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15 Shocking Facts About Alcatraz

There are some surprising facts about Alcatraz. There’s just something about prisons that get me curious. The whole idea of how the inmates live there, what crimes they committed, and what are they doing now has always made me want to search deeper for the truth. 

Hence, I decided to read up some facts about Alcatraz, and came across some shocking ones! I’ve also penned down some of my favourite and the most famous ones in this article. 

Facts About Alcatraz

Alcatraz, commonly known as “The Rock”, is an island located in the San Fransisco Bay, California. This island is no ordinary one, as it served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. It also had some pretty famous and dangerous people as prisoners. 

These facts about Alcatraz will tell you more about the island and the prison life there. 

1. Alcatraz is One of the Most Secure Prisons in the World

15 Shocking Facts About Alcatraz

Every now and then, you might hear about criminals running away from prison. However, these facts about Alcatraz simply show that it was almost impossible to run away from Alcatraz! 

Now, there are many reasons why it was one of the most secure prisons in the world. First, the island of Alcatraz is located in a remote region, covered by dangerous waters. Due to this reason, most inmates weren’t able to escape the island. 

Apart from the location, the prison also had very tight security, with several surveillance cameras, high walls, and armed guards near the cells. Moreover, the prison cells were quite compact, to prevent the inmates from hiding any weapons. 

2. Prisoners Wanted to Be Transferred to Alcatraz

This has to be one of the weirdest facts about Alcatraz that I’ve come across!

Alcatraz always seemed like a scary place to be, and yet, some prisoners wanted to be transferred there. Now, there’s an explanation behind it. 

Alcatraz had the one-man-per-cell policy. For some inmates, this was a major relief as they would not have to worry about being targeted or bullied by their other cellmates. They also had their own privacy and security. 

Also, all prisoners at Alcatraz had four basic rights – food, shelter, clothing, and surprisingly, a library. However, they had to be on their best behaviour, if they wanted to access the library. 

Due to all these reasons, some prisoners actually wanted to get transferred to Alcatraz!

3. There Are 0 Confirmed Escapes From Alcatraz

This is one of the facts about Alcatraz, which proves that it was one of the strictest prisons. 

Despite Alcatraz’s location and tight security, there were around 36 prisoners, who tried to escape the prison. However, all their attempts were in vain, as they weren’t successful. 

Out of these 36 prisoners, 23 prisoners were captured by the guards, 2 of them drowned, and 6 of them were shot to death! 

You might think about what happened to the other five. Well, they were presumed drowned. These prisoners were the infamous Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, whose breakout attempt also inspired a movie, “Escape from Alcatraz”, in 1979! 

4. Alcatraz Was Originally a Fort

Here are some historical forts about Alcatraz for you! 

Did you know that before Alcatraz was a prison, it was a fort? It was built on an island between the years 1853 and 1859 to protect the San Francisco Bay’s entrance. 

Also, the fort also had many cannons and military barracks for defence in case an enemy attacked! However, all of it was rendered useless in the following years. 

But, in 1933, the Department of Justice decided to convert the fort into a federal prison. They conducted various modifications to it and made it one of the most secure prisons in the world.  

5. Alcatraz Is Now a Tourist Attraction

15 Shocking Facts About Alcatraz

These facts about Alcatraz will talk about how it’s no longer a federal prison. 

After several years of operation, Alcatraz was closed in 1963. Some of the major reasons behind its closure were the expensive cost of operation and structural problems. 

So, you might wonder what happened to Alcatraz then. Well, it became one of the most popular tourist attractions. 

There are many things to see in Alcatraz. You can visit the Alcatraz Cellhouse, where the inmates were kept. Or, you can check out the Alcatraz lighthouse. You can also take a self-guided tour there, to explore the island and its significance. 

If you’re a nature lover, you can check out the gardens (grown by the prisoners). There’s the Alcatraz Museum too, where you can know more about the prison’s history and see the photographs too!

6. Alcatraz Had the First Lighthouse on the US West Coast

Let’s discuss some quick architectural facts about Alcatraz. 

Alcatraz has a unique lighthouse, as it was the first one on the US West Coast. This lighthouse was first constructed in 1854, and was quite useful for navigation for over 50 years!

However, in 1909, a 95-foot tall brand-new lighthouse was built over the old one, as the Cellhouse was blocking the Golden Gate’s view. Once the prison closed, the lighthouse was automated and a new beacon was also added. 

7. There Was No Death Row in Alcatraz

You might think that Alcatraz would have a death row. After all, it was one of the deadliest prisons. But, these facts about Alcatraz show that such wasn’t the case.

Despite how strict Alcatraz was, there was no death row. Also, there were no facilities for execution either in the prison. But, the prisoners with a death sentence, were shifted to the San Quentin State Penitentiary. In that prison, they were executed in the gas chamber, by making them inhale toxic gases. 

Do note that even if there was no death row in Alcatraz, there were prisoners who died at the prison due to other reasons. 

For instance, eight inmates died of violence, fifteen died of natural illnesses, and five inmates died of suicide too. Also, some were shot and some drowned while trying to escape the prison. 

8. The First Inmates of Alcatraz Were Military Prisoners

Alcatraz wasn’t always a prison for civilian prisoners. Initially, it was used for military prisoners. 

In the late 1850s, the US Army started imprisoning military prisoners in Alcatraz. The first inmate at the Alcatraz prison was a queer man named Frank Lucas Bolt. 

