Welcome to “The Rock”

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office.

Alcatraz Island, California, 1934. (National Archives Identifier 23935533)

On August 11, 1934, the first civilian prisoners arrived at the new federal penitentiary, which would infamously become known as “The Rock.”

The high-security prison on Alcatraz Island, a short ferry ride from San Francisco, was meant to show the American public that the federal government was serious about fighting the swell in crime that the nation saw in the 1920s and 1930s.

U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz continued to house criminals for nearly 30 years, before ultimately closing its doors in 1963.

The now notorious prison was designed to hold the most dangerous elements of the federal prison system, in particular prisoners who had shown violent behavior at other federal prisons or those who were likely to attempt escape.

Warden’s notebook page, with mug shot of Robert Stroud, aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” ca. 1942. (National Archives Identifier 296722)

One famous Alcatraz inmate Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” for example, had murdered a guard while serving time at another federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. His violent record consequently earned himself a spot at The Rock.

Though the prison was built to hold 336 inmates, it never reached capacity during its 29 years of operation.

Lives of Alcatraz residents were designed around a repetitive and tedious schedule that was meant to instill respect for rules and regulations.

Prisoners were guaranteed the essentials: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. All other things—from being allowed family visits to supplies for painting—were privileges, earned or lost based on behavior.Inmates spent an average of five years on Alcatraz, learning to respect the rules, after which they would often be transferred out to another less intense federal prison to complete their sentence and await release.

Inmate File for Robert Stroud, 1943. (National Archives Identifier 24731415)

Of the more than 1,500 men who served time on Alcatraz, 36 attempted to escape the cell house in 14 unique escape attempts. None of these escape attempts was ever officially declared a success. Thirty-one men were either caught and returned to the prison or died in the midst of their escape. The five remaining men were never captured, and their bodies were never found in San Francisco Bay, leaving them listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”

Alcatraz Island is best known for the high-security prison and its residents of the mid-20th century, but the island’s history extends much further.

The name Alcatraz  originated with Spanish naval lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, who named the small island Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans, during an exploration of San Francisco Bay in 1775. The Spanish eventually sold the island to the United States in 1849, after it became a citadel to protect San Francisco Bay.

Plan of Alcatraz Prison Towers at the Dock and Power House, 1940. (National Archives Identifier 596299)

By 1859, a permanent detachment of the United States Army was stationed on the island. Around the same time, the island began its legacy as a penitentiary, housing military prisoners. At the turn of the century, the Army demolished the fortress on the island and constructed a new military prison, built by the prisoners themselves. This new cell house held the notorious criminals Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

Photograph of Alcatraz Island Light Station in California. (National Archives Identifier 7682782)

What made Alcatraz Island such an ideal location as a secure and isolated high-security prison became the same reason given for its eventual closing.

The nature of a correctional facility stationed on an island meant that supplies needed to be brought in by boat, which contributed to incredibly high operating costs. The federal government eventually decided it was more cost-effective to build a new high-security institution than to invest the funds in restoring and maintaining Alcatraz. The prison was closed in March 1963.

Today, more than a million visitors come from all over the world each year to visit Alcatraz Island and to tour the old jailhouse. But nowadays, those who step off the ferry and onto The Rock do so voluntarily, so unlike the men who arrived there 82 years ago.

In 1972 Alcatraz Island and the abandoned prison that sits atop its banks came into the custody of the National Park Service, which cares for the island to this day. On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, and the National Archives is commemorating the event by displaying the Organic Act of 1916, which founded the NPS. The document will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building through August 31, 2016

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