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Visit Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary

Updated on September 14, 2016
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Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary

Approximately 1.25 miles off the shore of San Francisco is Alcatraz Island. It is the location of the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. This was a maximum-security prison that opened in 1934 and closed in 1963. It is a popular tourist destination. Alcatraz Island is a top landmark according to a TripAdvisor survey. Alcatraz is more popular than the Lincoln Memorial, Golden Gate Bridge and Statue of Liberty. It is also the seventh most popular landmark around the world. Alcatraz was not as popular as the cathedral in Milan, Italy but was slightly more popular than the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janerio, Brazil.

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island

Escape Proof

The location of Alcatraz Island, as well as the cold water and strong ocean currents around it, made prison architects believe Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary would be escape-proof. When it was open, Alcatraz was considered America's strongest prison. It was a place designated to house prisoners who got into trouble at other federal prisons around the country. During the 29 years it was open, Alcatraz was home to over 1,575 prisoners. During this time, it housed such notable criminals as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly as well as racketeer Mickey Cohen. Other well-known prisoners at Alcatraz were James “Whitey” Bulger, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker and the famous Robert Franklin Stroud known to the world as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

Actual Paper Mache Head Used By Clarence Anglin, John and Frank Morris
Actual Paper Mache Head Used By Clarence Anglin, John and Frank Morris
Frank Morris Left, Clarence Anglin Center and John Morris right.
Frank Morris Left, Clarence Anglin Center and John Morris right.

Escape Attempts

There are at least 36 recorded attempts of prisoners trying to escape from Alcatraz. Most of these people drowned or were shot during their escape attempt. The rest were recaptured. Three inmates in 1962 escaped and were never heard from again. They were Clarence Anglin, Frank Morris and his brother John. These three were believed to have died during their escape attempt according to prison officials, but there is little proof of it. The escapees put paper-mache heads that resembled their own into their beds. They got out of the main prison building by using an unused utility corridor. It is believed the trio then made their way off of Alcatraz Island and onto the shore by using an improvised inflatable raft. There has never been any conclusive evidence showing if the men did or did not make it to shore. The file on the escaped prisoners remains open. Their escape was the basis for Clint Eastwood's movie “Escape from Alcatraz.”

Alcatraz Guard Tower
Alcatraz Guard Tower

Tough Prison

Alcatraz quickly got known as the toughest prison in the United States. Many people during the time it was open considered Alcatraz the toughest prison in the world. Prisoners who left there had many stories of brutality and inhumane conditions. Many considered being at Alcatraz a test of their sanity. Often Alcatraz was referred to as “Hellcatraz” or “The Rock” by many of its former inmates. A writer visited Alcatraz and described it as the great garbage can of San Francisco. He said it's a place into which all federal prisons send their most rotten apples.

Robert Franklin Stroud AKA "Birdman of Alcatraz
Robert Franklin Stroud AKA "Birdman of Alcatraz

Birdman Of Alcatraz

Robert Franklin Stroud (1890-1963) was known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz. He was convicted in 1909 of shooting and killing a bartender who had attacked one of his prostitutes. He was sentenced to serve 12 years at a prison on Puget Sound's McNeil Island. In 1916, Stroud was found guilty of killing a guard. He was transferred to a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1920, Stroud came upon a nest in the prison yard that contained three injured sparrows. He decided to raise them. Stroud was granted equipment to take care of the birds by the warden. After a few years, he had a collection of hundreds of canaries. Stroud published a book on the subject called “Diseases of Canaries.” Stroud was becoming popular among ornithologists and farmers. He was running a successful business inside the Leavenworth prison. Stroud was still constantly having confrontations with the prison staff. He was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942 after it was discovered he had made alcohol in his cell using the equipment provided for bird care. At Alcatraz, he was not permitted to have his birds or equipment. Stroud began writing a book about the history of the penal system. In 1963, Stroud met with actor Burt Lancaster, who played him in the movie “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” Stroud was never able to see the film or read the book based on his life.

Cell Blocks At Alcatraz Prison
Cell Blocks At Alcatraz Prison

Prison Buildings

The cell houses on Alcatraz were three stories high. There were four main blocks of cell houses for the jail. They were A, B, C and D Block. There was also the library, barber shop, visitation room as well as the warden's office. The cells were all one standard size. They measured 9 feet long and 5 feet wide. They were 7 feet high. The cells were designed to not provide any privacy. A prisoner had a bed and blanket, desk, washbasin, toilet and minimal furnishings. The prison had racial abuse taking place, so African-Americans were kept separate from the rest of the prison population. The worst inmates were kept in D-Block. The five cells at the end of D-Block were known as “The Hole.” This is where prisoners went who behaved badly. They were sent there for punishment, and many inmates said it was brutal.

Dining Hall At Alcatraz Prison
Dining Hall At Alcatraz Prison

Dining Hall

The place where prisoners and prison staff ate was called the Mess Hall. It was a large wing of the prison located at the end of the main cell house. It is connected to the cell block by a corridor that went under a large clock. This area became known to prisoners and prison staff as “Times Square.” The dining hall was connected directly to the kitchen where all the meals were prepared. Many of the prisoners felt the food at the Alcatraz Penitentiary was better than at other prisons. The rule was that people could take all they wanted but had to eat everything they took. There was a reason for the prisoners being fed so well. The dining hall was the one place in the prison where prisoners had an advantage. They all had access to metal forks and trays, which could be used as weapons. The guards were outnumbered and were not permitted to have weapons in the dining hall. The high quality of the food kept tensions down. The prison did have tear gas canisters in the ceiling that could be deployed if necessary. The gas canisters were never used at Alcatraz.

Visitor Contact Information





Island National Park Service

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Fort Mason, B201

San Francisco, CA 94123



A ferry, located at Piers 31-33 (cross streets of Embarcadero & Bay Street)

provide transportation to Alcatraz Island.




Alcatratz Island, San Francisco:
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

get directions


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