14 Astounding Facts About Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island, located in San Francisco Bay, California, operated as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Prior to that, it was a fort and a military prison. Several infamous criminals spent time on “The Rock,” including Al Capone and Robert Stroud, before it closed down when it became too expensive to maintain.

While you may know the basics about this infamous penitentiary, there are some chilling facts you probably haven’t heard. Read more about the escape attempts, paranormal activity, and other interesting occurrences at this island of incarceration…

Alvin Francis Karpowicz Was One Of The Four Men Dubbed ‘Public Enemy #1’ By The FBI

Inmate Alvin Francis “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz spent more time at Alcatraz than any other prisoner. He was known for his scary smile, and he was a big-time criminal during the Depression. He was a member of the Barker Gang, which was notorious for its bank robberies, burglaries, kidnappings, and auto theft.

fingerprints
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

He spent 25 years at Alcatraz and was transferred to another prison when it closed. At one point, Karpis had his fingerprints removed by underworld physician Joseph Moran.

Guards Perpetuated The Myth That Sharks Would Eat Prisoners Who Tried To Escape

Legend had it that escaping from Alcatraz was impossible because the San Francisco Bay was full of sharks, which had a taste for humans. But it was merely a legend and far from the truth. There were sharks in the bay; however, they were bottom feeders who were no threat to people.

1_ahj
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The guards perpetuated this myth to keep inmates from even trying to escape. If they did manage to get into the ocean, they would have struggled with extremely cold temperatures, strong currents, and a one-plus mile swim to shore. Drowning was also a major possibility.

Alcatraz Provided Hot Showers For A Chilling Reason

Not many prisons provided hot showers for inmates, but Alcatraz was the exception, and it wasn’t because the state felt that residents deserved a little bit of luxury. In reality, higher-ups thought if the inmates got used to the hot showers they wouldn’t be able to handle the San Francisco Bay’s frigid waters.

GettyImages-515298724
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

The theory was that this would prevent the prisoners from escaping. Still, a few men tried to escape anyway even though it was a very bad idea.

The Ghost Of Al Capone May Be Lurking In The Prison Today

Al Capone was a model prisoner, so he was given some privileges, including permission to play the banjo. Fellow inmates enjoyed the music, and he knew hundreds of songs. Sometimes he spent his recreational time practicing in the shower room.

Al Capone
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Not too long ago a park ranger, who didn’t know the story, claimed to hear banjo music in the shower area. There have been other employees and visitors who have also reported hearing the music. Is it possible that Capone’s ghost is responsible for the eerie sounds?

Many Men Tried And Failed To Escape

Thirty-six prisoners tried to escape from Alcatraz when it was a federal penitentiary. Twenty-three were caught, six were fatally shot, two gave up, and five were deemed “missing and presumed drowned.”

Alcatraz escape
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Today, highly-trained athletes participate in the Alcatraz Triathlon every year, an annual event that’s been held since 1980. It includes a 1.5-mile swim to San Francisco, an eight-mile run, and an 18-mile bike ride. So, it is possible to swim from the island to shore, but only if you’re in really good shape.

The First Escape Attempt Ended Really Badly

Prisoner Joe Bowers was the first person who tried to escape from Alcatraz. In 1936, Bowers attempted to scale a chain-link fence located on the edge of the property. While he did get off the island, he was not in any condition to enjoy shore life.

escape attempt
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Guards spotted Bowers on the fence, and he refused to get off of it. This forced one of the officers to shoot him. Bowers wound up falling between 50 to 100 feet. He did not survive.

Alcatraz Island Was The Perfect Spot For A Prison Because Of The Rocks

When you think of an island, you may think of a pleasant tropical location. Well, Alcatraz Island is anything but. Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala discovered it in 1775 and named it La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans. Prisoners, on the other hand, called it “The Rock.”

