5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Alcatraz

On this day in 1963, Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco's Bay closed down and transfered out its last prisoners. Alcatraz remains an icon of American prisons for its harsh conditions and record for being inescapable. Here are 5 things you didn't know about Alcatraz...

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Al Capone Played Banjo in The Inmate Band The notorious gangster and mob boss was among the first prisoners to occupy the new Alcatraz federal prison in August 1934. Capone had bribed guards to receive preferential treatment while serving his tax-evasion sentence in Atlanta, but that changed after his transfer to the island prison. The conditions at Alcatraz broke Capone. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” he reportedly told his warden. In fact, Capone  became so cooperative that he was permitted to play banjo in the Alcatraz prison band, the Rock Islanders, which gave regular Sunday concerts for other inmates.

In Spite of His Nickname, The “Birdman of Alcatraz” Had No Birds in The Prison While Robert Stroud was serving a manslaughter sentence for killing a bartender in a brawl, he fatally stabbed a guard at Leavenworth Prison in 1916. After President Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to a life of permanent solitary confinement, Stroud began to study ornithological diseases, wrote and illustrated two books, and raised birds in his Leavenworth cell. He was ordered to give up his birds in 1931, and he was banned from having any avian cellmates during his 17 years inside Alcatraz, which began in 1942. The 1962 movie “Birdman of Alcatraz,” for which Burt Lancaster received an Academy Award nomination just weeks before “The Rock” closed, was largely fictitious.

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Prisoners Requested to Be Transferred to Alcatraz Despite the harsh conditions of Alcatraz — which were tough even for Al Capone to handle — the prison became an attractive option for prisoners because of the one-inmate-per-cell policy. Such an arrangement made prisoners less susceptible to attacks by other inmates. As such, prisoners from other jails requested to be sent to Alcatraz. Further, the prison was known for serving good food, which prison wardens believed helped cut back on prison riots. Plus, inmates were free to get second helpings. Inmates displaying good behavior had access to privileges including monthly movies and a library with 15,000 books and 75 popular magazine subscriptions.

The Odds Of Escaping Alcatraz Were Slim The location of the prison in San Francisco Bay surrounded by frigid waters made escaping extremely difficult. In fact, it's assumed that anyone who ever tried to escape never made it. They were either killed by prison guards, recaptured, or drowned. However, three inmates were never found after attempting to escape in 1962 by making a raft out of raincoats. That said, it's assumed that they didn't make it to dry land alive, as the chances of making it given the water conditions and the distance from the island to the mainland were slim.

Prison Guards Lived on the Island With Their Families Considering the location of Alcatraz on an island in San Francisco Bay, it would have been difficult for prison guards to commute to and from the prison from the mainland. Instead, they lived on the island, along with their families, in separate housing that used to be Civil War barracks. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.