December 3, 2022
The island of Alcatraz,San Francisco

The island of Alcatraz,San Francisco

Alcatraz Island is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, California. First a lighthouse, then a military fortress, and later a prison, it is now a museum and since 1986 a national monument.

From 1934 to 1963 it housed some of America’s most dangerous criminals. One of the most famous hallmarks of the prison, also known as the Rock, was the fact that it was the site of a virtually impossible escape attempt by a prisoner.

 The island in San Francisco Bay was first discovered in 1775 by a Spanish sailor, Juan Manuel de Ayala. Because of the many bird populations he encountered, he named it La Isla de los Alcatraces or ‘Pelican Island’. 75 years later, in 1850, the then President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, ordered the island to be used for military purposes, at which time a fort was built, surrounded by 100 cannons.

Alcatraz became the most secure fort on the West Coast. In the late 1850s, the most dangerous criminals began to be transported here, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 brought even more prisoners to the island. In addition, some soldiers returning home with infectious diseases were quarantined on the island.

Between 1909 and 1911, the old fortifications were rebuilt and by 1912 the new prison, the largest reinforced concrete building in the world at the time, was completed, including a hospital and canteen in addition to the main building.

 According to a report issued that same year, Alcatraz became the largest reinforced concrete building in America. On average, the prison held between 250 and 275 inmates, each of whom was guarded by three guards.

Military prison and horticultural therapy

The first half of the 1900s saw a major revival of the gardens, with the beautification of Alcatraz becoming an important objective, to which the California Spring Blossom and Wild Flower Association contributed with a large number of flower seeds and tree and shrub seedlings. 

The gardens also involved well-behaved inmates, and a horticulture program was developed. One of the first horticultural therapies for prisoners was implemented here. Rose gardens, greenhouses, and terraced gardens were created.

Inmates did the plant care and planting on the western slope of the island. An important figure in the development of the garden was Elliot Michener, a counterfeiter who arrived on the island in 1941 and had previously attempted to escape from another prison. 

Alcatraz Prison Cell
Alcatraz Prison Cell

He had no particular knowledge of plants, but he developed his skills by studying seed catalogs, and some parts of the garden still show the work of him and his helpers. He built a greenhouse and was licensed to order flower seeds and bulbs.

After the federal prison closed, the island was abandoned for many years, except for 19 months when it was occupied by Indians in the early 1970s. In 1972, Alcatraz was declared a national park, and in 1973 the island was open to visitors.

 Parts of the gardens were destroyed and others were threatened by overgrowth until 2003, when a decision was taken to restore them, which led to the planting of new ones in addition to the surviving plants of historical importance.

Home to the most dangerous criminals

Most of the prison inmates were sent to the island because they refused to obey the rules anywhere and were constantly trying to escape. For them, Alcatraz was the perfect place, because there was no escape. At Alcatraz, prisoners had four rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

Some also enjoyed special rights for good behavior, such as correspondence with family members, access to the prison library, and various recreational activities.

Those who were excessively unruly were not allowed to speak at all for a certain period of time, which is why many prison inmates suffered from serious psychological problems. For a while, it was thought that the sharks would prevent those who tried to escape from reaching land, but it was the excessively cold water (12 degrees), the current, and the distance that killed the escapees.

Panoramic view of San Francisco's skyline and Alcatraz Island on a sunny day, California
Panoramic view of San Francisco’s skyline and Alcatraz Island on a sunny day, California

Here are some famous inmates who spent their sentences within the walls of Alcatraz:

  • Al Capone: spent four years in Alcatraz for tax evasion, then transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California in 1939 for health reasons.
  • Robert Stroud: one of the world’s most dangerous killers, nicknamed “The Birdman”, arrived on the island in 1942 and spent 17 years on Alcatraz. In the hope of some sort of improvement, he was allowed to keep birds in prison, but instead, he hid various items in cages.
  • George Celino Barnes – nicknamed Machine Gun Kelly: named after the Thompson submachine gun used in armed robberies. His most famous crime was the kidnapping of oil baron and businessman Charles F. Urschel, which eventually led to his arrest.

On March 21, 1963, US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy finally closed the long-standing prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Reasonable reasons for the closure included excessive maintenance costs (as food, water and all necessary supplies were transported to the island by boat) and the rapid deterioration of the prison. Over three decades, there were some 1,576 prisoners at Alcatraz.

Trust us: Alcatraz Island is one of the best programs on the West Coast