Inside Alcatraz: 8 of your burning questions answered

written by Kate Gazzard August 30, 2021
Alcatraz Island from the San Francisco Bay

Right in the middle of San Francisco Bay sits an abandoned prison, one that was once considered one of the most notorious prisons in the US……

San Francisco is a complex city that has a lot to offer every kind of traveler from the adventurer to the city-slicker and everything in between. While some people might prefer spending time outside to fully appreciate San Francisco’s beauty, others might get excited about the many activities this bustling and vibrant city has to offer including visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and taking snaps of the iconic Lombard Street.

Regardless of what your San Francisco vacation looks like, making your way over to Alcatraz Island is a must. Whether you’re spending time in the city by the bay before your Intrepid trip kicks off or have organized a few days in San Francisco after your trip ends, Alcatraz is one of those historical landmarks that simply can’t be overlooked, and not just because it’s the major focal point when you’re looking out over San Francisco Bay.

All the way back in 1868, it was decided that the island of Alcatraz was to be the location of the U.S.’s new military prison. Many years later and after much of the prison was rebuilt, Alcatraz was converted to a federal prison in 1934 and remained that way until its closure in 1963, seeing hundreds of criminals walk through its doors including some of America’s most notorious.

Despite its violent history and somewhat unsettling atmosphere, visiting this prison offers an intriguing view into the American incarceration system and allows you to take a step back in time to picture what life would have been like for the criminals who were unlucky enough to be imprisoned there. To make sure you have a better understanding of the prison and its history before you take a look inside Alcatraz, we’ve rounded up all the questions you’re dying to know the answers to.

1. What does Alcatraz mean?

Alcatraz Island got its name from Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala when he sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1775, claiming the rocky, deserted Island as being “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, roughly translating to “Island of the Pelicans”. Over the centuries, the name has become Anglicized and is now just “Alcatraz”.

2. How far is Alcatraz from San Francisco?

Alcatraz is located just 1.5miles from land, with the ferry trip only taking about 15 minutes to reach the prison.

Gardens on Alcatraz Island.

3. Why did Alcatraz close?

Alcatraz locked its doors (all puns intended) in 1963 mainly due to how expensive running the prison actually was. Resources such as water, and food among other things, had to be specially brought onto the island making it unsustainable to keep it open. There were also up to $5million worth of repairs and restoration needed to upkeep the prison’s main establishment and it was decided that those costs were too high to justify carrying out.

4. Who was inside Alcatraz?

Alcatraz housed more than 1,500 during its time as a federal prison, becoming famous for imprisoning some of America’s worst criminals. Gangsters such as Al “Scarface” Capone and Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz spent time there with the latter imprisoned for 25 years; the longest of any prisoner to be held at Alcatraz. Other infamous criminals included kidnapper George “Machine Gun” Kelly, murderer Robert Stroud (“the birdman of Alcatraz”), and gangster Mickey Cohen.

The kitchens inside Alcatraz.

5. What happened during the battle of Alcatraz?

For a two-day period in 1946, 6 inmates tried to escape from inside Alcatraz in what was to later become the most violent and bloodiest incident in the federal prison’s history. Dubbed the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’, the 6 prisoners managed to overpower their guards, stealing their weapons and the keys to their cell block however escape wasn’t easy with a fight breaking out between the prisoners and their guards. The U.S. Marines were called in to help restore order but not before two guards and three prisoners were killed in the skirmish with a further 12 guards also injured during the fight.

6. How many people escaped from Alcatraz?

Alcatraz prided itself on being nearly inescapable thanks to the rough waters and freezing temperature of the Pacific Ocean that surrounded it, the strategic placement of watchtowers on the grounds of the prison, and fully fortified steel bars on all the cells. Escaping from Alcatraz was supposed to be impossible but that didn’t stop people from trying. Over Alcatraz’s 29-year history, 36 men attempted 14 different escapes with most of them being recaptured or killed while trying to escape. The most famous escape attempt was made by Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin who meticulously planned the attempt over the course of many months. They did manage to successfully escape the prison but are strongly suspected to have drowned on their way to Angel Island despite some circumstantial evidence suggesting they made it to shore alive. However, their bodies were never found and their whereabouts remain unknown.

Inside Alcatraz prison.

7. Are there sharks around Alcatraz Island?

Another one of the reasons why Alcatraz was said to be impossible to escape from, was that there were reports of Great White Sharks swimming in the San Francisco Bay and around the island itself. Stories of shark sightings may have been greatly exaggerated to hinder any escape attempts made by prisoners but there have been Great White Shark sightings around the bay over the years. However, a prisoner would have been more likely to drown from the freezing temperature of the water and the rough conditions than by a shark attack.

8. Is Alcatraz haunted?

There have been many reports of ghost sightings and paranormal activity on Alcatraz Island over the years with many believing the souls of some of the incarcerated still haunt the prison. As the federal prison was a high-maximum security prison with little to no comforts for the inmates, it is believed that the often violent and harsh living conditions may have contributed to the nature and frequency of the ghostly apparitions. Some of the more haunted places in the prison are said to be the sight of the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ and Cell Block D.


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