Frank Lucas Bolt was a part of the US Army in Panama. However, in 1932, he was convicted of sodomy and was sent to a military prison in the Pacific area. Then, in 1936, he was transferred to the Alcatraz Prison.

Later on, many other soldiers who violated the military rules were kept as inmates in the Alcatraz prison. 

9. Speaking Was Not Allowed in Alcatraz

Undoubtedly, the Alcatraz prison had many rules. So, let’s cover a few of them in these facts about Alcatraz. 

One of the biggest rules in Alcatraz was that the prisoners weren’t always allowed to speak. If they wanted to talk to another prisoner or even the guard about something, they would have to take permission first. 

They were allowed to speak at certain times, such as recreational periods, and mealtimes. However, note that excessive noise or shouting was also prohibited. 

15 Shocking Facts About Alcatraz

Even though life at Alcatraz was rough and tedious, the inmates were allowed to participate in certain recreational activities, as long as they were on their best behaviours. One such activity was softball. 

Every Saturday and Sunday, the inmates had two hours of yard time. During this free time, they used to play softball. The rules were slightly different, as no team uniforms were provided. Also, a ball that went over the wall was considered as out, instead of a home run. 

The inmates created their own teams, which also led to racial tensions sometimes. In the year 1956, a white inmate insulted a black inmate, which caused a huge fight between the prisoners. Thankfully, the guards were able to stop the fight before any major damage was done. 

11. Prisoners Had Hot Showers at Alcatraz

These facts about Alcatraz may make you feel as if the prisoners were living a life of fun on the island! Yet, there’s a reason why the inmates were allowed hot showers instead of cold showers. 

Alcatraz had hot showers because they wanted to acclimate the prisoners to hot water. This way, they won’t be able to tolerate the freezing waters of the San Francisco Bay, if they tried to escape! 

Hence, this would mean an automatic death for anybody who wanted to escape the prison.

12. Al Capone Was a Prisoner in Alcatraz

If I had to name one prisoner from Alcatraz, who was extremely infamous, it would be Al Capone. Now, in case you haven’t heard about him, these facts will help you out. 

Al Capone, also known as “Scarface”, was one of the most notorious mobsters in the entire US history! He was known for various crimes during the Roaring 20s in Chicago, such as prostitution, gambling, bootlegging, bribery, and even drug trafficking

In 1931, Al Capone was charged with income tax evasion and also for conspiracy to violate Prohibition law. Then, in 1934, he was imprisoned at the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, where he was also known as “Prisoner 85”. 

During his serving period, Al Capone became an avid reader and a musician too. He used to compose his own songs and had his own prison band, the Rock Islanders!

In January 1939, Al Capone was released from Alcatraz and transferred to another facility. These facts about Alcatraz and Al Capone are pretty well-known today.

13. Seagulls Are Everywhere Across the Alcatraz Island

15 Shocking Facts About Alcatraz

You may have got the idea from these facts about Alcatraz that apart from the tourists, the island is pretty much empty. Therefore, it didn’t take long for birds, especially seagulls to establish their dominance over the entire area. 

If you go to Alcatraz, you’ll notice that the entire area is full of Western gulls, making their comfortable homes in every little corner of the island. There’s also an avian tour at Alcatraz for visitors who love bird-watching. They can get to see over 5000 birds from nine different species.

The reason why Alcatraz Island is full of seagulls is mainly the location. As the island is located amidst San Fransisco Bay, there are many seagulls already roaming about the area. The presence of an abandoned island, full of human infrastructure is enough to lure them in. 

14. Some College Students Occupied Alcatraz in 1969

There are some controversial facts about Alcatraz, and how a group of college students literally took over the prison place. 

In 1969, a group of Native Americans, Indians of All Tribes (IAT), decided to occupy Alcatraz Island, and stayed there for over 19 months! The reason behind the protest and occupation of Alcatraz was that the US government took over the land of the Native Americans, and tried to destroy their culture

The whole protest was led by a student of the San Francisco State University, Richard Oakes. Some other notable leaders of the Alcatraz occupation include LaNada Means and John Trudell. 

15. The Birdman Had No Birds in Alcatraz 

15 Shocking Facts About Alcatraz

This is one of the most famous facts about Alcatraz, and one of its fellow inmates, Robert Stroud, who was also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”. 

Robert Stroud was convicted of manslaughter after killing a bartender in a brawl. First, he was sent to the McNeil Island,  Federal Penitentiary in Washington State. Then, he was again transferred to the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, due to his violent behaviour in McNeil Island. He stabbed a guard to death during his sentence period and was then given a death sentence in solitary confinement. 

Now, Robert was at Leavenworth, he developed a keen interest in birds. He raised around 300 birds in his cell and also wrote two books on canaries and their diseases. Despite his contributions, when Robert was transferred to Alcatraz, he wasn’t allowed to keep any birds. 

So, even if he was known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, it was because of his former reputation, as he didn’t have any birds in Alcatraz. 

Further Reading – Facts About Alcatraz

Alcatraz is surely an interesting place to read about, due to its history as a fort, military prison, and then a federal prison. Moreover, the prison also had some famous and wicked people, like Al Capone locked in there. 

I hope these facts about Alcatraz answered all your questions and also helped you know more about this prison island. 

If you enjoyed reading such facts about Alcatraz, you will enjoy other posts too on my blog!