America is a land of the free and home of strict laws carrying long-term punishments, including time in prison. Many jails around the country keep track of all the inmates.

But holding terrible murderers in the same place as temporary offenders doesn’t track.

The worst of the worst, the mobsters and kingpins and assassins, need a special place to call their new home to protect the rest of the world.

Somewhere impossible to escape from and easy to keep track of everyone inside. Like an island, full of sharp rocks, surrounded by a city with a quickly mobilized police force. 

Alcatraz Island is the most iconic prison in America. It’s a prison on an island, virtually inescapable, and the source of many modern myths and legends of the criminal world.

Located in the bay of San Francisco, the island is a fixture of the justice system, symbolizing a previous era of enforcement and privatized prison administration.

The island prison has since shut down, but the legacy it represents continues to be maintained.

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10 /10 The Name

Alcatraz comes from the Spanish settlers in 1775 who went to the long route under South America and arrived through the Golden Gate pass (before the bridge was erected over it) and noticed the rocky outcrop.

Lietenant Juan Manuel de Ayala named the small island “La Isla de los Alcatraces.”

Alcatraces, the Spanish word for Pelicans, have been found in many numbers over the years.

They have also returned to reclaim the island after the prison shut down. So its real name is “The Island of Pelicans.”


9 /10 Before The Prison

Alcatraz was established as a fortress on the island in the 1850s.

It was requisitioned by President Millard Fillmore from its previous private ownership as a defense during the Mexican-American War.

It was highly defensible, with strong currents blocking most passage and high cliffs, which deterred canon fire.

It was also somewhat isolated, with land in sight but hard to reach most of the time, caught in a chilling sea breeze throughout the bay.

After the war ended, the fort was repurposed to hold its first inmates: military prisoners.

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8 /10 Civil War

Later, during the Civil War and the suspension of habeas corpus, the fort was the place for all military criminals, soldiers who committed war crimes or during their service, and traitors under the Union.

It remained a training ground for soldiers who double-dutied as guards for the inmates.

At the peak, there were 433 people reported on the island at this time.

After the Civil War, new artillery made the defensible ground somewhat obsolete, so its worth as a sole fortress had to be rethought.

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7 /10 The First Prison

The first official prison on Alcatraz Island was built in 1867. Previous to that, inmates were kept in a basement in the guardhouse.

It was officially designated as a long-term military detention facility in 1868.

Most initial inmates were confederate soldiers who fled the west and Hopi Native Americans who resisted forced education for their children.

It remained a military prison until 1933 when it was officially deactivated, and the facility control was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.

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6 /10 Federal Penitentiary

The Alcatraz, as most people know, was officiated in 1934 when the Department of Justice acquired it. The first group of 137 prisoners arrived from prisons in Kansas and California.

These were murderers and bank robbers, for the most part. Alcatraz saw the internment of thousands of prisoners over 29 years.

Though it only remained functional for about 30 years, it remains one of the most famous prions for the stories of what happened there and who ended up behind its bars.

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5 /10 Al Capone Vacation Home

Al Capone was one of the first and most famous prisoners on The Rock, the notorious gangster and mob boss. He was in when the prison was opened under the federal rule in 1934 for tax evasion.

His crime was light compared to the other inmates, but he was sent there when he was caught bribing guards in his former Atlanta prison.

As Convict No. 85, he submitted to the new rule of law, knowing there was no possible escape or way to grease the wheels for better treatment.

He was so well behaved that, in time, he was given the preferential treatment he otherwise would have bribed for. He even got to play banjo in a prison-authorized band, the Rock Islanders, every Sunday.


4 /10 Breaking The Rock

Alcatraz was infamously impossible to break out of. Not only was it unkempt and exceptionally well guarded, but even if someone got out of their cell long enough to be missing, they had nowhere to go.

There were just cliffs, sharp drops, intentionally dangerous terrain outside the main promenade, the road to the docks, and the ocean. No convicts were ever confirmed to have broken out, though plenty tried.

Twenty-three inmates attempted to escape and were either captured, drowned, or shot to death.

Five went missing and were presumed drowned, which was the basis of the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz.

Though no bodies were recovered, their survival chances were slim enough to go unlisted. Or maybe they succeeded and lived out their lives on solid ground in peace.


3 /10 The Birdman Of Alcatraz

The island of birds had one famous inmate, made even more famous by a fatefully timed movie release.

Robert Stroud was a murderer who killed a bartender, then stabbed a guard in prison he was sent to. President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to the Rock, where he spent his final years.

Though known as the Birdman of Alcatraz from the movie, he only kept birds while in Leavenworth Prison before his transfer. On Alcatraz, the only birds were the ones on the shore.

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2 /10 Not All Bad

Alcatraz was a fixture of the prison system and an imposing concrete fortress in the way of the San Fran bay scene, but it also provided the first lighthouse on the entire Pacific Coast.

It was to steer ships away, not invite them in, but the civil service of the island protecting the peace was established as early as 1854 when the light first turned on.


1 /10 The Lost Legacy

The reputation of Alcatraz has mostly been exaggerated through film and books. The truth was, certain inmates found it a much better hold to stay in than their alternatives.

The first warden, James A. Johnston, understood the mind of inmates well enough to keep them stable.

He kept one inmate per cell on strict routines to reduce attacks, served good food to keep moods calm, and provided plenty of books, magazines, and even movies.

He knew full well that if the prisoners revolted, they could just as easily occupy the easily defensible island fortress for their own.

As a result, it became a sort of destination for inmates, requesting transfers or breaking specific rules so they could spend time on The Rock in peace.

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