First Prisoners Arrive at Alcatraz Prison (Likely Including Al Capone)
On August 11, 1934, a group of federal prisoners arrived at Alcatraz Island, a twenty-two-acre rock outcropping one-and-one-half miles offshore in San Francisco Bay.
The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was conceived of as a high-security, escape-proof fortress for federal prisoners considered either particularly dangerous, infamous, “incorrigible,” or presenting the greatest risk of flight. For the next twenty-nine years, the prison held a series of notorious inmates including Chicago mobster Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud, memorialized in the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz was an uninhabited seabird haven at the time of Juan Manuel de Ayala's 1775 exploration. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans). The United States government acquired the island in 1849 and after 1861, Alcatraz was used to house military prisoners. Among those imprisoned there during this period were nineteen Hopi Indians from the Arizona Territory who had defied government policies toward their people and U.S soldiers who had defected from the U.S. Army in the Philippines to join forces with the Filipino struggle for independence from the United States.
Alcatraz Island, commonly referred to as simply Alcatraz or locally as The Rock, is a small island located in the middle of San Francisco Bay in California, United States. It served as a lighthouse, then a military fortification, then a military prison followed by a federal prison until 1963. It became a national recreation area in 1972 and received landmarking designations in 1976 and 1986.
Today, the island is a historic site operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Alcatraz has been featured in many movies, TV shows, cartoons, books, comics, and games.
In 1934, Attorney General Homer Cummings along with Sanford Bates, the head of the Federal Prisons, made arrangements to send Capone to a facility where he would be unable to leverage the system. Alcatraz was the perfect answer to a problem that no one could seem to control. In August of 1934, without any formal notice, Capone was placed on a secure prison railroad car, on a journey along with 52 other inmates to America's Devil Island.
From the first moment of his arrival, Capone worked to manipulate the system. Warden Johnston had a custom of meeting the new "fish" when they first arrived at Alcatraz, and usually participated in their brief orientation. Johnston wrote in a later memoir that he had little trouble recognizing Capone while he stood in the lineup. Capone was grinning, and making quiet smug comments from the side of his mouth to other inmates. When it became his turn to approach Warden Johnston, it appeared that he wanted to show off to the other inmates by asking questions on their behalf in a leader-type role. Johnston quickly provided him his prison AZ number, and made him get back in line with the other convicts. During Capone's time on Alcatraz, he made several attempts to con Johnston into allowing him special privileges, but all were denied. Johnston maintained that Capone would not be given any special rights and would have to follow the rules as would any other inmate.
Capone eventually conceded and one day made the comment to Johnston, "It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked." Capone spent 4 ½ years on Alcatraz and held a variety of jobs. Capone's time on Alcatraz was not easy time. Capone got into a fight with another inmate in the recreation yard and was placed in isolation for eight days. While working in the prison basement, an inmate who was standing in line waiting for a haircut, exchanged words with Capone and stabbed him with a pair of shears. Capone was admitted into the prison hospital and released a few days later with a minor wound. Capone eventually became symptomatic from syphilis, a disease he had evidently been carrying for years. In 1938, he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his sentence, and was released in November of 1939.