The History Of Alcatraz Essay

This essay has a total of 1545 words and 7 pages.

The History Of Alcatraz



The History of Alcatraz

Although Alcatraz sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay, only a little over a mile from
the city, the island seemed as distant as if it were a thousand miles out to sea. The
island seems uninviting and because of its unappeal, it played an important role in the
history of California. The island had a number of uses. Alcatraz was the site of a
powerful fortress, a military prison and a federal prison.

The island is surrounded by treacherous cross currents and five-knot tides with a deadly
undertow. The water temperature around Alcatraz averages fifty-four degrees which is
frigid enough to induce hypothermia. In addition to the freezing temperature, there are
occasional sharks and whirlpools strong enough to drown a man. Although not appealing to a
vacationer, the geography of the area was perfect for a prison as it made escape nearly
impossible (Redden, 165).

The California gold rush spurred the building of a lighthouse on the island. Wealth from
gold increased San Francisco’s ship traffic and population and a guiding light was needed
to take the ships safely through the bay. In 1850, the military used the island as a
defense. Places for cannons and gun placements were carved out of the land slopes. More
than four hundred soldiers were stationed on the island, guarding it from outside attack.
The military’s Rodman cannon could shoot fifteen inch, 440 pound cannonballs as far as
three miles. The military moved off the island when the defense system became outdated
(Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz, 2).

During the Civil War, soldiers convicted of desertion, theft, rape, murder and treason
were imprisoned on the island. During the Spanish War of 1898 military convicts were
housed there. Later, groups of Native American activists occupied the island on three
different occasions. Their stays ranged from four hours to nineteen months. The Native
Americans claimed the island for the “Indians of All Tribes” and offered to buy the island
from the government for $24 in beads, colored cloth and other goods. Their point in the
offer was to buy the island at the same price Manhattan Island was bought years before.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, The Department of Justice wanted the island for
a maximum-security facility. Alcatraz reopened on January 1, 1934 as a federal
penitentiary. (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz. 3, 10).

During the twenty-nine year history of the prison, 1550 prisoners were imprisoned.
Alcatraz was Uncle Sam’s answer to the most notorious public enemies. Notorious prisioners
like Al “Scarface” Capone, “Doc” Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, George “Machine Gun”
Kelly, and Robert Stroud “Birdman of Alcatraz” were kept here. Inmates who had proved
problems in other prisons by escape risks and labeled troublemakers were sent to Alcatraz
for security reasons. The cost to the American taxpayer of housing one inmate was
estimated at $20,000 a year. During the twenty-nine year history as a federal
penitentiary, there were fourteen escape attempts and many deaths. During the escape
attempts, seven men were shot to death and six men drowned (Golden Gate National Park
Association, Discover Alcatraz, 9) ( Redden, 169) (Quillen, 164).

The prison itself was made up of two cell houses with fifty-eight windowless one-man cells
per tier and one hundred seventy-four cells per block. The inmate population never
exceeded two hundred sixty-nine prisoners and only about six to eight new inmates were
admitted each year. The turnover of prison population was small. Clifford Redden,
America’s notorious “flash bandit” spent more than twenty years in penal institutions,
including two stretches of time at Alcatraz. Redden stated “this mausoleum for the
living dead was truly a soul-destroying, heart-hardening and sanity-shaking experience for
its tough-fibered tenant.” Alcatraz was a true version of hell on earth. The daily misery
made death look attractive to some inmates. Upon entering the prison doors, a doctor
awaited the incoming inmate. The prisoner received delousing of head and public hair,
followed by a mouth, ear and rectum search. After a shower the new inmate was given his
prison fatigues and then walked to his prison cell. “With a crash, the steel gate slammed
shut with a sound that seemed to bring finality to everything that life had to offer.” All
cell bars were made of tool-proof steel and were hacksaw resistance. Every cell contained
a metal table fastened to the wall, a cot-sized iron frame bed with a small pull-out
beneath, a lumpy mattress, pillow, coarse bed sheets, a thin army surplus blanket, a seat
less toilet, a sink with cold running water and a tin drinking cup (Redden, 169, 174)
Continues for 4 more pages >>




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