoccupied federal land to Native Americans. Although they intended to establish a university and cultural centre, things didn’t go to plan and the group were completely removed in June 1971 by federal marshals; however much of their graffiti remains intact.