August 11, 1934: Welcome to The Rock; Federal Prison at Alcatraz Opens

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A Brief History

On August 11, 1934, the Federal Penitentiary located on the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay opened for civilian prisoners.  Despite its exotic-sounding name, Alcatraz was a state-of-the-art maximum security prison designed to hold the toughest, most dangerous prisoners.

Digging Deeper

Some of the desperadoes held there included: Al “Scarface” Capone; “Doc” Barker; Robert Stroud (aka “The Bird Man of Alcatraz”); “Bumpy“ Johnson (aka “The Godfather of Harlem“); “Whitey” Bulger; Alvin “Creepy” Karpis; and “Machine Gun” Kelly.  Apparently having a nickname was a good way to end up on “The Rock!”

Considered to be escape-proof, the prison could only hold 312 prisoners at a time.  Over the years, 36 of them tried to escape in 14 separate attempts.  Officially, none of those attempts were successful; it was simply impossible to survive the cold rough waters of the Bay while swimming to the mainland.  A total of 6 prisoners were shot while trying to escape, 2 drowned, and 5 are assumed to have drowned.  3 prisoners were never seen again, as depicted in the 1979 movie Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.

Assumed to have drowned, authorities do not really know what happened to the fleeing felons, and it is possible that they actually survived their escape.  An escape attempt of 6 inmates in 1946 resulted in the death of 2 guards, and in a situation that became known as “The Battle of Alcatraz,” the Marines had to intervene in order to regain control.  Three of the prisoners were killed and another was injured, while 17 guards had been injured in addition to the 2 who were killed. 

Closed in 1963 after only 29 years of operation, Alcatraz had been under fire for the extremely high cost of housing each prisoner and for the inadequate conditions.  Despite its relative newness, the usual cell measured only 9 by 5 feet!  Crammed into that tiny area was a bed, a wash basin and a toilet.  Five special cells designated for punishment were dubbed “the hole.” With a reputation as a brutal, miserable place to be held, Federal prisoners were often threatened to be sent to Alcatraz if they did not cooperate or behave well.

Today, a million-and-half people visit the island and prison, making it a major tourist destination.  Some consider it the most haunted place in America; the Native Americans from the area had also considered the island haunted.  (History and Headlines Note: Native Americans occupied Alcatraz for 19 months from 1969 to 1971 as part of a protest during a movement of Native American activism.)  Other movies featuring Alcatraz include: The Bird Man of Alcatraz (1962), starring Burt Lancaster; The Rock (1996), starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage; and Murder in the First (1995).  Even Dirty Harry, himself, had to rescue the mayor of San Francisco from terrorists on Alcatraz in The Enforcer (1976).  Alcatraz has also been the subject of television shows, notably the 2012 series Alcatraz.  It is featured in numerous video games, comic books, non-fiction works and in a surprising amount of songs and other assorted references. Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite Alcatraz movie?  Feel free to let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more on Alcatraz in popular culture, please watch…

Bay, Michael and John Schwartzman, dir.  The Rock.  HOLLYWOOD PICTURES, 1997.  DVD.

Siegel, Don, dir.  Escape From Alcatraz.  Warner Bros., 1999.  DVD.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Don Ramey Logan (1961–) of Alcatraz Island, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube:


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.