10 Alcatraz Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

Alcatraz, famously known as ‘The Rock,’ is more than just a notorious prison that once held Al Capone. This iconic island has a rich history and hidden stories that often go unnoticed. If you’re planning an Alcatraz tour, read on to discover some fun Alcatraz facts that will be sure to impress.

alcatraz island with a blue bay and blue sky

1. Alcatraz Island Was Built as a Fort

Although Alcatraz Prison is one of the most infamous prisons in the world, it wasn’t originally built as a prison. President Millard Fillmore declared it a military reservation in 1850. It only transitioned into a military prison in 1907 and joined the Bureau of Prisons in 1933.

2. Alcatraz Prison Officers Planted Gardens

The Gardens of Alcatraz are a well-known part of the prison, but not many people know that they were started by the officers who worked there. Due to the harsh, barren landscape, particularly hardy plants were chosen and cultivated by both the prison staff and the inmates. Today they are maintained by the National Park Service, adding a touch of life to the rocky island.

3. Families Used to Live on Alcatraz Island

Being a prison officer on Alcatraz was so intense that the families of officers sometimes lived on the island too. Several children grew up there, forming an Alumni Association and sharing unique childhood memories of this isolated location.

4. There Was No Death Row at Alcatraz Prison

During its time as a prison, Alcatraz had no facilities for execution and never put any of its prisoners to death, although some Alcatraz inmates did die there. Prisoner violence was a big problem, which meant that some prisoners did die at the hands of others, while some committed suicide. 

5. Native American Activists Occupied Alcatraz Prison

It is widely known that Native American activists were incarcerated in Alcatraz Prison in the late 1800s, and some were even hanged there. In 1969, Native American activists occupied Alcatraz Island for two years, citing an 1868 law that granted unoccupied federal land to Native Americans. This little-known chapter of the island’s history showcases its role as a site of protest and activism.

hallway in alcatraz prison with the old bricks and doors open

6. Alcatraz Island Had the Pacific Coast’s First Lighthouse

Incredible though it may seem, in 1854, Alcatraz became home to the Pacific Coast’s first lighthouse, shedding light on maritime safety. Although replaced by a larger lighthouse in 1909, its historical significance remains. 

7. No Prisoner Officially Escaped

One of the most questioned Alcatraz facts is regarding prisoner escape stories. Contrary to popular belief, there are no confirmed reports of prisoners escaping from Alcatraz during its tenure as a high-security prison. Some military prisoners did walk away when it was a military post, but it remained unbreached after becoming a prison. 

8. Prisoners Requested Transfers to Alcatraz Prison

Although Hollywood would have us believe that Alcatraz Prison was the worst of all prisons, it actually had some advantages that made it attractive to some inmates. Its single-cell occupancy rule and the apparently high-quality food meant that some prisoners actually asked to be transferred there. 

9. Alcatraz Prison Was Never Full

The highest number of prisoners ever reported to be incarcerated at Alcatraz Prison was 320, but the average was actually 260 and sometimes there were as few as 222. This doesn’t quite fit with the popular idea of the over-populated prison that we often see in films. 

10. Alcatraz Prison Was Named After Pelicans

In 1775, Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala named the island ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces,’ meaning ‘Island of the Pelicans.’ Over time, this name was anglicized and shortened to ‘Alcatraz,’ preserving the island’s avian origins.

Whether you’re a history enthusiast or planning an Alcatraz visit, these lesser-known facts will add a layer of intrigue to your knowledge of this historic landmark. Alcatraz is more than just a prison; it’s a treasure trove of hidden stories waiting to be discovered.

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