The Rock: A Federal Penitentiary

Uncover The Stories At America’s First Maximum Security Prison
The army transferred Alcatraz to the civilian Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1934. The BOP quickly converted the aging military prison into a maximum-security, state-of-the-art civilian penitentiary. Alcatraz would shortly become the most famous federal prison in United States history.
Alcatraz was designed to serve as America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary, what is today referred to as a “super max” institution. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious offenders, escape artists, gang leaders and general trouble makers. They were held under the most secure and regimented conditions, in the virtually escape-proof environment on a rocky Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. To the men sent there, Alcatraz was the end of the line.

Alcatraz was sometimes called the “prison within the prison system”, since the only inmates sent there were transferred from other federal prisons. Courts could not sentence anyone to Alcatraz. Instead, “The Rock” was where the BOP sent its most troublesome prisoners until it was decided they could be safely returned to a lower-security institution. An average stay was five years.

During the period the Federal penitentiary operated, 36 prisoners were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three men were caught, six were shot and killed, and two drowned. Five convicts disappeared and were never seen again, but the overwhelming odds are that they drowned and that their bodies were never recovered.

In early 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the closing of Alcatraz Penitentiary citing increasing maintenance and operational costs. The last convicts were removed from the Island on March 21, 1963. When the Island closed, it was replaced by a new maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois.

Today, the government’s “super max” institution is located at Florence, Colorado. Its unofficial nickname is “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

For more information on U.S. Penitentiary on Alcatraz go to the official Bureau of Prisons website at BOP Alcatraz history.