There is no more celebrated criminal justice institution in American culture than Alcatraz, the “escape proof” prison located in San Francisco Bay. From legendary inmates like Al Capone to legendary escape attempts, the lore of Alcatraz is alive and well today, nearly 60 years after it closed.
Alcatraz became a federal prison in 1934, and was the “Super Max” of its day, housing the most dangerous and notorious criminals. The Federal Bureau of Prisons considered it escape proof, given its location on an island surrounded by the cold and dangerous waters of San Francisco Bay. Over the years, the prison housed infamous criminals like mobster Al Capone, Arthur Barker (the son of Ma Barker), George Barnes (“Machine Gun Kelly”), Elsworth Johnson (the “Godfather of Harlem”), and Robert Stroud (“The Birdman of Alcatraz”).
Over the years the prison was in operation, there were 14 attempts to escape the island, which you can read about here. Many of the attempts were thwarted before the inmates made it to the Bay. Yet several successfully made it into the water and swam for their freedom. Despite this, federal authorities believe all of the escapees died in the water, given how difficult swimming across the Bay is, even for the most experienced swimmers.
However, to this day there is consistent speculation about the fates of three escapees – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin (Mae famous by the movie “Escape from Alcatraz”). Evidence of their survival has accumulated over the years, however nothing definitive enough to prove it conclusively. (You can read an excellent recap of the evidence here). Unsolved Mysteries devoted an entire episode of its first season in 1989 to the prison and the Morris/Anglin escape. They attempted to re-create the escape to see if it was possible for the men to have survived (their verdict: it is very possible they did). In addition, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman analyzed the escape on Mythbusters and determined it is was possible the men successfully landed at the Marin Headlands.
Today, Alcatraz is under the care of the National Park Service and is being maintained while open to the public for tours. One of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions, a visit to Alcatraz is a welcome flashback to an era of larger than life criminals and the ghosts of the past. Departing from Pier 33, the ferry ride is spectacular in and of itself, with amazing views of the city, the Bay, and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Alcatraz is open seven days a week for tours. Advance reservations for the ferry are strongly recommended. Visit https://www.alcatrazcruises.com for the schedule and more information.