In 1934, U.S. officials wondered where to put the country’s most dangerous prisoners. They found a place on an island in the harbor of the city of San Francisco, California. It was officially called Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, but everyone called it “The Rock.”
Alcatraz was a military prison from the late 1850s until the 1930s. When the first group of federal prisoners arrived on August 11, 1934, “The Rock” opened for business. The prisoners were considered the country’s worst criminals. They included murderers, bank robbers and kidnappers. One of the main reasons federal officials chose Alcatraz Island to detain these prisoners was because they thought it would be impossible for the prisoners to escape.
Cold, deep and dangerous waters surround the island. Also, the distance between the island and San Francisco is too far for most humans to swim. No prisoner was ever officially reported to have successfully escaped.
However, in 1962, three men broke out of the prison. Each man worked very hard at night for many months to cut through the stone wall of his cell. They made false heads out of paper, paint and hair. On the night of June 11th, the men placed the heads in their beds to make it look as if they were sleeping. Then, the prisoners escaped through the holes in their cells to get to the water. The men were never seen or heard from again. It is believed that they drowned while trying to swim to San Francisco.
The prison closed in 1963 because of the high cost of keeping prisoners there and the need for major repairs. The last prisoners were moved to other jails.
In 1972, the United States Congress passed a bill creating the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Alcatraz Island and the old prison are part of this area.
Each year, more than one million people visit Alcatraz to see the prisoners’ cells and listen to stories about the jail’s history. But unlike the prisoners who once lived there, visitors can escape from the prison whenever they want and return back across the harbor to San Francisco.
Today, the U.S. government houses the country’s most dangerous criminals in a “super max” prison at Florence, Colorado. Its unofficial name is “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
Editor's Note: Part of this story was originally published on June 19, 2008.