Alcatraz Prison (1934-1963)

Alcatraz Island, known as "the rock" is a small island 1.25 miles west of San Francisco, California. The island has facilities for a lighthouse (oldest operating on the West Cost of America), military fortification and prison, and a federal prison which was in use from 1934 until 1963.

Aerial photograph of Alcatraz island (1934) 

Alcatraz federal prison was a high-security prison and it's high visibility and proximity to San Francisco was intended to display the federal government's seriousness about fighting crime, especially after a wave of crime in the 1920's and 30's. The prison became famous for housing the most dangerous criminals in the federal prison system, such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, either the most violent or the most likely to make escape attempts.

Alcatraz prison never reached it capacity of 336 inmates. Prison life was tough and repetitive and privileges were earned based on behavior. The average length of stay for an inmate was 5 years, after which most prisoners would be transferred to a less intense federal prison. There were 36 recorded escape attempts from Alcatraz prison out of over 1,500 men who were incarcerated there between 1934 and 1963. Five were successful escapes and 31 were either captured and returned or died during their escape attempt.

Alcatraz was closed as a prison in 1963 since the federal government decided it was more cost-effective to build a high-security prison on the mainland, rather than maintain the high operating costs of bringing supplies to Alcatraz by boat.  Since 1972 Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is managed by the National Park Service. Alcatraz island receives over a million visitors a year. 

Page from Alcatraz prison warden’s notebook, with mug shot and notes about Robert Stroud, aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz" who had murdered a guard at another federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas (1942).
Architectural plan of Alcatraz Prison Towers at the Dock and Power House (1940)


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.

Featured collection

About the Author

Ari Siegel is the founder and CEO of and After growing up hearing WWII stories from both of his
grandfathers, he studied history at the University of Michigan. While working
in Washington D.C. and giving tours of the U.S. Capitol building, he was
inspired to take some of the thousands of historic documents that belong to the
American people, and make them more accessible.