A Prison in Paradise – San Francisco, California

A Prison in Paradise
San Francisco, California

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, framed by some of the most beautiful and majestic views in the country, lies Alcatraz Island. A federal penitentiary is not usually included on the list of one’s vacation plans, however the history and beauty of this island warrant an exception. From 1934 to 1963 a number of the most feared criminals in the American penal system called “the rock” home. Famous for the stark contrast between its stunningly serene surroundings and the harshness of life and character inside its walls, Alcatraz has found its way into American lore.

Originally named “Isla de los Alcatraces”, or “Island of the Pelicans” it was later changed and shortened to Alcatraz. Today looking out from the island visitors see a picturesque view from the Golden Gate Bridge, and downtown San Francisco, to the Bay Bridge, and Treasure Island. One can for a moment imagine this location as the setting of a luxurious resort. Turning from the views outside the island to its interior contents however, quickly brings back the notion that this island was the scene of a less comfortable history.

Most famous for its role as a prison, Alcatraz was initially a military base. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, San Francisco’s population jumped from 300 to 30,000 in a matter of years. With this new influx of population and wealth, there was a need for the United States government to protect the area from other nations. In 1850 when California became a state, a triangle of fortifications was planned to protect San Francisco Bay. Upon its completion in 1853 Fortress Alcatraz took on the lead role as the most powerful coastal defense on the western coast. The landscape of the island was incorporated into the design, and high walls were built on the rocky isle, leaving the dock as the only access to the fort.

Alcatraz was never called upon to defend the bay, however a number of small incidents during the Civil War brought the island into the spotlight. As its use as a defensive fortress lessoned, the island began to take on a new role, that of military prison. Eleven enlisted men were incarcerated in the guardhouse basement in 1859, and slowly deserters, thieves, and other military criminals were sent there from the San Franciscan forts. Finally in 1861 Alcatraz was named the official prison for the Department of the Pacific. The island served this role until 1933 when the cost of importing supplies led the Army to leave, sending prisoners to Kansas and New Jersey.

At this point crime in America had become an increasing problem, fed largely by the troubles associated with prohibition. A new prison was sought that could take the worst of the country’s criminals, and seclude them from the public. While land in Alaska was originally considered, the Army’s recent departure from Alcatraz cemented the island as the choice for America’s new “super-prison”. The facility was to take in the most troublesome of inmates from other prisons around the nation.

In 1934, Al Capone, perhaps the penitentiary’s most infamous prisoner, arrived as one of the first official transfers. His arrival generated enormous interest, and sparked more headlines then the opening of the prison itself. Previously while imprisoned in Atlanta, Capone had been able to achieve a lifestyle within the jail that was unheard of for other prisoners. A carpeted cell and a radio were among the niceties he was able to procure through bribes and other methods. He was even able to continue to manage his organization through relatives who established themselves in a nearby hotel. For this reason he was put on a secure prison railroad car without notice, and shipped to Alcaztraz in the hopes that the lack of outside contact would be the government’s answer to the Capone problem. On the rock Capone was never able to manipulate the warden or guards, and was confined to menial duties along with the rest of the prison population. Staying only 4.5 years due to health complications, Capone left for FCI Terminal Island in 1939.

Despite J. Edgar Hoover’s displeasure with the idea, rising costs and a new federal prison in Illinois brought about the closing of Alcatraz in 1963. Capone, along with other famous inmates such as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis, and Robert Franklin Stroud (the birdman of Alcatraz), ensured that the prison would live in American minds for years to come. Today the island is run by the National Parks Service, which offers daily tours of the former prison. Visitors can marvel at the wildlife, gardens, and fantastic views from the high cliffs before entering the cell house where they can be locked within one of the solitary confinement cells. There in the cold pitch black room they can experience for just a brief moment what life must have been like at the prison in paradise.


Nate Soule is a travel enthusiast and helps maintain the travel website AcrossDistance.com.

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