Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The History of Alcatraz

Photo by D. Ramey Logan, Wikimedia Commons

By Nancy J. Farrier

Where did the island of Alcatraz get its name? The Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala first sailed into the San Francisco Bay in 1775. He and his crew mapped the bay and he named one of the islands “Alcatraces”  or Island of the Pelicans. There is a large and varied bird population on the island which prompted the name. Over the years the name was changed to Alcatraz.


Cannon on Alcatraz Island

A presidential order in 1850 set the island aside for military purposes. A citadel or fortress was built and one hundred cannons were put around the island as a means of protection from anyone trying to invade the U.S. at this entry point.


In the latter part of that decade, the government began to send military prisoners to be housed on the island. For the next forty to fifty years there was no call for using the cannons, but the prison aspect of the island was put to use. 


Stairs leading to prison.

In 1933, the U.S. Army transferred the island to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Federal Bureau of Prison wanted to use Alcatraz as a maximum security, minimum privilege prison. They would only send the most corrupt or dangerous prisoners to this island. They hoped to slow the increase of horrible crime that erupted in the 1920’s and 1930’s.


Alcatraz prison cell

Alcatraz was never at full capacity. Able to hold 336 prisoners, only one prisoner to a cell, the average number of inmates fluctuated between 260 and 275. Many of those prisoners were well known mobsters such as Al Capone, George “machine-Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis (the 1st public enemy #1), and Arthur “Doc” Barker. 


Possibly the most famous prisoner was Robert Stroud, also known as the “Birdman

Photo Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons

of Alcatraz.” He was not like the character in the movie portrayed by Burt Lancanster. He didn’t have birds as pets. He was a murderer and while in Leavenworth, he murdered a guard. He was sent to Alcatraz and spent 17 years there in solitary confinement, part of that time in a darkened cell and part in the infirmary. 


Stroud did have an interest in birds. He studied books on birds and while at Alcatraz wrote two books about canaries and their diseases. Even in prison he was able to fool the guards. He requested items for scientific research and used them to build a still for making home-brew. 


I recently visited Alcatraz with my family when we were on vacation. The visit didn’t excite me, but once there, the history pulled me in. I was fascinated by the stories and the first-hand accounts I listened to on the audio tour. 


Solitary Confinement
Cell - Alcatraz

One of the reflections that disturbed me the most was from a former inmate. He talked about being thrown into solitary, a cell that when the door closed would be dark and cave-like. He said the first thing he did when the cell door slammed shut was rip a button from his shirt. He would then drop it on the floor and search for it. He did that over and over to maintain sanity. Others talked about watching movies in their mind to try to keep from going crazy after hours in the dark. 


City view from Alcatraz Island

Another former prisoner talked about hearing the New Year’s celebrations on the mainland while they were confined to their cells. He said that was hard to listen to when they had nothing to celebrate and little to bring light in their lives.


The cells that were most popular and sought after were the ones closest to the bank of windows. The prisoners in those cells would not have a view of the outside, but would get some sunlight on the days the sun was shining. They all wanted that.


The guards and their families that lived on the island had a nice social life. They had parties and dances. It was quite the contrast to the prisoners lives.

Alcatraz Greenhouse

Alcatraz had its own garden where herbs and vegetables were raised. There was a small greenhouse for plants that couldn't grow outside year round.


Alcatraz prison closed March 21, 1963. By this time the prison needed extensive upkeep and the expense was too much so they closed it instead. 


Now, the island is a major tourist attraction. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is now open to the public and around a million tourists visit each year.


Alcatraz exercise yard

Have you ever visited Alcatraz? There is so much more I could have included but the post would be too long. Alcatraz Island is cold, even in July when we were there. My daughter and I walked out into the exercise yard and the wind was so fierce and chilly we didn’t stay long. Still, I imagine it was nice for the prisoners to get the chance to be outside even for a short time. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next month, I’ll be talking about the Alcatraz escapes. If you are interested in hearing the audio tour, here is a link to the audio on YouTube.

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:



  1. Thank you for the post! That place sounds awful. I guess it's a good thing that the history of it made it interesting for you. And I suppose that we should visit all kinds of places, not just the "happy" places. It puts a lot of our own lives into perspective, I guess.

    1. Connie, the tour was really fascinating. There was so much I couldn't include. If you ever get the chance, I encourage you to visit.

  2. thank you for sharing this post. that place has always interested me, yet not.

    1. Yes, Lori. Same for me. But it was such an interesting place.

  3. Fascinating. I know a bit about the prison, but never thought to ask about the name.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I thought that was interesting too. They have a lot of different bird species that nest on the island.

  4. We have visited the prison and I found it very interesting.

  5. Hi Nancy! I visited there several years ago, the tour was very interesting but it was not a happy place. Thank you for another interesting post!

  6. Thank you, Linda. You are right, it isn't a happy place.