Eighty-four years ago today, the most fortified prison in the world, Alcatraz, received its first shipment of federal prisoners after being transformed from a military prison.
In 1934, Alcatraz was fortified into a high-security federal penitentiary designed to hold the most dangerous prisoners in the US penal system, especially those with a penchant for escape attempts. The first shipment of civilian prisoners arrived on 11 August, 1934. Later that month, more shiploads arrived, featuring, among other convicts, the infamous mobster Al Capone. In September, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, another luminary of organised crime, also landed on Alcatraz.
Although some three dozen attempted to escape, no prisoner is known to have successfully escaped ‘The Rock’. The bodies of several escapees believed to have drowned in the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay were also never found. The story of the 1962 escape of three of these men, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, inspired the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz.
Another prisoner, John Giles, caught a boat ride to the shore in 1945 dressed in an army uniform he had stolen piece by piece, but he was questioned by a suspicious officer after disembarking and sent back to Alcatraz.
Only one man, John Paul Scott, was recorded to have reached the mainland by swimming, but he came ashore exhausted and hypothermic at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Police found him lying there unconscious and in a state of shock.
In 1963, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered Alcatraz closed, citing the high cost of its maintenance. In its 29-year run, Alcatraz housed more than 1 500 convicts.
In 1972, Alcatraz was opened to the public as part of the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is maintained by the National Park Service. More than one million tourists visit Alcatraz Island and the former prison annually.
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