Alcatraz is perhaps the most well-known federal prison in history. Used as a home to early Indians, a military base and a prison, Alcatraz Island has a history all its own.
Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, the island known as "Alcatraz" is a world all its own. The building that once represented the ultimate in isolation, is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists.
EARLY INDIAN OCCUPATION
The earliest use of Alcatraz Island is documented by the indigenous people known as "Ohlone," a Miwok Indian word which means "western people." Alcatraz was originally used as a place of isolation for ostracization of tribal members who had violated tribal law. Over many years, the Ohlone used Alcatraz Island for hunting and fishing purposes, a resting spot, hiding place, and camping area.
Oddly enough, prejudice would send large numbers of the Indian population to Alcatraz Island after it was an established prison. Early Indian tribes were confined in great numbers through the early 1900's.
MILITARY HISTORY OF ALCATRAZ
Unbeknownst to many, Alcatraz Island served as a defense post to the military. Known then as "Fortress Alcatraz," and "Fort Point," this area was considered the most powerful of all Pacific Coast defenses. The Triangle of Defense, as it was known, was adopted in 1850. Four years later, the Alcatraz lighthouse began service as the first lighthouse on the Pacific coast. Various members of military personal inhabited Alcatraz Island from 1850-1933.
Alcatraz served as a Federal Prison from 1934-1963. Historians today concede that Alcatraz represents well the government's response to post-Prohibition, post-Depression America. Born out of the minds of attorney general Homer Cummings, and Director of the Bureau of Prisons Sanford Bates, Alcatraz Prison was designed as a special prison for kidnappers, racketeers and individuals guilty of predatory crimes. The idea behind the prison was to prohibit any communication with the rest of the world. This would mean that both the prison population and its employees would be unable to leave the island, except in circumstances of extreme illness. Families of prison employees lived on the island in an area known as "Building 64," which housed four wood framed homes, one duplex and three apartment buildings.
Alcatraz was designed and classified as an experiment. It would hold and alienate difficult-to-manage prisoners by placing them in a concentration-type camp. The first prisoners, including the infamous Al Capone, arrived on Alcatraz Island in August of 1934. Through the years, Alcatraz would serve as home to many wellknown felons, such as George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin Karpis, and Robert Franklin Stroud. 1545 men would serve time in Alcatraz before its doors were closed.
Over the years, 36 prisoners were involved in escape attempts. Of those, 7 prisoners were shot and killed, 2 drowned, 5 remain unaccounted for, and the remainder were captured by armed guards. Two prisoners successfully escaped the prison and the island, but were captured years later. Two other prisoners were said to have made it off the island, but their survival remains questionable.
With the changing times and attitudes of the general population, Alcatraz was labeled "inhumane" in 1962. Public outcries were common and even the government discussed the fact that Alcatraz had no concept of rehabilitation. The following year, on March 1963, Alcatraz Prison officially closed and for the first time in history, the general public was allowed on to the island to cover the story.
On November 9, 1969, a Mohawk Indian named Richard Oakes led a large group of Indian supporters on a chartered boat in a symbolic gesture of reclaiming the island. November 20th of that year, the symbolic occupation turned into a full scale occupation, which (through small takeovers) would last three years.
Known as "Indians of All Tribes," a group that represented many different Indian tribes, the group of mostly university students claimed the island as their own. Indian students were recruited at UCLA and joined "Indians of All Tribes" in what would become the longest prolonged occupation of a federal facility by the Indian people to this very day. Eighty Indian UCLA students were among the 100 Indians that invaded and later occupied Alcatraz Island.
In 1970, as many inhabitants of the island returned to the mainland to continue their education, the group fell into disarray. Since its formation, the group now included non-Indians and a large population of persons from the hippie and drug cultures.
On January 5, 1970, Oakes's 13 year old stepdaughter fell down a stairwell three floors, resulting in her death. Oakes immediately left the island, and two competing groups formed and battled for leadership of the island.
It was during this time that the federal government began to intervene by adopting a position of non-interference. Power was shut off to the island and a water barge, which had been the only source of fresh water, was also removed by the government. Three days after the removal of the water barge, fire broke out on the island and destroyed many buildings.
After two oil tankers collided at the entrance of the San Francisco Bay in 1971, the federal government sprang into action with a firm plan from President Nixon to "develop a removal plan." On June 10th of that year, armed federal marshals, FBI agents and special forces swarmed the island and removed five women, four children and six unarmed men. This move would end the Indian occupation of Alcatraz.
Today, Alcatraz Island is protected by the National Park Service, which is working to make the island accessible to all visitors. Extensive preservation efforts have been made in recent years, and even the birds and wildlife on the island are now protected by law. Alcatraz Island is home to the United States' oldest lighthouse.