On March 21, 1963, the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island shut down operations by the order of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Because the buildings had fallen into disrepair and the cost of housing prisoners was so high, inmates were reassigned and guards either retired or got new jobs. Since then, Alcatraz had become a must-see tourist attraction in San Francisco, as well as a pop-culture fascination with movies like The Rock and Fox’s (sadly now-canceled) sci-fi procedural, Alcatraz. So what makes the prison so compelling, close to 50 years after it closed? Perhaps it’s the people who called it home, from inmates serving a short sentence to those who built a life there.
Long before Alcatraz became a notorious prison, it was simply an uninhabited rock formation. As the port of San Francisco became an integral part of California trade, the U.S. military set up shop, building a fortress on the island to protect the inland investments. In A History of Alcatraz Island: 1853-2008, Gregory L. Wellman details the military intrigue, the prison years and the island’s current status as a national park.
The Public Enemies
Al Capone was one of Alcatraz’s most famous inmates, but he wasn’t the only gangster behind bars. Baddies like Alvin Karpis (who was arrested by J. Edgar Hoover) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly also made their way to “The Rock.” How did these men handle the transition from life on top to life in a cell? David Ward and Gene Kassebaum tell the story of their incarcerated lives in Alcatraz: The Gangster Years. Capone in particular had a hard time adjusting to the regimen of prison, which resulted in a few dustups with other inmates before he was released in 1939.
The Guard Who Saw It All
George H. Gregory was a Marine Corps veteran when he took a post as a corrections officer on Alcatraz in 1947. Over 15 years, he was witness to corruption and sexual activities, and interacted with some of the prison’s most famous inmates, including Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. Gregory documented his experiences, and after his death in 1996, his wife compiled them into an honest and sometimes dark account, Alcatraz Screw: My Years as a Guard in America’s Most Notorious Prison.
The Children of Alcatraz
At times, Alcatraz Island was also the home to the prison staff’s families, including children of all ages. These kids lived surprisingly typical lives that included school dances, baseball, and even a corner-store hangout. In The Children of Alcatraz, Claire Rudolph Murphy has collected photos and interviews with the now-grown children who came of age in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous prisons.
The Ones Who (Maybe) Got Away
There are no official records of “successful” escapes from Alcatraz. It is known, however, that in 1962, a year before the prison closed, three men, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, escaped through an air vent and used a raft made of raincoats to escape. While the raft was found, the men were not, and the official story is that they drowned. Michael Esslinger’s Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years, includes photos and FBI notes regarding the escape, giving insight into what might be the most elaborate prison break of all time.
This piece originally ran in 2013.