On this day in 1963 Alcatraz federal penitentiary prison closed.
Alcatraz Island is an island located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. The small island was developed with facilities for a federal prison until March 21, 1963. In 1972 Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the island’s facilities are operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island became a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison in August 1934. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held such notable criminals as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoner had successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and three escaped and were never found.
On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised. Behind the prisoners’ cells in Cell Block B was an unguarded 3-foot wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and the progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.
The escape route led up through a fan vent; the prisoners removed the fan and motor, replacing them with a steel grille and leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to enter. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen rain coats for the trip to the mainland. They escaped, leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells affixed with stolen human hair from the barbershop.
The official investigation by the FBI was aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who was part of the escapees’ group but was left behind. Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were discovered on nearby Angel Island. The official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay.
The attempt was the subject of the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz with screenplay by Richard Tuggle, directed by Don Siegel, and starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, Jack Thibeau as Clarence Anglin, and Fred Ward as John Anglin. The film implied that the three made it.
The escape was examined in a 2011 National Geographic Channel program entitled “Vanished from Alcatraz.” According to the newly uncovered official records discussed on the program, a raft was discovered on Angel Island with footprints leading away from it. There was also a report of a car stolen in the area that night. As a result, the U.S. Marshals office is still investigating this case, which will remain open on all three escapees until their 100th birthdays.
So who was sent to Alcatraz?…
Robert Stroud, who was better known to the public as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. He spent seventeen years in segregation in D Block and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Although called the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, Stroud was not allowed to keep birds while incarcerated there.
Al Capone arrived on Alcatraz in 1934. Capone generated incredible media attention while on Alcatraz though he served just four and a half years of his sentence there before developing symptoms of tertiary syphilis and being transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Los Angeles.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly arrived on September 4, 1934. At Alcatraz, Kelly was constantly boasting about several robberies and murders that he had never committed. Kelly was returned to Leavenworth in 1951.
Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz arrived in 1936. He constantly fought with other inmates. He spent the longest time on Alcatraz island, serving nearly 26 years.
Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson, the Godfather of Harlem, was a gangster in Harlem in the early 20th century. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1954 and was imprisoned until 1963. He was believed to have been involved in the 1962 escape attempt of Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin.
Mickey Cohen worked for the Mafia’s gambling rackets; he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 15 years in Alcatraz Island. Two years into his sentence, an inmate clobbered Cohen with a lead pipe, partially paralysing him. After his release in 1972, Cohen led a quiet life with old friends.
Arthur R. “Doc” Barker the son of Ma Barker and a member of the Barker-Karpis gang along with Alvin Karpis. In 1935, Barker was sent to Alcatraz Island on conspiracy to kidnap charges. On the night of January 13, 1939, Barker with Henri Young and Rufus McCain attempted escape from Alcatraz. Barker was shot and killed by the guards.
Rafael Cancel Miranda, a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954. On March 1, 1954, Cancel Miranda together with fellow Nationalists entered the United States Capitol building armed with automatic pistols and fired 30 shots, hitting five congressmen, who all survived their wounds.
Because the penitentiary cost much more to operate than other prisons and half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963. That year, the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, on land, opened as the replacement facility for Alcatraz.
Fox Channel has been running a new TV series based on the mysterious prison island centered on the idea that some prisoners and guards disappeared and are now returning. In 1963, all the prisoners and guards mysteriously disappear from Alcatraz. In the present day, they resurface and a secret agency are tasked with re-capturing them.