The supposedly “escape-proof” prison housed around 1,500 of America’s most notorious prisoners – including gangsters Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone
Alcatraz is quite possibly the most famous prison in the world.
The heavily guarded prison on a rocky island just over a mile from San Francisco was considered “escape-proof”. The strong currents in the cold, shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay made swimming to freedom almost impossible.
Only one person is known to have finished swimming – John Paul Scott successfully escaped in 1962 after squeezing through lard-covered cell bars. But he collapsed on the mainland exhausted and was quickly brought back to The Rock.
These days, Alcatraz is a tourist attraction and there’s even an Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon where people compete to swim back to the mainland.
But it was once home to the most feared criminals in the United States.
The same year that John Paul Scott accidentally swam to the mainland, inmate Frank Morris escaped the island with brothers John and Clarence Anglin by digging through the prison’s rotting concrete wall with sharpened spoons.
They tricked the guards by leaving dummy heads in their beds.
The wounded fugitives’ belongings were later found floating in the sea, but no bodies were ever found. A forensic expert said it was “very likely” that a 1975 photo showed the Anglin brothers alive and living in Brazil.
The daring offer was immortalized in the 1979 Clint Eastwood film Escape From Alcatraz.
In 29 years, 36 inmates made a total of 14 escape attempts. Of these, 23 were captured, six were shot, two drowned, five were missing, presumed dead.
But despite the harsh conditions, some prisoners asked to be transferred to Alcatraz because they felt safer in the lag’s individual cells and reportedly offered better food than other prisons.
Over the years, over 1,500 convicts have been incarcerated in The Rock’s 9 x 5 foot Calls. Each had a bed, a desk, a toilet, and a sink with cold water.
But even for minor offenses, lags could lose that little luxury and end up in “The Hole,” a pitch-black solitary confinement cell that gave prisoners little room to move. For a week or sometimes longer, the prisoners were locked in the tiny cell with no light and minimal food.
There were even harsher penalties for the most serious offences.
On May 2, 1946, six inmates led by bank robber Bernard Coy overpowered a guard, gained access to staff weapons and took over a cell block.
Coy and his confederates had planned to escape but were unable to obtain vital prison keys. Instead they tried to shoot their way out. A 46-hour siege dubbed “The Battle of Alcatraz” ended only when US Marines were called up.
Two guards and three would-be fugitives died in the battle, with 19 injured, including Warden Ed Miller.
There was no time in The Hole for ringleaders Miran Thompson and Sam Shockley. They were executed simultaneously in the San Quentin gas chamber on December 3, 1948.
Notorious mobster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone was convicted of tax evasion and served just under five years at Alcatraz in the 1930s. Thanks to his good behavior, he was allowed to play the banjo in the prison band, the Rock Islanders. But he was also stabbed by another inmate and later admitted, “It looks like Alcatraz licked me.”
Although he was released in 1939 due to his deteriorating mental state and lived an additional eight years, Capone’s ghost is said to still haunt the Rock’s abandoned cell blocks.
Other famous inmates included mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, kidnapper George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and psychopathic killer Robert Stroud, played by Burt Lancaster in the hit 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz.