Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is an island located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. Often referred to as "The Rock", the small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison until 1963. Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of American Indians from San Francisco, who were part of a wave of Indian activism across the nation, with public protests through the 1970s. Later, in 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

Today, the island's facilities are operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. In 2008 the nation's first hybrid propulsion ferry started serving the island. Alcatraz has been featured in many movies, TV shows, cartoons, books, comics, and games.

History

The first Spaniard to document the island was Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted San Francisco Bay and named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces," which translates as "The Island of the Pelicans," from the archaic Spanish alcatraz, "pelican", a word which was borrowed originally from Arabic: القطرس al-qaṭrās, meaning sea eagle. In modern Spanish, the word alcatraz stands for gannet.

The United States Census Bureau defines the island as Block 1067, Block Group 1, Census Tract 179.02 of San Francisco County, California. There was no permanent population on the island as of the 2000 census.

It is home to the now-abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools, a seabird colony (mostly Western Gulls, cormorants, and egrets), and unique views of the coastline.

Military history

The earliest recorded owner of the island of Alcatraz is one Julian Workman, to whom it was given by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846 with the understanding that the former would build a lighthouse on it. Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puente and personal friend of Pio Pico. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Fremont, champion of Manifest Destiny and leader of the Bear Flag Republic, bought the island for $5000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. Fremont had expected a large compensation for his initiative in purchasing and securing Alcatraz Island for the U.S. government, but the U.S. government later invalidated the sale and paid Fremont nothing. Fremont and his heirs sued for compensation during protracted but unsuccessful legal battles that extended into the 1890s.

Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay. In 1853, under the direction of Zealous B. Tower, the Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858, eventuating in Fortress Alcatraz. The island's first garrison at Camp Alcatraz, numbering about 200 soldiers and 11 cannons, arrived at the end of that year. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the island mounted 85 cannons (increased to 105 cannons by 1866) in casemates around its perimeter, though the small size of the garrison meant only a fraction of the guns could be used at one time. At this time it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Southern sympathizers. Alcatraz never fired its guns offensively, though during the war it was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast.

Due to its isolation from the outside by the cold, strong, hazardous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861.

Following the war in 1866 the army determined that the fortifications and guns were being rapidly rendered obsolete by advances in military technology. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed (the so called "parade ground" on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). Instead the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation. In 1867 a brick jailhouse was built (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868 Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.

In 1898, the Spanish-American war increased the prison population from 26 to over 450. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison, later Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1915. In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island's dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit (creating a dry "moat") to enhance its defensive potential. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of "dungeons" below the main cell block. The Fortress was deactivated as a military prison in October 1933, and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.

During World War I the prison held conscientious objectors, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled 'Uncle Sam's Devil's Island' about his experiences.

Prison history

The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island became a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison in August 1934. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held such notable criminals as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, James "Whitey" Bulger, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda, member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954.,Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker and Alvin Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prison staff and their families.

The majority of the prisoners at Alcatraz had been sent there after causing problems at other prisons.

During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoner had successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and three were lost at sea and never found. The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946 when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised. Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3-foot (0.91 m) wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and the progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.

The escape route led up through a fan vent; the prisoners removed the fan and motor, replacing them with a steel grille and leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to climb through. Stealing a carborundum abrasive cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen raincoats for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells affixed with stolen human hair from the barbershop, they escaped. The prisoners are estimated to have entered San Francisco Bay at 10 p.m.

The official investigation by the FBI was aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who was part of the escapees' group but was left behind (West's false wall kept slipping so he held it into place with cement, which set; when the Anglin brothers (John and Clarence) accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall, but by the time he got out, his companions were gone). Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were discovered on nearby Angel Island. The official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay. But there were sightings of the men over the years, and friends and family of Morris and the Anglins claimed to have been receiving postcards written in the men's handwriting.

The MythBusters investigated the myth, concluding it is “plausible” that the three survived their intricate escape attempt. The attempt was the subject of the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz with screenplay by Richard Tuggle; directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, Jack Thibeau as Clarence Anglin, and Fred Ward as John Anglin. The film strongly implied that the three made it.

Robert Stroud, who was better known to the public as the "Birdman of Alcatraz", was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. He spent the next seventeen years on "the Rock"—six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, (MCFP Springfield). Although called the Birdman of Alcatraz, Stroud was not allowed to keep birds while incarcerated there.

