Alcatraz: United States Penitentiary As a resultof the Great Depression, a new breed of violentcriminals swept the streets of America. Inresponse to the cries of alarmed citizens,Congress enacted a number of statutes, which gavethe federal government jurisdiction over certaincriminal offenses previously held by the states.With the suggestion of former US Attorney General,Homes Cummings, Congress agreed that a specialpenal institution of maximum security and minimumprivilege be established. In 1934, the legendaryUS Penitentiary of Alcatraz was born and becamethe home of Americas most wanted for the nextthirty years. Once authorized by Congress, the USDepartment of Justice acquired control of AlcatrazIsland, previously a US Army compound. As theisland was redeveloped into a maximum-securityprison, seven of its twelve acres were enclosed ina prison compound. The remaining five were setaside for employee residences, apartments, andrecreational space.Soon after the redesigning ofthe old Army fortress, the Alcatraz prison wasready for the grand opening (or better saidlockout!).
Equipped with four differentcellblocks, A, B, C and D, the Rock began itsoperations on January 2, 1934. Although cellblockA was seldom used, B, C and D provided 378 cagesto accommodate the most notorious felons thatAmerica could produce. The first of four wardensto take charge of the penitentiary was a retired,professional administrator named James A.Johnston. The Department of Justice carefullyselected Johnston because he was a well-organized,no-nonsense businessman with over twelve years ofexperience in the California Department ofCorrections.
Under Johnston, another ninetyofficers were required to cover the threeeight-hour shifts (plus leave and vacation time).During its thirty years of service, close to 1545inmates resided at the Alcatraz penitentiary.Contrary to popular belief, Alcatraz was initiallymeant to confine only a few of the infamousheadline-makers of the era.
However, out of thetotal population ever to occupy this prison, thevast majority was not to be found on wantedposters adorning post office walls. The averagenumber of prisoners maintained in the prison (atone time) was 260, with a high count of 302 and alow count of 222 men. Although many stories existof escapes from Alcatraz, only three men weresuccessful in escaping the prison and the island,Morris and the Anglin brothers (June of 1962).Thirty-six prisoners were involved in attempts toescape: seven shot and killed, 2 drowned, 5unaccounted for and the rest recaptured.
Eventhough some men have made it off the island,survival still remains questionable. Alcatraz was,of course, home to Al Capone for about four and ahalf years. He was first transferred from USPenitentiary Atlanta in August of 1934.Capone wasalso among the first official shipment ofcriminals to be received at the Rock. Caponesarrival actually generated bigger headlines thanthe opening of the institution, giving birth tothe endless myth of Alcatraz. For this famousgangster, the influence and privileges hepossessed in Atlanta were lost at Alcatraz wherehe was assigned menial jobs in accordance withother inmates. More importantly, Capones transferto Alcatraz solved the problem caused by hisability to run his criminal organization fromjail.
Once at the Rock, the channel ofcommunication between Capone and his familymembers was simultaneously shut down. Arriving onthe second official shipment of prisoners wasGeorge Machine Gun Kelly.After an initialsentence at Leavenworth, Kelly emerged from prisonto a lucrative career in bank robbery andkidnapping. Kellys capture resulted in a courtroomsensation at the first Lindbergh Law Trial and alife-sentence that send him back to Leavenworth.He was transferred to the Penitentiary of Alcatrazin September of 1934 for a period of seventeenyears. After suffering a mild heart attack, he wasreturned to Leavenworth where he was paroled in1954.
Soon after his parole, a final heart attackended his life at the age of 59. In August of1936, another well-known celebrity named AlvinKarpis joined Capone and Kelly at Alcatraz. Afterbeing a fugitive on the run for fifteen years,Karpis was apprehended and taken into custody inNew Orleans.Karpis began his career as a pettythief who moved on to join Ma Barker in violentrampage of robbery and kidnapping.
It was duringthis time that Karpis gained the title of PublicEnemy No. 1, given to him by J. Edgar Hoover.After serving 26 years in Alcatraz, Karpis wastransferred and released for deportation toCanada.
After leaving Canada, Karpis assumedresidency and Spain and committed suicide in 1979.Finally, the United States Penitentiary ofAlcatraz was closed on March 21, 1963 and has notsince reopened. The island was turned over to theGeneral Services Administration (GSA) in May of1963 and later became a national park andmonument.
Today, Alcatraz has become one of thebiggest attractions of the San Francisco Bay-areaand has even inspired films such as The Rock, withSean Connery and Nicholas Cage. Even though theAlcatraz prison is dead, its legacy continues atother penal institutions such as the federalprison in Marion, IL, which operates in thefootsteps of Alcatraz. 1. Coy, Bernard Paul.Alcatraz46: The Anatomy of a Classic PrisonTragedy. Leswing Press, San Rafael, CA 1974.
2.Roberts, John W.Escaping Prison Myths. TheAmerican University Press, Washington , D.