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10 Facts About Alcatraz You Probably Didn't Know

Posted by Remy on October 6, 2017

The isolated fortress that once held Al Capone is known for its forbidding structure and its nickname of ‘The Rock’. But there are many facts about Alcatraz that many people simply don’t know due to all the myths that surround it. If you’re thinking of taking an Alcatraz tour, read on below to find out some little-known facts that you can use to impress your friends and family.

Exterior view of Alcatraz

It Was Built as a Fort

Although Alcatraz is one of the most infamous prisons in the world, it wasn’t originally built as a prison. It was actually a fort at first, declared as a military reservation by President Millard Fillmore in 1850. It didn’t become a military prison until 1907, and in 1933 it became part of the Bureau of Prisons. 

The 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. 

Families Used to Live There

Being a prison officer on Alcatraz was such a full-on job that the wives and children of officers sometimes lived on the island too. There are even people who grew up on Alcatraz and spent their whole childhoods there, and now have their own Alumni Association.

There Was No Death Row

During its time as a prison, Alcatraz had no facilities for execution and never put any of its prisoners to death, although some 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. 

Native American Activists Occupied It

It is widely known that Native American activists were incarcerated in Alcatraz in the late 1800s, and some were even hanged there. However, many people do not know that Native American activists occupied the island for two years starting in 1969. They cited an 1868 that granted unoccupied federal land to Native Americans.

Alcatraz interior

It Had the Pacific Coast’s First Lighthouse

Incredible though it may seem, the first lighthouse on the west coast was set on top of Alcatraz in 1854. It was replaced by a larger lighthouse in 1909, but for a short while it remained the Pacific Coast’s first lighthouse. 

No Prisoner Officially Escaped

There are no confirmed reports that any prisoners escaped from Alcatraz during its time as a prison. When it was a military post, some imprisoned soldiers did simply walk away, but after its status changed to a high security prison it remained unbreeched. 

Prisoners Requested Transfers There

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

It Was Never Full

The highest number of prisoners ever reported to be incarcerated at Alcatraz 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. 

It’s Named After Pelicans

The island was named in 1775, long before it became the home of a fortress, by a Spanish Lieutenant named Juan Manuel de Ayala. He decided to call it ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’, meaning ‘Island of the Pelicans’. This then became Anglicised and shorted to ‘Alcatraz’.

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