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80 Years Ago, Alcatraz Prison Opened for Business

  • VOA News

Alcatraz Island is shown in San Francisco, Oct. 22, 2001. The cellhouse is shown in the background up on the hill next to the water tower, and in the foreground is the model industries building where the prisoners washed clothes, among other tasks.

Alcatraz Island is shown in San Francisco, Oct. 22, 2001. The cellhouse is shown in the background up on the hill next to the water tower, and in the foreground is the model industries building where the prisoners washed clothes, among other tasks.

Alcatraz was open for less than 30 years, but the former prison left an indelible mark on American culture.

Today marks the 80th anniversary that Alcatraz Island, site of a former fortress and military prison, became a federal penitentiary for America’s most dangerous prisoners.

Alcatraz, which was also called “The Rock,” was infamous because no prisoner ever successfully escaped. Over its history, 36 prisoners made 14 attempts to break free.

However, in 1962, three men were able to get out of the prison and into San Francisco Bay, but it is believed they drowned attempting to make the 2 kilometer journey in the chilly choppy waters.

Their plan was elaborate and executed over a long period of time. The three meticulously tunneled through their prison cell walls. They made rubber rafts from raincoats and left behind fake heads made of cardboard, toilet paper and human hair collected from the prison’s barber ship to trick the guards into thinking they were still in their cots.

The prison was also made famous by Hollywood. The 1962 escape attempt was the subject of a popular 1979 movie, “Escape from Alcatraz,” starring Clint Eastwood. The prison has been depicted in several other movies, television shows and video games.

1,576 inmates called Alcatraz home during the time it was open. Some of the more famous convicts included Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the "Birdman of Alcatraz") and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.

Stroud was depicted in the movie “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” starring Burt Lancaster.

Life in Alcatraz was hard. Inmates were housed individually in separate cells, spending the majority of their time in their cells. According to the National Park Service website, Alcatraz prisoners “had to earn their way out of the cells through good behavior.”

In 1963, having fallen into a state of disrepair, Alcatraz’s remaining prisoners were transferred to other jails and Alcatraz was shuttered.

Today, Alcatraz Island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is visited by over one million people annually.

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