Alcatraz is a rocky island located just inside the entrance to San Francisco Bay. A Spanish explorer named Juan Manuel de Ayala mapped the island in 1775 and called it La Isla de los Alcatraces – the “Island of the Pelicans” (Cavendish).
In 1850, US president Millard Fillmore made the island available for military use. During that time, a huge military fortress was built. Many cannons were put on the island to protect San Francisco from invaders and the island housed the first operational lighthouse on the west coast (History). It took many hard years to complete the project, but when done, is was “established as the United States’ western symbol of military strength.” (History of Alcatraz). (Millard)
By the late 1850’s, the military started to keep prisoners on Alcatraz. It was the perfect location, experts believed, because any escapees would not survive the long swim to the mainland (History).
In 1909, most of the fortress was torn down and rebuilt. The work was done by the prisoners (Cavendish); soil was transported from Angel Island and some of the prisoners were trained as able gardeners (History of Alcatraz). They planted many varieties of flowers and trees to make the island more pleasant to the eye (History of Alcatraz). The routine of the prison became more relaxed over the years, so the prisoners were permitted to built a baseball field on the island (History of Alcatraz). Even so, many civilians in San Francisco disliked having a military prison in the middle of the beautiful bay.
In 1934, the prison closed because the cost of running it had become too high. It shortly reopened, however, because the Great Depression triggered a “severe crime surge during the late 20’s and 30’s” (History of Alcatraz). Gangs were everywhere and a high security prison was needed.
The project of refurbishing Alcatraz began with Sanford Bates and Attorney General Homer Cummings at the helm. Robert Burge was assigned to make the island impossible to escape and look “outwardly forbidding” (History of Alcatraz). It was in April, 1934 where the work began.
Alcatraz was updated with strong steel bars that were more efficient instead of the soft, square ones (History of Alcatraz). The builders put electricity into each cell and the utility tunnels were cemented off so prisoners could not hide or escape through them. Gun galleries were installed that allowed “guards to carry weapons while protected behind iron rod barriers.” (History of Alcatraz). These galleries were raised off of the ground so it was out of reach for the inmates but the guards could follow all of the activity on the ground below (History of Alcatraz).
In the Dining Hall, containers of teargas were put in the ceiling and could be activated from the gun gallery or from towers outside. The cell house had over 600 cells and not one of them were connected to an outside wall. So if a prisoner got out of the cell, he would have to find a way out of the cell house (History of Alcatraz).
With the island of Alcatraz having a new face and upgrades, it was officially ready to get America’s worst criminals.
Cavendish, By Richard. “Alcatraz Prison Closes.” History Today. History Today, 3 Mar.
- Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
Federal Bureau of Prisons. “Alcatraz Origins.” BOP. Federal Bureau of Prisons, n.d.
Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
History.com Staff. “Alcatraz.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 19
The History of Alcatraz. “Dreaded! Grim! Mysterious!” Alcatraz History. Alcatraz History,
n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.
Jarosz, Wojciech. Alcatraz Dining Hall II. Digital image. Wojciech Jarosz Photography. Wojciech
Jarosz, 25 Sept. 2008. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.
Millard Fillmore. Digital image. NNDB. NNDB, 2016. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.