Alcatraz, also called “The Rock” was a federal prison still standing in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay in California. It kept some of the most dangerous felons in America when it was in operation from 1934 to 1963. Some of the most famous prisoners in Alcatraz’ maximum-security facility were Al “Scarface” Capone and the murderer Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud. But why did Alcatraz close? There have been a lot of speculations but the reasons are really more simple than whatever mystery others may think it to be.
Why Was It Named Alcatraz?
Before we get to the details of why Alcatraz was shut down and why did Alcatraz close, it’s good to have a bit more understanding of its history and where it got its name.
The term Alcatraz came from “Alcatraces” which is a Spanish word which means pelican. The Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala named it La Isla de Los Alcatraces or Island of the Pelicans because it had a large population of seabirds.
After 75 years, President Millard Fillmore reserved the island for military use. They constructed a fortress on the island and installed about a hundred cannons around it to protect the San Francisco Bay. Around the same time, Alcatraz became home to the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast.
It wasn’t until 1850 that the US military began holding military prisoners within the fortress on Alcatraz. It was isolated from the mainland because of the strong waters of the bay. They thought that it was an ideal location for a high-security prison. This prison was created in such a way that no inmate could ever attempt to escape it even by swimming.
Alcatraz as a Federal Prison
The US army eventually relinquished Alcatraz to the US Justice Department. The US needed a federal prison that could keep the very difficult and dangerous criminals which the local penitentiaries could no longer handle. The existing complex was made more secure and its maximum-security facility opened officially on July 1st, 1934. There was said to be at least 1 guard for every 3 prisoners and each prisoner was assigned his own cell.
The BOP which stands for the Federal Bureau of Prisons thought of Alcatraz as a place where the most disruptive inmates could be highly secluded, having only a few privileges so that they will learn to follow rules. Those who showed good behavior could eventually be transferred to other federal prisons to complete their sentences. Alcatraz typically held only 1% of the entire federal inmate population.
Who Served Time in Alcatraz?
It’s interesting to know which famous criminals were imprisoned in Alcatraz. But although there were several well-known felons like Al Capone, most of its prisoners were those who refused to conform to Federal rules and regulations and were considered to be violent and extremely dangerous. These were also the criminals they feared had very high escape risks.
An inmate in Alcatraz had only 4 rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. If they wanted other privileges, they would have to earn it. Some of the privileges that they could eventually earn include working, correspondence and visits from family, access to the prison library, and certain recreational activities. Once the prison officials decide that a prisoner is no longer a threat and is able to follow rules after about 5 years on Alcatraz, he could be sent back to another Federal prison and eventually be released.
Let’s look at some of the famous felons.
The famous Al “Scarface” Capone spent 4 and a half years on Alcatraz during the 1930s. His capture and imprisonment in the island were in the headlines all over the country. Capone was sent to Alcatraz because during his incarceration in Atlanta, Georgia, he was still able to be in contact with his accomplices in the outside world and he continued to orchestrate criminal operations in Chicago. He also corrupted prison officials.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly spent 17 years on Alcatraz. He was convicted of kidnapping.
Perhaps, the most famous prisoner on the island was Robert Stroud who was also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. He spent 54 years on Alcatraz. He was convicted of manslaughter while he was at the US Penitentiary when he viciously attacked another inmate. Stroud was first transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas but in 1916, he murdered a guard and received a death sentence. Because of his violent behavior, he was sent to segregation and within his 30 years there, he took interest in birds and wrote 2 books about canaries. However, prison officials found that the equipment he requested for scientific bird studies contained contraband and he used them to construct a still for home-brew so he was transferred to Alcatraz.
Why Did Alcatraz Close?
Despite speculations that the prison island closed because of some disappearances, the real reason of why did Alcatraz close is because it was too expensive to operate. It was shut down due to high operating costs in 1963. The operating expenses were much higher than other federal facilities because all supplies had to be shipped to the island. The buildings also started crumbling down due to exposure to the salty sea air.
The prison needed an estimate of about 3-5 million dollars for restoration and maintenance work, not including regular operating costs. They had no source of fresh water so they needed at least 1 million gallons of water barged in each week. The Federal Government thought that it was more cost-effective to build a new institution.
Now that we know why did Alcatraz close, how does it stand today? Alcatraz was abandoned when it closed but then a group of Native American Indians claimed the island in order to create a Native American cultural center. However, their leadership was not able to maintain it and there were a lot of damages due to vandalism and a fire that destroyed much of it, and they were eventually removed.
In 1972, the US Congress Alcatraz Island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area which was opened to the public. It is now a popular site with millions of visitors from around the world.