Millions of people travel to San Francisco Bay to get an intimate glimpse of the jail cells that once housed notorious criminals on Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary received its first batch of prisoners on October 11, 1934 and during its 29 years of operation, was America’s most secure prison, claiming that no prisoner could successfully escape. These rare photos show Alcatraz during the time it housed bank robbers and murderers until its last days, when it formally shut down and was made into one of America’s most historic attractions.
Alcatraz Island became a federal prison in August, 1934 and was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. The first 137 prisoners arrived on the island that same year, handcuffed in high security coaches and guarded by 60 special FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, and railway security officials. According to a 1971 documentary titled “Alcatraz History,” this first batch of 137 men were the nation’s top and toughest gunmen, most of them bank and mail robbers, jail breakers, and even murderers. Awaiting these notorious men were 155 trained staff members. The prison held no recreation or rehabilitation areas like other many prisons. It was considered America’s “number one dungeon.”
Alcatraz housed some of America’s most famous lawbreakers. George “Machine Gun” Kelly served 17 years at Alcatraz for kidnapping. George Kelly Barnes, Jr. was raised in a well off home in Memphis and even attended college for a few years. Later on, Kelly would get involved in bootlegging during Prohibition, but it wasn’t until he met and married a more experienced criminal named Kathryn Thorne that he was led into bigger trouble. Thorne bought Kelly a Thompson machine gun and encouraged him to learn to use it. The couple was soon robbing banks, and word of “Machine Gun Kelly” spread. The couple kidnapped an Oklahoma oil tycoon named Charles Urschel and obtained a $200,000 ransom. They lived large until two months later, when they were caught and sentenced to life in prison. Kelly was shipped to Alcatraz when he claimed Leavenworth Prison in Kansas couldn’t control him.
Another more notable inmate was Al “Scarface” Capone, who was sentenced to five years at Alcatraz for tax evasion. Before he was taken to “the Rock,” Capone was known as a powerful gangster and had an empire worth $62 million. When he was taken to jail, he had been a master at manipulating his environment at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta. It’s said that Capone convinced many guards to work for him, which involved getting him lavish furnishings for his cell and other amenities. So the best place to put him was Alcatraz. Again, Capone would try to manipulate the system, but he was always denied. He eventually caught syphilis and was released in 1939. He would die in 1947 in his Palm Beach mansion from complications of syphilis.
“America’s Devil Island” housed over 200 inmates while it was open. Alcatraz remains an icon of American prisons for its tough conditions and for being inescapable. Actually, some of the first metal detectors were used on the island. However, on March 21, 1963, the final 27 prisoners left Alcatraz and the prison was shut down. The final inmate to walk out of the prison was quoted as declaring, “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.”
One reason the prison closed its doors was because of money. It was pretty expensive to run, since it was on an island. Everything travel by boat to get to Alcatraz, even water and food, and they had to run a power plant to generate electricity on the island. Today, the island is a hotspot for tourists and Hollywood film sets. Tickets to visit the island sell out rather quickly. Visitors can get a chance to see the main cell blocks and stroll past the island’s gardens and ruined buildings. Alcatraz is now a national park and one of California’s most popular attractions, with about 1.5 million visitors a year.