North America, United States
Alcatraz Island or The Rock, as it is often called, is located in the waters of San Francisco Bay and is famous for its federal prison which has held some of the United States’ most notorious criminals over the years.
Alcatraz Island was discovered and named by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. The name - La Isla de los Alcatraces or the Island of Pelicans was given thanks to the large population of seabirds which inhabited here. It wasn’t until 1850, however, that the island was reserved for military use under President Millard Fillmore. At this point a fortress, cannons and an operational lighthouse were all constructed on the island.
Alcatraz was originally only used to house military prisoners – it was felt that the island’s location in the cold, strong waters of San Francisco Bay meant that nobody could possibly survive an escape attempt thus making it the perfect place for a prison.
An extended prison, built to hold 600 cells, was built in the early 20th century and still stands on the island today. It was this building which led to Alcatraz becoming a federal prison and in 1933 the Army released Alcatraz to the US Justice System who wanted a prison which could handle particularly difficult or dangerous prisoners. The prison continued in operation until 1963, housing a total of 1,576 men until it was closed because it was felt that its operational costs were too high compared to other federal institutions.
Some of the most famous inmates to have done time at Alcatraz included American gangster of the prohibition era Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly who spent 17 years on The Rock after a kidnapping conviction and, of course, Robert Stroud – also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.
The original theory of Alcatraz being impossible to escape from was seemingly proved true as over the years there were 14 separate escape attempts, involving 36 inmates, all of which ended in the prisoners being recaptured, killed or drowning. These attempts have led to the island having the ‘Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon’ where competitors embark on a 1.5 mile swim from the island to the shore, an 18 mile bike ride and an 8 mile run to prove that under the right circumstances (no armed guards is a good start) it is possible to escape from the island!
If triathlons aren’t your thing then fear not as you can still visit the island - Alcatraz Prison is a popular daytrip for visitors from San Francisco with ferries running to and from the island regularly throughout the day.
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