Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Jake. Jake Wonders, “Why did Alcatraz shut down?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Jake!
From classic books like The Count of Monte Cristo to modern movies like The Shawshank Redemption and television shows like Prison Break, people have always been fascinated by stories of wrongfully-imprisoned people escaping from jail. There's nothing quite like the tale of someone overcoming all odds to break their bonds of confinement.
Have you ever thought about what a task it would be to break out of a jail? Prisons are built with one goal in mind: keeping prisoners inside. From locked cells and thick walls to armed security guards and lookout towers, escaping from prison is no easy feat.
This is particularly true of one of the most famous prisons in U.S. history. It sits upon an island known as "The Rock" in chilly San Francisco Bay. According to official records, no one ever successfully escaped from the fortress known as Alcatraz.
Alcatraz takes its name from the name given to the island by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775: La Isla de los Alcatraces or "Island of the Pelicans." In 1850, President Fillmore converted the island to military use. A fortress was built, cannons were installed, and the West Coast's first operational lighthouse was constructed.
The U.S. Army also began to use Alcatraz to house military prisoners. It was the perfect spot for a prison, because it was isolated and everyone assumed that no prisoner could successfully escape by swimming across the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.
In the early 1900s, military prisoners helped to build a new, 600-cell jail, as well as a hospital, cafeteria, and other prison buildings. In 1933, Alcatraz was transferred to the U.S. Justice Department for use as a federal prison for prisoners too dangerous to be kept at other penitentiaries.
After new security upgrades, Alcatraz officially opened as a federal prison on July 1, 1934. The Bureau of Prisons looked at Alcatraz as "the prison system's prison." In other words, it's where other prisons could send their most dangerous and disruptive inmates to live under harsh conditions with few privileges in order to learn how to behave within the prison system.
Alcatraz usually held between 260-275 prisoners. Each prisoner had his own cell, and there was one guard for about every three prisoners. Some of the famous prisoners associated with Alcatraz included Al "Scarface" Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz, and Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud.
Even though Alcatraz was considered inescapable, prisoners certainly did try. What else would you expect from the worst prisoners in the system? In total, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 prisoners.
Of those attempting to escape, 23 were captured, six were shot and killed during their attempt, two drowned, and five went missing and were officially presumed dead. While some people believe it's possible that one or more of the five who went missing successfully escaped, there is no evidence to suggest anyone escaped successfully.
Over the years, several people have proved that it's possible to swim from Alcatraz to the mainland. However, it's a difficult feat in the extremely cold waters of the bay that would've been even more difficult for prisoners who had no chance to train for such a difficult physical test of endurance.
Alcatraz was shut down in 1963 because it was simply too expensive to keep operating. All supplies had to be shipped to the island at great expense, and the island's exposure to the elements was taking its toll on the buildings.
In 1972, Alcatraz was made part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Today, over one million tourists visit Alcatraz each year, where they can tour the old buildings and see what life was like inside "The Rock" so long ago.