San francisco, San Francisco Highlights

Alcatraz Island

History of Alcatraz Island

Located in the San Francisco Bay, just over a mile from the shores of San Francisco is Alcatraz Island. The island was developed in the 1860s for use as a military fort and a military prison. The island acted as a penitentiary for military personnel during The Civil War, The Spanish-American War and World War I. During that time the island prison held an average of over 200 and up to 500 prisoners from all sides of the conflicts. In 1934 the prison was handed over to the United States Justice Department and became a Maximum Security Federal Penitentiary.

Alcatraz Famous Inmates

After its transition from a Military Prison to a Federal Prison, Alcatraz became the place to send the most dangerous and notorious criminals in the United States. It was known as the prison for the prison system, meaning that when someone did not conform to regulations or attempted escapes from other prisons, they were sent to Alcatraz. Among the inmates included infamous criminals such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, James “Whitey” Bulger and Robert Stroud (more famously known as The Birdman of Alcatraz). A total of 1,576 inmates were kept at Alcatraz during its time as a Federal Prison.

Alcatraz Island Prison closure

Alcatraz Federal Prison officially closed on March 21, 1963. Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, James Bennett wrote an official statement in August of 1962 announcing the intent to close the prison. The buildings had deteriorated to the point they had become unsafe for prisoners and staff alike. The electrical system needed overhauled and the structures would not be able to withstand an earthquake of any significant magnitude. The estimated cost to bring the prison up to standard was $4 million and would have taken 5 years to complete so the decision was made to finally shut the prison down.

Native American Occupation of Alcatraz

An initial failed attempt by the Sioux Tribe to claim Alcatraz Island under the Sioux Treaty in March of 1964 was the catalyst for the famous occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971. After the loss of the San Francisco Indian Center to fire in October of 1969 and the rumor of the Island becoming a National Park, the scene was set. A group calling themselves the Indians of All Tribes set their sights on the Island and motions were set in place for its occupation.

A total of 89 American Indians protesters set out to occupy Alcatraz in the early hours of November 20th 1969. They set off from Sausalito and made their way across the foggy bay. The Coast Guard managed to block most of the protesters from reaching the island but 14 of them made it and thus began the 19 month occupation of Alcatraz Island. At the peak of the occupation, up to 400 people lived on Alcatraz Island, including Native Americans, journalists and sympathizers.

Several factors lead to the end of the occupation of Alcatraz. One of the main organizers, Richard Oakes and his family decided to leave the island after is 13 year old stepdaughter fell to her death. It became increasingly difficult to get supplies to the island due to coastguard intervention. By June of 1971 the number of occupiers dwindled to 15 people due to power being cut off, fires destroying accommodations, no fresh water and general lack of support. The occupation came to an end on June 11th 1971 when a large police force took to the island and peacefully removed the remaining protesters.

Alcatraz Today

In 1972, Alcatraz Island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and was open to the public 1 year later. It is now the most popular paid attraction in San Francisco and is visited by over 1 million people annually. For more information go to our Visiting Alcatraz page.