Life for the Prisoners of Alcatraz in Photos

Alcatraz Island is a small island in the San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles off the coast. In 1775, Juan Manuel de Ayala, the Spaniard who charted San Francisco Bay, named the island “La Isla de Los Alcatraces” or “The Island of the Pelicans.”

The earliest recorded owner of Alcatraz is Julian Workman. The island was given to him by the Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846 for Workman to build a lighthouse on it. Later that year, the island was purchased by Military Governor of California, John C. Fremont, for $5,000 in the name of the United States Government. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore purposed the island as a military garrison. By 1858, Camp Alcatraz held 200 soldiers and 11 cannons. During the Civil War, Alcatraz was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast.

In 1867, a brick jailhouse was built and in 1868, Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. In 1898, the Spanish-American war increased the prison population from 26 to over 450 inmates. In October 1933, Alcatraz was deactivated as a military prison and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.

In August 1934, Alcatraz became a federal prison, one designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. On August 11, the first group of 137 prisoners arrived at the island, guarded by 60 special FBI agents and U.S. Marshalls.

During Alcatraz’ tenure, it jailed some of the most notorious criminals in American history including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. During the 29 operational years, no prisoners successfully escaped. There were 36 prisoners who made 14 attempts “two men trying twice; 23 were caught alive, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.” The Battle of Alcatraz, which lasted from May 2 to 4, 1936, was the result of an unsuccessful escape attempt in which two guards were killed along with three inmates.

On March 21, 1963, the prison was closed. In 1976, Alcatraz Island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Military prisoners line up and await orders. 1902 National Park Service
Prior to becoming a federal prison, Alcatraz Island functioned as a military garrison. Here, officers and ladies stand and sit on the dock. 1902. National Park Service
A view from behind the bars in a guard station with cell block B on the left and cell block C on the right. Wikimedia Commons
Inmates make the walk back to their cells. Date unspecified. National Park Service
Prisoners in the Alcatraz recreation yard. Here they could play games like baseball and handball, or just take the time to enjoy the little outdoor activity they were allotted. Wikipedia Commons
A dense covering of barbed wire looms above as a guard stands watch over the prison yard. 1962. Getty Images
A cell purported for solitary confinement. Date unspecified. San Francisco Public Library
A guard stands by the prison snitch box, where prisoners could pass along information in exchange for favors. 1956. San Francisco Public Library
The prisoner record for gangster Arthur Doc Barker from the warden’s notebook. 1963. Wikimedia Commons
Prison life was full of long work hours. Inmates here spend the day working on weaving cargo nets. 1955. National Park Service
Prisoners learned trades and skills in prison so that they might contribute to society upon release. Here, inmates sew pants. 1954. San Francisco Public Library
A prisoner works in the Alcatraz rubber shop. 1955. National Park Service
A retirement party for Warden James A. Johnston. 1948. National Park Service
Typically, a single meat, side, and dessert was the standard fare. 1956. San Francisco Public Library
A prison cook stands ready to serve inmates their meal on Christmas Day. Date unspecified. National Park Service
Inmates bake fresh bread in the prison kitchen. Date unspecified. National Park Service
A guard stands watch as prisoners enter the mess hall for a meal. 1955. National Park Service
Here, the Alcatraz inmate band, complete with four saxophone players, two trumpets, a guitarist, and a trombonist, rehearses. National Park Service
Gangster Mickey Cohen sits in an automobile just before boarding a prison boat for his return to Alcatraz in 1962. The Al Capone-associated mobster was serving a 15-year sentence for tax evasion. Getty Images
Mugshot of notorious Alcatraz inmate George Machine Gun Kelly. He spent 17 years on Alcatraz as inmate number 117, before being transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he would die in 1954. Wikimedia Commons
The Alcatraz mugshot of gangster and inmate Al Capone. 1934. Capone was stabbed while serving time at the prison but lived on and completed his term there in 1939. Getty Images