An Isolated Island For America’s Most Infamous Criminals

The Truth Behind Bars
How long did the penitentiary on Alcatraz operate?

28 years and eight months. Officially titled “U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz”, the institution opened on July 1, 1934 and closed on March 21, 1963.

How many cells were there?

There are 336 “main line” cells and 42 “solitary confinement” cells in the Cellhouse. The prison was never filled, though, and the average population was about 260 men. The highest occupancy was 302 convicts.

What was the average convict’s length of stay?

About eight years. Men were never sentenced directly to Alcatraz, but rather had to earn their way onto the Island through bad behavior at another federal institution. Alcatraz was sometimes called “the prison within the prison system.” Good behavior could earn a convict a transfer to another federal institution, but almost never a direct release from prison.

Is Alcatraz haunted?

Spiritualists and people who want to believe in ghosts often claim to pick up haunted auras and ghostly feelings when visiting Alcatraz. However, there are no authenticated cases of ghost sightings by any of Alcatraz’s residents over the years, whether they were soldiers, prisoners, correctional officers, family members or park rangers.

How many prisoners were executed at Alcatraz?

None. Alcatraz had no facilities for capital punishment, and no one was ever sent to the Island with a death sentence. Alcatraz inmates who committed capital offenses while on the Island were tried in federal court, sentenced to death, and transferred to San Quentin State Penitentiary for execution in the gas chamber.

Are there man-eating sharks in the bay?

Although San Francisco Bay is teeming with sharks, the majority are small species such as Brown Smooth Hound sharks and Leopard sharks that average only a few feet in length and have no interest in attacking people. Great white sharks (unfairly made infamous by the movie “Jaws”) rarely venture inside the bay, even though they are numerous in Pacific Ocean waters just outside the Golden Gate. It should be noted, however, that in October of 2015, a great white shark breached to catch and eat a sea lion, approximately 20’ off the Alcatraz Island dock.

Did the Birdman really have birds on Alcatraz?

No. Robert Stroud, the so-called “Birdman of Alcatraz” actually carried out all of his bird breeding activities and avian research while at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was imprisoned from 1914 to 1942. The prison authorities actually sent him to Alcatraz to get him away from his birds and out of the public’s attention. While at Alcatraz, Stroud spent six years in solitary confinement in D Block and an additional eleven years in the prison hospital. He had no birds on Alcatraz, but spent most of his time reading and writing. Declining health led to his transfer in 1959 to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he died on November 21, 1963.

Was Alcatraz really as bad as it was portrayed in the movies?

No. Hollywood produced many movies that over-dramatized Alcatraz, especially during the 1930s and 1940s, often depicting brutal guards and violent episodes that had no basis in reality.

Alcatraz was a tough prison but it was a fair one; most former convicts will grudgingly admit the Island was safer and better run than many other prisons where they spent time.

For more information on how the Island has been portrayed (and misrepresented) in the movies visit the Building 64 special exhibits.

Is the island honeycombed with tunnels and dungeons?

Sort of. The extensive network of tunnels shown in the movie “The Rock” are fictional and only existed on a Hollywood soundstage. The tunnels on the Island are much less impressive.

The prison building sits atop the remains of a 19th century soldier barracks built in 1857 by the military as part of the original fort on Alcatraz. When the army completed the prison in 1912, they converted several of these old rooms into underground solitary confinement cells officially designated “dungeons.” The army continued to use these underground cells until they closed the Disciplinary Barracks in 1934. The Bureau of Prisons continued using them as late as 1938. Warden James Johnston ordered the dungeons abandoned when the modern solitary confinement unit (“D Block”) was completed in 1941.

How long was Al Capone on Alcatraz?

4½ years. Capone arrived on the Island on August 22, 1934 along with 52 other convicts from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Georgia. He had several jobs on the Island including sweeping the Cellhouse and working in the laundry. Capone was not popular on Alcatraz; he received no special privileges, but his notoriety made him a target for other cons. Capone got into a fight with another inmate in the recreation yard and was placed in isolation for eight days. While Capone was working in the prison basement, an inmate standing in line waiting for a haircut stabbed him with a pair of shears. Capone eventually became symptomatic from syphilis, a disease he had been carrying for years but had avoided treating. In early 1939 the authorities transferred him to Federal Correction Institute Terminal Island in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his 11-year sentence.

Did anyone ever escape from Alcatraz?

Not according to the government. During the period the Federal penitentiary operated, 36 prisoners were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. 23 were caught, six were shot and killed, and two drowned. Five men disappeared and were never seen again, but the overwhelming odds are that they drowned and that their bodies were never recovered. One prisoner made it as far as the rocks beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, where he was found unconscious and near death. He was returned to the Island within 24 hours.

However, when Alcatraz operated as a military prison between 1861 and 1933, an unknown number of men escaped directly from the Island or from work parties on the mainland.