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Alcatraz Island Facts

San Francisco Bay is home to Alcatraz Island also referred to as The Rock.

After serving as a lighthouse and military prison, it became a federal prison in1934.

The prison located on Alcatraz Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. It was established in 1934 to house the nation’s most notorious criminals.

In Spanish, Alcatraz is known as the “Isle of the Alcatraces”(Island of the pelicans), and the name Alcatraz was derived from this. 

The name apparently came from the Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala, who noticed pelicans roosting on the island.

Alcatraz Island Facts for Kids

  • Alcatraz Island is one and a half miles off the coast of San Francisco. 
  • Alcatraz Island is a 155-acre island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
  • Alcatraz Fort was built on it in the 1850s
  • In 1910, it was refurbished and turned into a U.S. Army military prison.
  • The federal government bought the island in 1933, and it became a prison in 1934.
  • A very strong current and cold waters made escaping Alcatraz very difficult. 
  • Alcatraz was once considered the strongest prison in the United States.

The History of Alcatraz Island

The island was once a major center of the Native American population in San Francisco Bay. But in March 1775, Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala and his crew of explorers discovered Alcatraz Island while searching for the best place to build a fort to protect San Francisco Bay.

In 1776, Spain’s King Carlos III granted Francisco de Ayala the right to settle and colonize the island. In 1819, after the Mexican-American War, Mexico gave Alcatraz Island to the United States as part of a treaty.

In 1850, the US Army built a military fortress on Alcatraz Island. Soldiers began blasting the island’s rugged rock and building dark, wet barracks.

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In 1852, the Army built a lighthouse on Alcatraz Island.

In 1854, the tower was the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States.

In 1909, the US Army closed Alcatraz Island to the public. Military prisoners were forced to build new disciplinary barracks. The construction of the building is a result of the replacement of old buildings that were in a state of serious disrepair. The project was finally finished in 1911 and is now known as “Prisoners Barracks.”

In 1934, they fully transformed the island into a prison facility.

Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 until 1963. The Alcatraz prison was infamous for its strict security. The infamous prison had infamously brutal beatings and was a stark contrast from the prisoners’ previous life of luxury on the outside.

This infamous prison housed some of America’s most dangerous criminals, such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz. It should be noted that Alcatraz did not house death row inmates since these were sent to other federal prisons with facilities for execution.

In 1963, Alcatraz finally closed its doors, but to this day it remains the most famous prison in America.

Who got to Stay in the Alcatraz Prison?

The prisoners at Alcatraz were considered to be some of the most dangerous inmates in the country. That’s the reason it was such a high-security prison. The cells were designed to prevent escape due to the danger that could be present.

Criminals like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly lived at the prison, as well as Alcatraz’s Birdman, Robert Franklin Stroud. Al Capone became an inmate in 1934 after been sent there for tax evasion. He was kept isolated from other prisoners for fear that he would command the other prisoners to riot.

During this time as a federal prison, Alcatraz had 14 escape attempts by 36 different prisoners

Two prisoners drowned; five others went missing and are believed drowned; 23 others were caught and sent back to prison.

What did they do to the prisoners of Alcatraz?

The prisoners in Alcatraz had different levels of security. Some were low security and would have a card that allowed them to move more freely around the facility with less supervision.

Visitors to these prisoners were only allowed once a month and had to abide by strict rules

Others were high security, which meant they had to be monitored at all times. Prisoners were segregated from the outside world, and any contact with family was only allowed once a year in most cases.

Why is Alcatraz called the Rock?

Because the cliffs on Alcatraz are so high and steep that if you wanted to escape it would be nearly impossible.

What was life like for prisoners in Alcatraz?

The inmates at Alcatraz were considered to be some of the most dangerous criminals in the country, which was why it was such a high-security prison. The cells were designed in order to prevent escape or any other kind of danger.

There were beds, desks, washbasins, toilets, and blankets in each cell. But it was very basic for each prisoner.

Can you swim from Alcatraz to shore?

Swimming from the island is dangerous because of the cold water, strong currents, and sharks. The swim is not possible for most people as it would take around four hours to complete the swim.

How many Alcatraz prisoners are still alive

Since the federal prison on Alcatraz Island closed in 1963, about a dozen former inmates have been released and allowed to live out their lives.

Of those twelve or so convicts who are currently free, the youngest of them is 67 years old (April 2020)

What kinds of birds live on the island?

You can see lots of seagulls, cormorants, pelicans, and black-crowned night herons. You might also be able to spot harbor seals in the bay or migrating whales offshore.

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Alcatraz had no female correctional officers or inmates.

The prison guard started their day at 7:00 in the morning, and they had to work until bedtime at 10:00 pm. They had to watch the prisoners all day and night, protect them from other prisoners, and of course make sure they didn’t escape.

The prison was too expensive to maintain and it closed in March 1963.

Alcatraz was opened as a museum in 1963 and houses more than 1.2 million items, including the original Alcatraz prison cells, period art, china, and silverware from the military mess hall, the warden’s home and office with furniture, clothing, and personal items from former guards and prisoners.

As a tourist, you are allowed to visit the island and spend time at the prison museum. You can see the cell blocks, cells, walk around the island, see the lighthouse and do a boat tour.

We hope you have enjoyed learning about Alcatraz. It’s a very eerie and wonderful place to visit if you happen to be in the bay area.