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Alcatraz Island—Escape was impossible. Or was it?

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Alcatraz Island (Photo © Biggunben via Creative Commons)

La Isla de los Alcatraces (“The Island of the Pelicans”) sits stalwartly in the cold, strong currents of San Francisco Bay. Because of its isolation, the island has a long history as a prison: Native Americans used it for ostracized tribal members, American Civil War prisoners were detained there, and it was used as a civilian prison beginning after the 1906 earthquake.

“The Rock” is most famous for its years as a federal prison (1934-1963), designed especially for the incarceration of kidnappers, racketeers, and predatory criminals in America’s post-Prohibition, post-Depression years. Its infamous residents include Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud (who was not permitted to keep birds in his cell).

In 1962 three prisoners escaped from the island, and parts of their getaway raft (made from prison-issued raincoats) were found on nearby Angel Island. Official records report that the men drowned while swimming to the mainland, and that no one has ever escaped Alcatraz and lived. The breakout was the subject of a 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.

In 1964 and again in 1969, American Indians occupied the island and  symbolically claimed Alcatraz for all Indian people. The second occupation, led by charismatic Mohawk Richard Oakes, lasted for 18 months and gave birth to a political movement that resulted in official US government policy changing from “termination of Indian tribes” to Indian self-determination.

Today Alcatraz is a bird sanctuary, and visitors can observe the mating, nesting, and parenting behaviors of cormorants, gulls, night herons, egrets, black oystercatchers, and pigeon guillemots. Of course, most visitors go for the prison tour; allow at least 2 or 3 hours for the orientation, programs, videos, exhibits, and self-guided audio and GPS tours. Guided tours are available Thursday through Monday evenings.

Did you know: MythBusters investigated details of the 1962 break-out, and concluded such an escape was “plausible.”

Did you know: The first lighthouse on the west coast was activated on Alcatraz in 1854.

Tips: Alcatraz cruises leave from Pier 33. Although there is a snack bar on the ferry, eating and smoking are prohibited on the island. Bottled water is available. For holiday or summer visits, you may need to purchase tickets a week or so in advance. Late winter through early summer is the best time for birdwatching on the island. Dress warmly, even in summer.

Find out more: Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis, “Dock” Barker—these were just a few of the legendary “public enemies” for whom America’s first supermax prison was created. In Alcatraz: The Gangster Years, David Ward brings their stories to life, along with vivid accounts of the lives of other infamous criminals who passed through the penitentiary from 1934 to 1948. Ward, who enjoyed unprecedented access to FBI, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Federal Parole records, conducted interviews with one hundred former Alcatraz convicts, guards, and administrators to produce this definitive history of “The Rock.”

This is the only book with authoritative answers to questions that have swirled about the prison: How did prisoners cope psychologically with the harsh regime? What provoked the protests and strikes? How did security flaws lead to the sensational escape attempts? And what happened when these “habitual, incorrigible” convicts were finally released? By shining a light on the most famous prison in the world, Ward also raises timely questions about today’s supermax prisons.

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