Thursday, March 21, 2013

This Day in Criminal History (Alcatraz, Federal Prisoner of the Desperate, Closes)

March 21, 1963—Alcatraz, the maximum-security federal prison on an island just outside San Francisco, closed after 29 years of housing some of the most vicious criminals in American history, including Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and Robert Stroud, the so-called “Bird Man of Alcatraz.”

The island had an interesting history before its time as a federal prison—including as a Union Army prison in the Civil War—as well as afterward. (Its seizure by the American Indian Movement in the Sixties brought renewed focus to the plight of Native Americans.) But it was as an especially severe penal institution which brought it lasting fame.

Its 1934 opening as a U.S. prison was born of the need to contain a generation of hardened criminals who had arisen during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. The remoteness of Alaska had caused that territory to be considered for awhile, but the availability of Alcatraz led Franklin Roosevelt’s Attorney-General, Homer Cummings, to press for that site instead. This did not sit well with local citizens who were terrified by the chance that any of these criminals might bust loose, but the government's Bureau of Prisons had its way.

Running such an institution required considerable organizational ability. The warden of Alcatraz for its first 14 years, James A. Johnston, possessed that in abundance, along with a reputation early in his career for outlawing corporal punishment and separating hardened prisoners from new inmates at San Quentin.

Johnson’s record at Alcatraz was mixed. The emphasis at the prison was the severe limits on privileges for inmates, and the comparatively small number confined to the island (never more than 260) ensured that guards knew each one by name, personally, and could concentrate their full attention on keeping them in line. Moreover, suicides of several of inmates underscored Johnson’s inability to grasp mental illness. On the other hand, despite its soul-destroying isolation, many inmates came to feel that, compared with other prisons, they would not be subjected to arbitrary punishment by guards. So long as they obeyed the rules, it was generally felt, they would be left alone. In time, they might be transferred to another facility.

Some decided they couldn’t wait that long to get off “The Rock.” Fourteen separate escape attempts were made by 36 men (including two who tried to get out twice). Their fate didn’t inspire confidence in the remaining:

*23 were caught;
*6 were shot and killed while escaping;
*2 drowned;
* 5 are presumed drowned or missing.
By 1963, the cold, choppy waters of San Francisco Bay--which had done much to inhibit the approximately 1,500 criminals from making a break for it--had begun to work against its further use. The complex began to deteriorate under the effects of the saltwater, and was not helped by severe budget cuts. Those factors, along with the high cost-per-prisoner of the structure compared with others around the country, persuaded Attorney-General Robert Kennedy to close Alcatraz.

After the last prisoners were transferred out of Alcatraz, the U.S. prison stood vacant for several years, as proposals were entertained for alternative uses (e.g., a West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty, a shopping center/hotel complex). Its seizure by the American Indian Movement twice in the Sixties not only brought renewed focus to the plight of Native Americans, but also led the government to consider anew how to make best use of the site.

The island was opened to the public in the fall of 1973 as a National Park Service unit, and since then has become one of the most popular in the entire Park Service, with more than one million visitors every year from around the world. That popularity has been assured by major Hollywood films that keep alive the fort's memory as a lonesome, terrifying place, including Bird Man of Alcatraz and Escape From Alcatraz. The island is also considered an ecological preserve, home to one of the largest western gull colonies on the northern California coast.
(Photo shows Alcatraz from Pier 39 in San Francisco.)

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