Alcatraz Island(70394)
Credit: Terrie Plowman

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is in the heart of San Francisco Bay and only one and a quarter miles from the centre of San Francisco. 

In the past, it has been used for a fort, a lighthouse and a prison. Today, as a  national park it attracts tourists, is concerned with the preservation of its buildings and protects the bird life on the island.

Getting There

An Alcatraz ferry leaves Pier 33 on Fisherman's Wharf. You can buy tickets beforehand to avoid queueing for entrance tickets.

History of Alcatraz

Alcatraz as a Fort

San Francisco's shipping increased dramatically as a result of the gold rush.It's population also expanded. A military board decided that San Francisco needed to be defended due to a great deal of wealth now being present in the city. Alcatraz Island, being directly in line with ships entering the harbour, was chosen as one of three sites for fortification. By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, Alcatraz was performing it's duty as a fortification. More than 400 soldiers were stationed on the island.

During the Civil War military technology developed rapidly and Alcatraz as a defender became obsolete. 

In 1907, the army formally decommissioned Alcatraz as a fortification.

Alcatraz as a Prison

Although a fort initially, Alcatraz was used as a prison for confined soldiers as early as 1859. Soldiers convicted of desertion in the Civil War were confined on the island. So, too, were thieves, murderers, those convicted of assault and treason.

During various Indian wars during the late 1800's, captured Indians were kept there.

After a huge cellhouse was built, the prison was re-named as a 'disciplinary barracks', and quickly, conscientious objectors of World War 1 were taken there.

In the 1930's, it became a high security prison and soon afterwards was known as a federal penitentiary. Over 1500  men were prisoners but only a few were notorious. Al Capone was probably the most well-known although the 'Birdman of Alcatraz', has been made famous by the said-named film. He didn't conduct his bird studies at Alcatraz, though. They were studied when he was imprisoned elsewhere.

Escape Attempts

There were only 14 attempts made to escape. In 1962 three prisoners slipped into the water, never to be seen again!

Rumours were rife about miserable living conditions. Visitors were restricted and so stories were circulated about the living conditions. In fact, the prison was clean and the food was good. Even so, Alcatraz was still a maximum security prison.


Because maintenance and running costs were becoming increasingly expensive, Alcatraz was closed in 1963. The remaining prisoners were transferred to other federal establishments.

Main Buildings

The Cellhouse

This large steel re-inforced concrete cellhouse was built by the unskilled inmates, who later became the first prisoners to inhabit the cells. But in later years, improvements were made to increase the level of security. Tool-proof bars replaced the soft steel bars and barbed wire and chain-linked fences were erected. Also metal detectors were installed. Later still, electric doors were installed.

The Individual Cells

The cells were naturally small and provided a single bed, pillow and blanket. Sparse belongings could be placed on the shelves.

The inmate was given no privacy as there was no door. The bars were open so that guards could see everything.

The Dining Area

This was the most dangerous room as knives, forks and spoons were accessible. The patrolling guards had to be on constant alert even though canisters of tear gas were mounted on the ceiling.

The Tour

As you move around the vast buildings in your own time you will hear sounds associated with inmates, shouting and talking, the voices of guards and the constant slamming of doors. The recordings show a sombre atmosphere and give your visit a real sense of reality.  

It is a relief to leave the building and sample the fresh air. However, it is a visit which will leave you with a greater understanding of an inmate's  life in Alcatraz maximum security establishment.


Inmate's cell at Alcatraz(70395)
Credit: Terrie Plowman