By Nicole Stock
More than a mile off the San Francisco shoreline, Alcatraz Island—a magnet for tourists—still conjures images of jailbirds plotting the riskiest of escapes and taking the plunge into the chilly, wind-tossed waters of the Bay. The site of the most infamous prison in North America remains steeped in mystery and intrigue. You can’t help but wonder: How would I escape?
First a military fort and prison, Alcatraz became a federal jail in 1934, containing such headline-making criminals as Al Capone, Robert Stroud and Whitey Bulger, before shutting down operations in 1963. It has since become one of the most popular U.S. tourist destinations, attracting thousands of visitors since it opened its doors to the public in 1973. Alcatraz was proclaimed a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
According to John Martini, author of the book Fortress Alcatraz, the site’s allure was largely created by Hollywood and the media; for such a small prison, holding a maximum of 300 men at a time, it left a disproportionately large footprint on the public imagination. Films such as Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Rock (1996) and X Men: The Last Stand (2006) hatched Alcatraz-centric plots.
“Alcatraz is infamous because of the media, which wasn’t unintended,” Martini says. “The U.S. government wanted to have a super-mysterious, super-maximum security prison.”
Meanwhile, San Franciscans resented its presence; for many city dwellers, Alcatraz—with its notorious inmates—was an embarrassing blemish upon the beautiful Bay, threatening the safety and reputation of law-abiding citizens.
The island has also been a focal point for Native American civil rights. In 1969, a group called United Indians of All Tribes, many of them California college students, occupied the island in protest; two years later, FBI and police forces intervened and expelled six unarmed Native American men, five women and four children. The episode shone a spotlight on Native Americans’ fight for social justice and coincided with victories such as President Richard Nixon returning 48,000 acres of land to the Taos Pueblo Indian Tribe.
“Alcatraz has evolved dramatically over the past 164 years,” says Gregory Wellman, author of A History of Alcatraz Island: 1853–2008, “but that change is directly connected to larger changes in American history. Alcatraz is a reflection of those broader changes.”