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Alcatraz, History’s Most Famous Prison

Papier maché heads used in the famous escape from Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island in San Francisco
Cells at Alcatraz Penitentiary

It has been closed for 50 years, but is still a major talking point. It was the temporary home of gangster Al Capone and scene of the most famous escape of all time.
Famous criminals served their sentences behind its bars and, despite being a maximum high-security prison, it endured the most talked about escape in history, still unresolved. Although closed, Alcatraz is still present in the history of the city and throuthout North America. It was in 1963 when the last prisoners walked its corredors to leave Alcatraz. It had been in operation for almost three decades, since 1934, but closed its gates for the last time due to the deteriorating conditions. From then on, it would receive only tourists and avid investigators of mystery stories.

Alcatraz prison was built on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, close by for the city’s inhabitants but far away for those doing hard time behind its walls. Until then, the Rock, as many called it, had had a troubled past, being a cellhouse for the military prison during the United States Civil War, between 1861 and 1865. When the conflict ended, the soldiers abandoned the island and its cannons and the construction were slated to perform its most famous function, and that which awakened most interest: as the Federal Penitentiary. Year after year it confined the most dangerous criminals, the majority considered irredeemable, among them, Al Capone, the most famous of all.

There were many attempts to escape from Alcatraz Prison, some more successful than others, either because the convicts were recaptured before they could leave or because they drowned in the cold waters of the bay. To prevent them escaping, prisoners were told that as well as the icy waters, the bay was infested with blood-thirsty sharks. In spite of these stories, many continued to try. The most famous escape was perpetrated by Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, and was the only successful one. At least, that’s the popular belief; their bodies were never found. They had an original modus operandi, escaping through a hole they dug with a spoon in the moisture-damaged wall, and which led to an air duct. They threw the guards off their trail with dummy heads made from papier maché and hair stolen from the barber shop, stuffed into their beds so no-one would suspect they had gone. The event aroused such interest that it was made into a film in 1979, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood.

The Rock, two kilometres around the perimeter, is considered a National Historic Landmark, and in 1972, received the title of National Park, governed by the National Park Service and part of the Golden Gate National Park. Today it is a museum and one of the most visited attractions in San Francisco. The badly eroded cell blocks, have been restored to ensure they remain standing for many years. The reasons it was closed as a prison were high maintenance costs and water damage to the buildings. The removal of prisoners and officials to other penitentiaries meant the prison ceased to exist as such, but the ghost stories and legends remain encarcerated within its walls.

A Must Visit

Get to know first hand the stories of Alcatraz in a guided tour of the prison. Go to Pier 33 on Fisherman’s Wharf, and board the ferry to the island. You’ll circle The Rock before landing. Once there, you can walk along the corridors of the restored penitentiary buildings and the prisoners’ cells, which are just as they were 50 years ago. There is also a walking tour around the island and its lighthouse.

Al Capone, the VIP prisoner

Among the highlights of your tour of the prison is the cell used by the most famous gangster of all time, Al Capone. For decades, he baited law enforcement with his bootlegging and racketeering, and was on the FBI’s most wanted list for his crimes in Brooklyn and, particularly, Chicago. His downfall came in the 1930s, when the Federal Government of the United States sentenced him to twelve years in prison for tax evasion, the only crime for which they found proof.