Alcatraz is a barren island
Barney Peterson/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Barney Peterson/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The reason why is the island is incredibly barren. There are no beaches, no flowing water, and very little vegetation. The first surveyor who visited the area believed it was too rocky to house any structures at all. Yet, it became a very fitting spot to host a federal penitentiary.

The Cells Were Frighteningly Small

If you had claustrophobia, Alcatraz was definitely a place to avoid. The cells in the penitentiary were comparable to the size of a closet. They measured just five feet by nine feet, which sounds like a decent amount of space until you realize that you can touch the walls of the cell by merely stretching out your arms.

The cell pictured is like that of all the other prisoners on Alcatraz
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

These cells were barely big enough to house a cot, toilet, and sink. If you wanted a bigger cell, you had to get to D block. The downside? These cells were for solitary confinement.

The Most Defiant Criminals Were Sent to Alcatraz

What type of men had to serve time at Alcatraz? Unlike most penitentiaries, criminals weren’t automatically sent to Alcatraz. Those who were shipped to the island weren’t necessarily the worst or most violent on the block. Instead, those whom guards had a hard time handling and those who were very defiant ended up on the Rock.

Defiant Criminals were sent to Alcatraz
Sabri Celebioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Sabri Celebioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The idea was to make these offenders shape up and learn how to obey the rules. If they did so, they would eventually be transferred to another prison.

Prisoners Were Incarcerated For An Indeterminate Amount Of Time

What made Alcatraz unique was that the prisoners who spent time there didn’t have set sentences. Most of them spent between six and eight years there, and that time was based on how long it took them to behave properly.

Prisoners Were Incarcerated For An Indeterminate Amount Of Time
Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Inmates who transformed into “model prisoners” would eventually leave Alcatraz. They either transferred to their original prison or were given parole. Still, many of them had to serve multiple life sentences, so they had the potential of serving time on the Rock for many, many years.

Some Prisoners Actually Babysat The Officers’ Children

Do you remember your babysitter growing up? Did you like him or her? Well, your childhood caregiver was probably a bit more low-key than the ones that worked at Alcatraz. The prison was a minimal-security facility prior to 1933, and several inmates passed the time by babysitting.

long row of cells
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

They would watch some of the children of the officers. Can you imagine what that would have been like for the kids? By the time Al Capone arrived in 1934 (and it was transformed into a federal penitentiary), the prison no longer allowed inmates to babysit.

The Prison Had A Dungeon

The “Spanish Dungeon” consisted of a block of cells situated below A block at Alcatraz. Rumors about the dungeons were rampant, and some former prisoners claimed they were built during the Spanish Inquisition (which they weren’t), while others insisted the dungeons were built under the water line.

Alcatraz had a dungeon
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

While the dungeons did exist, they were built 100 feet above (not below) the water line. They remained open until 1942 when the Bureau of Prisons director discontinued their use because he thought they were cruel and unusual punishment.

‘Machine Gun’ Kelly Spent Nearly Two Decades at Alcatraz

Notorious criminal George “Machine Gun” Kelly was a bootlegger who conspired with his wife Kathryn Thorne to kidnap a wealthy businessman for ransom. They were sentenced to life in prison, and Kelly wound up at Alcatraz during the same period as Capone.

Kelly mugshot
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Kelly loved bragging about his criminal activities, but eventually he felt some remorse and wrote a letter to his victim, apologizing for his crime. He never received a response. Kelly spent 17 years on the Rock before being transferred back to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. He died there in 1954 following a heart attack.

The Prison Was Previously A Military Fort

Before Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary, it was a fort. In 1850, it was turned into a military base with the purpose of defending San Francisco Bay. A jailhouse was built on the property in 1867, and during the Spanish-American War of 1898 its prison held 450 inmates.

Prison Was Previously A Military Fort
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

The prison was expanded over the following 15 years with large concrete cells. This block of cells still remains on the island today. In 1933, the military part of the fort was decommissioned, and it was turned over to the Prisons Bureau.