Alcatraz: United States Penitentiary As a result
of the Great Depression, a new breed of violent
criminals swept the streets of America. In
response to the cries of alarmed citizens,
Congress enacted a number of statutes, which gave
the federal government jurisdiction over certain
criminal offenses previously held by the states.
With the suggestion of former US Attorney General,
Homes Cummings, Congress agreed that a special
penal institution of maximum security and minimum
privilege be established. In 1934, the legendary
US Penitentiary of Alcatraz was born and became
the home of Americas most wanted for the next
thirty years. Once authorized by Congress, the US
Department of Justice acquired control of Alcatraz
Island, previously a US Army compound. As the
island was redeveloped into a maximum-security
prison, seven of its twelve acres were enclosed in
a prison compound. The remaining five were set
aside for employee residences, apartments, and
Soon after the redesigning of
the old Army fortress, the Alcatraz prison was
ready for the grand opening (or better said
lockout!). Equipped with four different
cellblocks, A, B, C and D, the Rock began its
operations on January 2, 1934. Although cellblock
A was seldom used, B, C and D provided 378 cages
to accommodate the most notorious felons that
America could produce. The first of four wardens
to take charge of the penitentiary was a retired,
professional administrator named James A.
Johnston. The Department of Justice carefully
selected Johnston because he was a well-organized,
no-nonsense businessman with over twelve years of
experience in the California Department of
Corrections. Under Johnston, another ninety
officers were required to cover the three
eight-hour shifts (plus leave and vacation time).
During its thirty years of service, close to 1545
inmates resided at the Alcatraz penitentiary.
Contrary to popular belief, Alcatraz was initially
meant to confine only a few of the infamous
headline-makers of the era.
However, out of the
total population ever to occupy this prison, the
vast majority was not to be found on wanted
posters adorning post office walls. The average
number of prisoners maintained in the prison (at
one time) was 260, with a high count of 302 and a
low count of 222 men. Although many stories exist
of escapes from Alcatraz, only three men were
successful in escaping the prison and the island,
Morris and the Anglin brothers (June of 1962).
Thirty-six prisoners were involved in attempts to
escape: seven shot and killed, 2 drowned, 5
unaccounted for and the rest recaptured. Even
though some men have made it off the island,
survival still remains questionable. Alcatraz was,
of course, home to Al Capone for about four and a
half years. He was first transferred from US
Penitentiary Atlanta in August of 1934.
also among the first official shipment of
criminals to be received at the Rock. Capones
arrival actually generated bigger headlines than
the opening of the institution, giving birth to
the endless myth of Alcatraz. For this famous
gangster, the influence and privileges he
possessed in Atlanta were lost at Alcatraz where
he was assigned menial jobs in accordance with
other inmates. More importantly, Capones transfer
to Alcatraz solved the problem caused by his
ability to run his criminal organization from
jail. Once at the Rock, the channel of
communication between Capone and his family
members was simultaneously shut down. Arriving on
the second official shipment of prisoners was
George Machine Gun Kelly.
After an initial
sentence at Leavenworth, Kelly emerged from prison
to a lucrative career in bank robbery and
kidnapping. Kellys capture resulted in a courtroom
sensation at the first Lindbergh Law Trial and a
life-sentence that send him back to Leavenworth.
He was transferred to the Penitentiary of Alcatraz
in September of 1934 for a period of seventeen
years. After suffering a mild heart attack, he was
returned to Leavenworth where he was paroled in
1954. Soon after his parole, a final heart attack
ended his life at the age of 59. In August of
1936, another well-known celebrity named Alvin
Karpis joined Capone and Kelly at Alcatraz. After
being a fugitive on the run for fifteen years,
Karpis was apprehended and taken into custody in
Karpis began his career as a petty
thief who moved on to join Ma Barker in violent
rampage of robbery and kidnapping. It was during
this time that Karpis gained the title of Public
Enemy No. 1, given to him by J. Edgar Hoover.
After serving 26 years in Alcatraz, Karpis was
transferred and released for deportation to
Canada. After leaving Canada, Karpis assumed
residency and Spain and committed suicide in 1979.
Finally, the United States Penitentiary of
Alcatraz was closed on March 21, 1963 and has not
since reopened. The island was turned over to the
General Services Administration (GSA) in May of
1963 and later became a national park and
Today, Alcatraz has become one of the
biggest attractions of the San Francisco Bay-area
and has even inspired films such as The Rock, with
Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. Even though the
Alcatraz prison is dead, its legacy continues at
other penal institutions such as the federal
prison in Marion, IL, which operates in the
footsteps of Alcatraz. 1. Coy, Bernard Paul.
Alcatraz46: The Anatomy of a Classic Prison
Tragedy. Leswing Press, San Rafael, CA 1974. 2.
Roberts, John W.
Escaping Prison Myths. The
American University Press, Washington , D.C. 1994.