Season 2 – Episode 02: Alcatraz

Do you think you’d be able to escape from Alcatraz? This episode we discuss the 36 men who tried (including a few who might have succeeded), as well as the construction and history of this infamous prison.

The island of Alcatraz is known by many as “The Rock” and for good reason. Before being the site of the infamous US federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963 this 9 hectare island was used as a US military prison as far back as 1861 and as a military fort beginning in the early 1800s. Through its entire history nothing has ever been able to grow and no freshwater has ever been found, even when digging wells dozens of metres Ito the stone ground, meaning that for over 150 years any supplies needed had to be shipped in by boat.

When the first prisoners were held on Alcatraz the island was still primarily a fortification holding only up to 30 prisoners at a time, up until 1899 when this skyrocketed to 400 including military prisoners from the US Civil War, the US’s involvement in Southeast Asia, and the Mexican Border Wars. Over the next decade military prison infrastructure would be built until a permanent prison building was constructed in 1910. This however was not the Alcatraz we think of today, being a relatively low security prison built out of wood with frequent escape attempts. 

But by 1913 the image of a military prison so close to the vibrant commercial and residential areas of San Fransisco was a bad look, with many feeling it gave the idea that such a large military prison suggested that the US military included a high number of misbehaving officers. Many ideas were floated for what to do with this island, including suggestions to use it for a west-coast equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, but ultimately in 1933 it was transferred to the Department Of Justice for use as a federal prison.

A lot of work would need to be accomplished to ensure the safety of the residents of nearby San Fransisco. This mostly wooden prison would be rebuilt with hacksaw proof steel bars and grates on every cell, door, and window, and all the wood construction would be replaced with concrete. Guard towers would be built with visibility of prisoners throughout the facility and equipped with tear gas and mounted guns, and Alcatraz would be outfitted with new technology such as mechanical locking systems, making it one of the first instances of using a control panel rather than individual locks and keys to open and close each cell. 

On top of these impressive security measures the location of the island itself would be a massive deterrent for escape attempts. A whole 2km off the coast of California the water surrounding the island was extremely cold, had a tide that would pull potential escapees back into the ocean, and if that weren’t enough the water was also home to great white sharks. This however did not stop 36 prisoners from participating in a total of 14 escape attempts, including one final attempt in 1962 when 3 prisoners successfully made it off the island in rafts they’d built out of raincoats. While they are presumed to have drowned their bodies were never found, which in addition to the millions of dollars needed in repairs would contribute to the final closing of the prison in 1963.


Image Gallery

Alcatraz Island 1934 | Alcatraz Aerial Cell | Escape attempt paper mache heads | Al Capone | Cell block


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Music by: John Julius –

Edited by: Astronomic Audio

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