Most people know that Alcatraz was once a world-famous federal penitentiary, but the island’s history before and after the penitentiary era is less well known.

For example, few realize that it was also the site of the first American lighthouse on the West Coast and that the island served as a huge harbor defense fort during the Civil War.

On August 5, 1775, Spanish Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed his ship into San Francisco Bay and spent several weeks charting the harbor. During his surveys he described a rocky, barren island and named it “La Isla de Los Alcatraces” (Island of the Sea Birds). Historians debate which island Ayala actually sited, but the name eventually was given to the 22 acre rock today called Alcatraz.

After the fort became obsolete, the U.S. Army turned the island into a grim military prison.

Alcatraz was designed to serve as America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary, what is today referred to as a “super max” institution. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious offenders, escape artists, gang leaders and general trouble makers, including Al Capone, Mickey Cohen and Robert Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”.

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Alcatraz was sometimes called the “prison within the prison system”, since the only inmates sent there were transferred from other federal prisons. Courts could not sentence anyone to Alcatraz. Instead, the Rock was where the BOP sent its most troublesome prisoners until it was decided they could be safely returned to a lower-security institution. Their average stay was five years.

During the period the Federal penitentiary operated, 36 prisoners were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three men were caught, six were shot and killed, and two drowned. Five convicts disappeared and were never seen again.

El 11 de Junio de 1962. Cuatro presos de la cárcel de Alcatraz habían planeado fugarse. Solo tres lo lograron: los hermanos Clarence y John Anglin y Frank Morris, todos condenados por robar bancos. Aún se desconoce si lograron sobrevivir con vida o fueron ahogados.

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In early 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the closure of Alcatraz prison, due to the higher operating and maintenance costs. The last convicts were removed from the island on March 21, 1963.

Following the closing of the penitentiary, Alcatraz became the site of a American Indian protest movement that would change modern American history.

Today, Alcatraz is part of a National Park that opened to the public for the first time in October 1973. Never before had allowed the public to visit the island, and the response was overwhelming – more than 50,000 people visited Alcatraz during the first year .

Historians estimate that as many people had never before set foot on the island throughout its previous history.
In the last thirty years, public interest in the island has continued to grow. Each year, more than 1.3 million visitors travel to Alcatraz Island.

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