When Al Capone arrived on Alcatraz in 1934, prison officials made it clear that he would not be receiving any preferential treatment. While serving his time in Alcatraz, Capone, a master manipulator, had continued running his rackets from behind bars by buying off guards. "Big Al" generated incredible media attention while on Alcatraz though he served just four and a half years of his sentence there before developing symptoms of tertiary syphilis and being transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Los Angeles.

George "Machine Gun" Kelly arrived on September 4, 1934. At Alcatraz, Kelly was constantly boasting about several robberies and murders that he had never committed. Although his boasts were said to be tiresome to other prisoners, Warden Johnson considered him a model inmate. Kelly was returned to Leavenworth in 1951.

Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz arrived in 1936. He constantly fought with other inmates. He spent the longest time on Alcatraz island, serving nearly 26 years. He was convicted for worse crimes than any other inmate. He never attempted an escape.

James “Whitey” Bulger spent three years on Alcatraz (1959–1962) while serving a sentence for bank robbery. While there, he became close to Clarence Carnes, also known as the Choctaw Kid.

Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson, the Godfather of Harlem, was an African-American gangster, numbers operator, racketeer, and bootlegger in New York City's Harlem neighborhood in the early 20th century. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1954 and was imprisoned until 1963. He was believed to have been involved in the 1962 escape attempt of Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin.

Mickey Cohen worked for the Mafia’s gambling rackets; he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 15 years in Alcatraz Island. Two years into his sentence, an inmate clobbered Cohen with a lead pipe, partially paralyzing the mobster. After his release in 1972, Cohen led a quiet life with old friends.

Arthur R. "Doc" Barker the son of Ma Barker and a member of the Barker-Karpis gang along with Alvin Karpis. In 1935, Barker was sent to Alcatraz Island on conspiracy to kidnap charges. On the night of January 13, 1939, Barker with Henri Young and Rufus McCain attempted escape from Alcatraz. Barker was shot and killed by the guards.

Rafael Cancel Miranda, a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954. On March 1, 1954, Cancel Miranda together with fellow Nationalists Lolita Lebron, Andres Cordero, and Irving Rodriguez entered the United States Capitol building armed with automatic pistols and fired 30 shots, hitting five congressmen, who all survived their wounds.

Post-prison years

Because the penitentiary cost much more to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta), and half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963. In addition, citizens were increasingly protesting the environmental effects of sewage released into San Francisco Bay from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island. That year, the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, on land, opened as the replacement facility for Alcatraz.

Native American occupation

Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans called United Indians of All Tribes, mostly college students from San Francisco, occupied the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians. Some of them were children of Indians who had resettled in the city as part of an urbanization program encouraged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) from the 1930s to the 1950s. The BIA hoped to give Indians new opportunities in the cities, as many Indian reservations were isolated from job markets.

The occupiers, who stayed on the island for nearly two years, demanded the island's facilities be adapted and new structures built for an Indian education center, ecology center and cultural center. The American Indians claimed the island by provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux; they said the treaty promised to return all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal lands to the Native peoples from whom it was acquired. (Note: The Treaty of 1868 stated that all abandoned or unused federal land adjacent to the Great Sioux Reservation could be reclaimed by descendants of the Sioux Nation.) Indians of All Tribes then claimed Alcatraz Island by the "Right of Discovery", as indigenous peoples knew it thousands of years before any Europeans had come to North America. Begun by urban Indians of San Francisco, the occupation attracted other Native Americans from across the country, including American Indian Movement (AIM) urban activists from Minneapolis.

The Native Americans demanded reparation for the many treaties broken by the US government and for the lands which were taken from so many tribes. In discussing the Right of Discovery, the historian Troy R. Johnson states in The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, that indigenous peoples knew about Alcatraz at least 10,000 years before any European knew about any part of North America.

Native Americans objected to federal policies such as intense pressure to send their children to boarding schools. They cited the Moqui Hopi in 1895, who were held as military prisoners by the US. The U.S. government offered to release the people if they agreed to send their children to U.S. Indian schools. The Hopi refused, believing this would cause their culture to deteriorate and force assimilation. The effect of the policy was to break any positive relations the Hopi may have built with the U.S. government.

During the nineteen months and nine days of occupation by the American Indians, several buildings at Alcatraz were damaged or destroyed by fire, including the recreation hall, the Coast Guard quarters and the Warden's home. The origins of the fires are unknown. The U.S. government demolished a number of other buildings (mostly apartments) after the occupation had ended. Graffiti from the period of Native American occupation are still visible at many locations on the island.

