Alcatraz Penitentiary Facts for Kids

From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island, situated in San Francisco Bay, served as a federal prison housing some of the most challenging and dangerous criminals in the United States. Alcatraz Penitentiary was host to many infamous inmates, including Al “Scarface” Capone (1899-1947), a legendary mobster, and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, a notorious killer (1890-1963).

Alcatraz Penitentiary is located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay

Here are the key facts and information about Alcatraz Island:

Origin of Alcatraz Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island

  • Alcatraz derived its name from the Spanish word “alcatraces.” In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first to arrive in San Francisco Bay, where one of the three islands was renamed Alcatraces.
  • Over time, the name was Anglicized and became popularly known as Alcatraz, with its exact meaning still debated. However, it is often interpreted as “pelican.”
  • In 1850, a presidential proclamation designated the island for future use as a United States military reservation. The California Gold Rush and the need to protect San Francisco Bay led to the construction of a Citadel, or fort, on the island’s summit in the early 1850s.
  • Alcatraz was intended to be the most heavily fortified military installation on the West Coast, along with Fort Point and Lime Point, forming a defensive triangle guarding the bay’s entrance. It also housed the first operating lighthouse on the U.S. West Coast.

Prison Life & Infamous Prisoners of Alcatraz

  • While Alcatraz housed notorious figures like Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, and Alvin Karpis, most of its inmates were not well-known gangsters. Many were violent, dangerous, or escape-prone.
  • The prison usually held between 260 and 275 inmates, never reaching its maximum capacity of 336. Some inmates preferred Alcatraz’s living conditions, such as single-cell confinement.
  • Inmates on Alcatraz had four fundamental rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. All other privileges, including work, family visits, library access, and leisure activities, had to be earned.
  • A rigorous daily schedule aimed to instill discipline and adherence to rules and regulations. Inmates could be transferred to Alcatraz if they failed to comply with prison rules elsewhere.
  • Notably, Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” spent 54 years in prison but never had birds on Alcatraz. He was convicted of manslaughter in 1909 and later murder. While in prison, he studied birds and authored books on canaries but also engaged in illicit activities.
  • Prisoners deemed no longer a threat, after an average of five years on Alcatraz, could be moved to another federal prison to complete their sentences.
Al Capone was a notorious inmate of Alcatraz Penitentiary
Prison photo of notorious gangster Al Capone

Famous Escape Attempts from Alcatraz Penitentiary

  • During Alcatraz’s 29-year operation, there were 14 known escape attempts involving 36 individuals, including two repeat escapees. Of these, 23 were apprehended, six were shot and killed while fleeing, and two drowned.
  • Two escapees were executed in California’s gas chamber for their involvement in the killing of a correctional officer during the “Battle of Alcatraz” escape attempt in 1946.
  • Officially, no one successfully escaped from Alcatraz, but five convicts remain classified as “lost and believed drowned.”

Prison Closure

  • Alcatraz closed on March 21, 1963, after 29 years of operation. Its closure was not due to escape attempts but because of the high operating costs.
  • Estimates indicated that $3-5 million would be needed for restoration and maintenance, not including daily operational expenses, which were significantly higher than at other federal prisons.
  • The physical isolation of the island contributed to the high costs, as all supplies, including water, had to be transported to Alcatraz by boat.
  • The federal government decided that constructing a new facility was more cost-effective than keeping Alcatraz open.

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Alcatraz Penitentiary 

Al Capone prison photo