Alcatraz, that most famous of American correctional facilities, has been a national park longer than it was a Federal prison. It housed Federal inmates from 1933 to 1963, a mere 30 years. The island’s history goes back much further. Its name comes from the Spanish for Island of the Pelicans, though the birds no longer nest there. It was reserved as a military installation in 1850 and served as a military prison from the Civil War until 1946.
“The Rock” was for the worst of the worst in the Federal Prison system. The waters of San Francisco Bay separated escapees from freedom. There were two well-known escape attempts; in 1946, prisoners overpowered guards and took them as hostages, in what would be later the Battle of Alcatraz. This was immortalized in 1947’s Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster, a film very violent and gritty for its day. It’s also highly fictionalized, but worth hunting down. The more famous escape was fictionalized in the Clint Eastwood vehicle, Escape from Alcatraz, and it was recently proved, using tide tables and by tracking the currents, that the three men who took rafts into the bay might have survived. There were reported sightings of the escapees, particularly at the funeral of one prisoner’s mother, that give credence to the idea. And with the San Francisco skyline so tantalizingly close across the water, inmates were bound to have dreams of freedom on their minds.