During the occupation, President Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy, designed by earlier administrations to end federal recognition of tribes and their special relationship with the US government. He established a new policy of self-determination, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.

The Alcatraz occupation inspired numerous other political actions by American Indian activists: the seizure of the Mayflower II in Boston on Thanksgiving Day 1970; the Indian occupation of Mount Rushmore; the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, ending in Indian occupation of the Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, DC; the Wounded Knee Incident at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973, in which Oglala Lakota held territory against federal forces for 71 days; and the Longest Walk in 1985.

The occupation of Alcatraz gave many Native Americans a sense of shared pan-Indian identity, as well as renewed purpose about activism and reclaiming their cultures. It is defined as a key movement in their struggle for enforcement of treaty rights, recognition of tribal sovereignty and desire for self-government, and a renewal of American Indian identity. Following a succession of demands at Alcatraz, the U.S. government returned excess, unused land to the Taos, Yakama, Navajo and Washoe tribes.

Landmarking and development

The entire Alcatraz Island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and was further declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In 1993, the National Park Service published a plan entitled Alcatraz Development Concept and Environmental Assessment. This plan, approved in 1980, doubled the amount of Alcatraz accessible to the public to enable visitors to enjoy its scenery and bird, marine, and animal life, such as the California slender salamander.

Today American Indian groups, such as the International Indian Treaty Council, hold ceremonies on the island, most notably, their "Sunrise Gatherings" every Columbus and Thanksgiving days.

Proposed peace center

The Global Peace Foundation proposed to raze the prison and build a peace center in its place. During the previous year, supporters collected 10,350 signatures that placed it on the presidential primary ballots in San Francisco for February 5, 2008. The proposed plan was estimated at $1 billion. For the plan to pass, Congress would have had to have taken Alcatraz out of the National Park Service. Critics of the plan said that Alcatraz is too rich in history to be destroyed. On February 6, 2008, the Alcatraz Island Global Peace Center Proposition C failed to pass, with 72% of voters rejecting the proposition.

Fauna and flora
  • Cisterns. A bluff that, because of its moist crevices, is believed to be an important site for California slender salamanders.
  • Cliff tops at the island's north end. Containing a onetime manufacturing building and a plaza, the area is listed as important to nesting and roosting birds.
  • The powerhouse area. A steep embankment where native grassland and creeping wild rye support a habitat for deer mice.
  • Tide pools. A series of them, created by long-ago quarrying activities, contains still-unidentified invertebrate species and marine algae. They form one of the few tide-pool complexes in the Bay, according to the report.
  • Western cliffs and cliff tops. Rising to heights of nearly 100 feet (30 m), they provide nesting and roosting sites for sea birds including pigeon guillemots, cormorants, Heermann's Gulls and Western Gulls. Harbor seals can occasionally be seen on a small beach at the base.
  • The parade grounds. Carved from the hillside during the late 19th century and covered with rubble since the government demolished guard housing in 1971, the area has become a habitat and breeding ground for black-crowned night herons, western gulls, slender salamanders and deer mice.
  • The Agave Path, a trail named for its dense growth of agave. Located atop a shoreline bulkhead on the south side, it provides a nesting habitat for night herons.
  • Alcatraz prison and its surroundings.

Gardens planted by families of the original Army post, and later by families of the prison guards, fell into neglect after the prison closure in 1963. After 40 years, they are being restored by a paid staff member and many volunteers, thanks to funding by the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The untended gardens had become severely overgrown and had developed into a nesting habitat and sanctuary for numerous birds. Now, areas of bird habitat are being preserved and protected, while many of the gardens are being restored to their original state.

In clearing out the overgrowth, workers found that many of the original plants were growing where they had been planted – some more than 100 years ago. Numerous heirloom rose hybrids, including a Welsh rose that had been believed to be extinct, have been discovered and propagated. Many species of roses, succulents, and geraniums are growing among apple and fig trees, banks of sweet peas, manicured gardens of cutting flowers, and wildly overgrown sections of native grasses with blackberry and honeysuckle.

In popular culture

Alcatraz Island has appeared many times in popular culture, most notably "The Rock" starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. Its appeal as a film setting derives from its isolation and its history as a prison from which, officially, no prisoner ever successfully escaped.

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