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Alcatraz Island has served as a harbor fortification, military detention facility and maximum-security federal penitentiary. The West Coast's first and oldest operating lighthouse is also located on the island. Today Alcatraz is one of San Francisco's top tour attractions; over one million people take an Alcatraz tour each year.
Alcatraz the Prison
Most curiosity surrounding Alcatraz focuses on the period when the island served as the infamous maximum-security prison for notorious Mafia criminals and high-risk convicts. In 1934 control of Alcatraz shifted from the US military to the Department of Justice who found itself ill equipped to deal with the violent crime surge that followed the Great Depression. Citizens lived in fear as mobsters and thugs ruled the streets in many metropolitan cities. Alcatraz proved the perfect solution for incarcerating the country's most violent of criminals. A foremost security expert was commissioned to design a 600-cell escape-proof prison where a ratio of one guard to every three prisoners was maintained.
The first prisoners on Alcatraz were handpicked from other penitentiaries and were among the nation's most unmanageable convicts. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert “Birdman” Stroud were among the first group of inmates to arrive. Crimes committed by the hardened criminals who resided on the island ranged from bank robbery to rape to murder.
Upon arrival at Alcatraz new prisoners were assigned to a private cell and provided with only life's most basic necessities: clothing, food, water and medical care; anything above and beyond this was considered a privilege. Inmates were required to observe a strict silence policy, only being allowed to talk during meals and recreation.
Historically, many prison riots started because of the poor quality of prison food. Warden James Johnston vowed that the Alcatraz cafeteria would be the best in the prison system. Prisoners of Alcatraz dined on a menu of salads, fresh fruit, diverse entrees and even desserts.
Although the island is only 1.25 miles from shore, no evidence prove any successful escapes across the icy Bay. The prison was the only one in the federal system that touted hot showers a luxury designed to keep prisoners from acclimating to the cold water.
There were 14 attempts to escape Alcatraz during its 29-year tenure as a federal penitentiary. Most attempts ended with escapees being recaptured or killed.
Frank Lee Morris and Clarence and John Anglin made the most famous escape attempt in 1962. The movie, Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, was based on their elaborate plot. Using homemade tools to break out of their cells, the inmates made their way off the island using rafts and inflatable life vests made from prison issued raincoats. Many still speculate whether or not the inmates survived the cold and rough waters to reach land and the US Marshals continue to hunt for the escapees.
In 1963 the decision to close Alcatraz was made by US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Alcatraz desperately needed repair from extensive salt-water and air corrosion at a time when budgets were being cut. At three times the operating expenses of other penitentiaries, Alcatraz was simply too costly to keep open. The isolation (and hence lack of natural resources) that had made the island such an attractive site for a maximum-security prison ultimately sealed its fate.
Visiting Alcatraz - How to Get Alcatraz Tickets
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Hours of operation on the island vary with the season, ferry departures from Pier 33 are available throughout the day typically beginning at 8:45am (the early bird tour which is the least crowded) and running about every 30-45 minutes. During the summer, the island closes at 6:30pm, 4:30pm in fall, winter and spring. Alcatraz is closed on Christmas and New Years Day, or due to extreme weather.
Plan to spend approximately 2 1/2 hours to tour the cell house and island.
To avoid disappointment, purchase Alcatraz tickets well in advance. In summer months and on holiday weekends, Alcatraz sells out as early as 3-4 weeks in advance. On days when the Alcatraz tour is sold out, consider a bay cruise which passes close to the island for photos.
It is a steep hill to reach the cellhouse. The distance from the dock to the cellhouse is approximately 1/4 mile and equivalent to a 13-story climb. Visitors unable to make this climb may take advantage of an hourly electric shuttle.
A self-guide brochure of Alcatraz Island (printed in English, Spanish, Italian, Spanish, German or Japanese) is available at the dock for a small fee.