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A sinister place used for many years to incarcerate the most dangerous criminals of the United States – that’s the first association that comes to mind when someone mentions Alcatraz Island. Even though famous gangsters like Al Capone were indeed once imprisoned here, the island also has another surprising history. Alcatraz is more than just a prison.
The island of the pelicans – that’s the literal translation of ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’ as it was named by the Spaniards who first set foot here in 1775. These seabirds inhabited the island then and Alcatraz continues to be a nesting ground for many species of birds. Before it became a prison, the island also served as a military fort to protect the American mainland during the gold rush in the mid-19th century, when gold diggers travelled en masse to the California coast to try their luck.
When the gold hype died down, the fort was soon converted into a military detention base during the American Civil War, making it the first military prison in the country. As the number of prisoners increased, the facilities were expanded. In 1934, Alcatraz Island was placed under the administration of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and became a federal prison.
Obviously, it is the exciting stories about serious criminals and adventurous escape attempts that make Alcatraz the number 1 attraction in San Francisco. On entering the prison, each visitor receives an audio tour. The tour is available in several languages, but we recommend choosing the English version, since you get to hear the original voices of former prisoners, who talk about their time on ‘The Rock’, as the island is also called. Sounds of, for example, slamming cell doors, bring the stories to life. As you look through the window at the contours of the city, you can imagine what it must have been like to be locked up here.
In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal prison, there were no fewer than 14 escape attempts. These involved a total of 36 prisoners, 13 of whom succeeded in disappearing from the island for good.
In 1969, 6 years after the prison was closed, the island became a popular news item when it was occupied by Native Americans. They were protesting their limited civil rights and made unmistakably clear to the American government that they wanted to retain their cultural identity. The protest lasted close to 2 years. The island was ultimately designated a National Park in 1972 and, one year later, opened its doors to visitors. Around a million people visit Alcatraz each year.