Alcatraz is perhaps best known for the June 12, 1962 escape of Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris. In addition to successfully escaping the island, neither the inmates, nor their remains, were ever found. FBI.gov reports the U.S. Marshals Service’s investigation into the notorious escape is still active. Although the escape remains one of the most intriguing incidents associated with Alcatraz, the island, and the facility, have a rich history — which began in the 1850s.
In 1853, the U.S. military built a fort on Alcatraz Island to defend San Francisco Bay. As reported by Mercury News, officials turned the island into a military detention center in 1859. It was transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice, and in 1934 became a federal penitentiary. Some of the earliest and most notorious inmates included Arthur “Doc” Barker, Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis, and Robert Stroud, who was known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Between 1934 and 1962, at least 36 individuals attempted to escape Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
Although the closure of the prison seemed to coincide with the successful escape of the Anglins and Morris, prison officials said the decision to close was actually made before the men escaped. It was estimated that the facilities required between $3 million and $5 million for restoration, on top of the prison’s operating costs, which were three times that of other federal prisons. As it is located on an island, everything from fresh water to employees had to be transported to the facility by boat.
Details about the decision to close Alcatraz, and its status today
Ultimately, the Federal Government determined it would be more cost-effective to build a new prison on the mainland than to maintain Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. As reported by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was officially closed on March 21, 1963.
Following the closure of the prison, several organizations offered proposals for use of the abandoned island and facility. However, in 1969, it was occupied by a group of Native Americans. The self-proclaimed “Indians of All Tribes” intended to install a cultural and education center on Alcatraz island. However, they were eventually overwhelmed by vandals who defaced and destroyed property and were suspected of setting a devastating fire. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports the last members of the “Indians of All Tribes” left Alcatraz in June 1971.
In 1972, Alcatraz Island was officially adopted as part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. As a result, the island and remaining facilities are federally protected and are open to the public for tours. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an estimated one million tourists visit Alcatraz Island every year. In addition to some of the original detention facilities, Alcatraz has an exhibit commemorating the Native Americans’ occupation of the island and remnants of the Civil War-era facilities.
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