Prisons count among the most secure places in the world. Now, in 21st century, their security systems are extremely advanced, and to escape from one seems nigh impossible. Was it so in the past?

Alcatraz is one of the world‘s most famous prisons. It was erected on a rocky island (hence its common name, ‘The Rock‘) about 2.4 km from San Francisco. Initially, the island housed a lighthouse and military fortifications. In 1868 a military prison was built, which was reformed in 1933 into a maximum security prison. It remained functional until 1963.

Cursed island

The island is located in cold, raging waters of San Francisco bay, which was the main reason for building a ‘house‘ for civil war captives in 1861. Initially, the prisoners were held in the basement of the guardhouse. It was not until 1868 that Alcatraz was officially converted into a military prison. In 1898, during the Spanish-American war, the number of convicts increased from 26 to overr 450. In 1906, after the earthquake in San Francisco, civilian prisoners were transferred to the island as well.

In 1933 the prison became a federal facility, and as soon as 1934 a first transport of 137 convicts arrived, most of them notorious bank robbers or murderers. The island also held staff, 155 people strong. Curiously enough, they were trained only to maintain security, not to rehabilitate the prisoners.

In theory, the prisoners were entitled only to:

  • shelter
  • medical care
  • sustenance
  • clothing

Any sort of recreation, or visitation, had to be earned with hard labour. Disobedience was punished by putting on heavy manacles, being closed in a solitary cell, with bread and water as the only nourishment. The convicts were held in small cells ‘ 2.7m x 1.5m x 2.1m. They had little privacy, with their cells equipped only in a bed, a table, a washbasin and a toilet each. During its period as a federal prison, Alcatraz held a number of famous criminals, including Al Capone.

Photo by: Brad Reynolds (CC)

Photo by: William Warby (CC)

Security measures

Alcatraz ‘ a maximum security facility, surrounded by strong currents and built up with steel and concrete, was considered as a prison utterly impossible to escape from. Apart from security systems, the location itself was a huge obstacle on the way to freedom.

In 1912, a buliding with cell blocks was built. Apart from them, it housed the warden‘s office, a meeting room, a library, and a barber‘s shop. There was also a kitchen with a dining hall nearby, with a hospital above them.

Photo by: Julian Mr. Frosty Man (CC)
Photo by: Jennifer Boyer (CC)

Over time, more and more electronics were installed in the security systems. Cell locks were replaced with pick-resistant, electronically opened ones. Metal detectors were installed in front of dining hall and workshop entrances. Inside, remotely triggered tear gas canisters were installed, as well as galleries patrolled with guards armed with machine guns. The toilets and electric systems were improved, and the old tunnels sealed with concrete, to prevent escapes and keep the prisoners from hiding there. The front door was heavy steel, and the recreation yard ‘ and the rest of outdoor areas ‘ was secured with a 7,6m tall fence with barbed wire on top. Apart from that, guard towers were placed in strategic points of the facility.


Although it might seem that escape is completely impossible, 14 such attempts were made throughout the history of Alcatraz. Among 36 daredevils, 2 attempted escape twice, 23 were apprehended, 6 shot, 2 drowned, a 5 are ‘missing, presumed drownedi‘. The Alcatraz facility was closed in 1963.

Today, the prison is used to film Hollywood productions. It is also possible to visit the facility with a tour. The island is governed by the National Park Service. Would you like to take a tour of the island?

Title photo by: Jonas Bengtsson (CC)

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