Alcatraz Island Was Home to More Than Just a Prison

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Alcatraz Island is best known as a penitentiery but it also has numerous other distinctions. It has been a Civil War Fort, a military prison, the site of California's first lighthouse, and the site of the American Indian Red Power Movement. Today visitors

Forty-nine years ago today (21 March 1963), the last prisoner was transferred off the Rock and the doors shut at the infamous Alcatraz Prison. At a time when prison actually meant punishment, Alcatraz was known for her harsh conditions. Now it is a historical landmark and national park. Tourists visit the Rock today instead of criminals. 

Alcatraz Facts

  • Alcatraz was a penitentiary from 1934 to 1963.
  • The Director of the Bureau of Prisons at the time was Sanford Bates.
  • The Island was chosen for a federal prison because of its remoteness.
  • The first warden was James A. Johnston. He remained there for 14 years.
  • At Alcatraz work and recreation were privileges to be earned.
  • Prisoners at Alcatraz were kept to a cell by themselves. There were no shared cells, as was the custom at other facilities at the time.
  • The first metal detectors were used there.
  • In 1936 the prisoners held a work strike.
  • A prison riot in 1946 killed an officer.
  • Radio jacks were installed in the individual cells on 4 October 1955.
  • Alcatraz Prison was the model for the federal prison in Marion, IL.
  • No escape has ever been confirmed however there were 14 different attempts over the years.
  • The Island also housed the staff and their families. Their children would ferry over to San Francisco each morning for school.
  • The prison was originally built as a military prison housing US soldiers who had been convicted of a crime while in the Philippines. 

Before the Island became a prison fortress

The Island itself is 12 acres of rocks and birds. It was first explored in 1775 by Juan Manuel de Ayala. He dubbed it Alcatraz – which translates to Pelican – Island because of the number of birds who claimed the island home. It is home to California’s first lighthouse. In 1850, by order of President Millard Fillmore, the Island was sold to the US government which utilized it as a fort during the Civil War. In 1907 it served as a military prison. 

American Indian Red Power Movement

After the penitentiary closed the island laid dormant and abandoned. The local American Indians, in what has become known as the Red Power Movement, attempted to reclaim the island. The government finally forced them off. The occupation occurred in 1964 and then again from 1969 to 1971. The point of the movement was to bring to light the many tribes that were being terminated by the US government. The movement led to changes in the federal policy pertaining to the American Indians and their tribes. 

The Rock today

Today the Island is maintained by the National Park Service and is open to visitors. To get to the Island, Alcatraz Cruises, LLC operates a ferry service from San Francisco’s Pier 33 to the dock at Alcatraz. The ferry runs throughout the day. Once on the Island, you can move at your own speed to an audio tour. The tour is available is English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Dutch. Tickets are available in advance and in fact are suggested as they often sell out a week or so in advance. 


Jeanne Ruczhak-Eckman began writing in 1985, with her work appearing in several local newspapers. From 2003-2009, she spearheaded an online newspaper company, which had two newspapers, the PA Farm News and The latter covered everything from hometown heroes and new businesses to the Nickel Mines Shooting. She received her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Lock Haven University, and was diagnosed with diabetes in 2009. Her interests include learning more about diabetes and how to deal with it, genealogy, history/travel, gaming and Orthodoxy. You may contact Jeanne with your comments and questions.


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Jeanne Ruczhak-Eckman

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