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Alcatraz - No Escape
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© Christine Till
Sitting like a beacon in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, between San Francisco and Oakland, California, is Alcatraz Island.
Long before Alcatraz became home to some of the most notorious outlaws in the country, it was known as a place to be avoided by Native Americans who believed it to contain evil spirits. The first Europeans to visit the island were the Spanish in 1769, who named it "Isla de los Alcatraces," or "Island of the Pelicans," for its large pelican colony. Later the name was shortened to Alcatraz.
In 1848, after the end of the Mexican-American War, California, along with the island, came under the control of the United States Army which built a fortress atop the sandstone outcropping. In 1861, 10,000 muskets and 150,000 cartridges of ammunition were sent to Fort Alcatraz and the island became the most powerful fort west of the Mississippi River.
Alcatraz was designated as a military prison. Like most prisons of the time, the conditions in the cell house were terrible, with men sleeping on the stone floors, side-by-side. With no heat, running water or sanitary facilities in the cells, sickness became common among the prisoners. By 1933 the army decided that the island was too expensive to operate. Its location was the biggest problem, with the high costs of importing water, food and supplies.
At this time, America's gangster era was in full swing. Alcatraz was the ideal solution to the problem. The army transferred the island to the Bureau of Prisons, and a "super-prison' was created that would instill fear in the minds of would-be criminals, offered no means of escape, and a place where inmates could be safely controlled. On January 1, 1934 the process of upgrading Alcatraz to an "escape-proof" maximum security prison began. It became the legendary prison that seemed both necessary and appropriate. No prisoner was directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Instead, they "earned" their transfer to the island from other prisons by attempting to escape, exhibiting unmanageable behavior, or those that had been receiving special privileges, like Al Capone. Alcatraz became home to the worst of the worst criminal elements in the nation. Life was hell for the prisoners on "the rock", and in no time it was dubbed "Hellcatraz." It was so forbidding that it was eventually nicknamed "Uncle Sam's Devil's Island."
Primarily due to rising costs, its isolated location, and deteriorating facilities, and after prison operating philosophy had changed to reinstitution and rehabilitation, rather than the wholesale warehousing of inmates, the doors of Alcatraz closed on March 21, 1963. Though one of America's most escape proof prisons, Alcatraz served as an experiment that would never again be repeated. Segregation on this scale had never before been seen and would never again be practiced.
In 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the island became part of the National Park Service. The park opened in the fall of 1973. Since then, Alcatraz has become one of the most popular of the Park Service sites, with more than a million visitors every year.
August 31st, 2012
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