Alcatraz operated for less than 30 years.

  • View of Alcatraz prison
View of Alcatraz prison
Credit: Shelby Cohron/ Unsplash

Alcatraz is one of the most infamous prisons in U.S. history, but its reputation has outlived the relatively short time it was operational. The small Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was transformed into a fortress in the mid-19th century, and during the Civil War, it was used as a military prison. By the early 1900s, the fortress was no longer considered an effective defense outpost, and in 1934, the U.S. Department of Justice repurposed it as a federal prison. 

Violence and crime were prevalent during the Prohibition era and Great Depression, and Alcatraz was seen as a maximum-security solution for some of the most feared criminals of the early 20th century. Throughout the summer and fall of 1934, groups of prisoners including mobster Al Capone and violent robber George “Machine Gun” Kelly were shipped to “The Rock,” as the island became known; other infamous figures such as mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, and drug and gambling kingpin Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson joined in later years. 

The prison’s operating costs, however, were unsustainably high. A 1959 report revealed that Alcatraz cost three times more to operate per prisoner than other comparable facilities, and in March 1963, just 29 years after it opened, the prison was closed. The island sat neglected, and discussions about its future use lingered for years. In 1972, after a group of Native American activists had occupied the land for almost two years, the property came under the purview of the National Park Service. Today, Alcatraz Island welcomes more than 1.5 million visitors to its storied rocky shores each year.

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