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Alcatraz was Home to America's Toughest Crooks

  • Ted Landphair

About 1900, the Detroit Publishing Co. made a postcard out this view of Alcatraz Island, which was then a military prison.

About 1900, the Detroit Publishing Co. made a postcard out this view of Alcatraz Island, which was then a military prison.

What Did Public Enemies No. 1 Through 10 Have in Common? A home, of sorts, near lovely San Francisco

Probably only one or two Americans in a hundred could tell you the name of the nation's toughest, seemingly most escape-proof prison.

It's the Marion federal penitentiary in Illinois.

But for the better part of three decades, from the mid-1930s to 1963, just about everyone could name the nation's most secure prison, because it was featured in all sorts of books, crime movies, and radio shows.

It's the place they called The Rock: Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay. Inside, this Alcatraz cellblock looks just as inhospitable a place to live as it’s depicted in gangster movies.

Inside, this Alcatraz cellblock looks just as inhospitable a place to live as it’s depicted in gangster movies.

Beginning with the American Civil War of the 1860s, tiny, cold, usually windswept Alcatraz Island was a military fort, ringed with cannons. Then it was a military prison.

Finally, the newly created Department of Justice turned Alcatraz into a penitentiary for federal convicts deemed to be the worst of the worst. They included bank robber George Machine Gun Kelly and Chicago crime boss Al Capone.

Prisoner privileges were minimal. A tiny cell. No roommate. No radio, no candy bars, no chewing gum, no soft drinks, no newspapers. No communication with the outside world, except for rare visits from relatives. The very toughest convicts were allowed out for a walk in the prison yard just one hour a WEEK.

Thirty-six men tried to escape from Alcatraz in 14 different attempts. Most were shot or captured. But in 1962, three men successfully tunneled out of their cells, made it to the water, and escaped in rafts that they had patiently made out of rubber raincoats. Alcatraz Island looms beyond Coit Tower in San Francisco in the 'Golden Gate,' which is not a bridge but the cold and rapid strait that the bridge crosses nearby.

Alcatraz Island looms beyond Coit Tower in San Francisco in the 'Golden Gate,' which is not a bridge but the cold and rapid strait that the bridge crosses nearby.

It's doubtful that they ever made it across the cold Bay waters, which were flowing toward the open ocean. If they did, they'd be in their 90s now. And they never gave themselves away.

Alcatraz is now a tourist attraction, reached by ferry. Visitors get a memorable tour and come home with cheap souvenirs like tin cups and fake prisoner caps -- and the satisfaction of being able to say, I made it off the ROCK!

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