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Factors That Made Alcatraz Island a Maximum Security Prison

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Every country has its own unique and enormous man-made landmarks. In Europe, London has Big Ben, Paris has the romantic Eiffel Tower, and Italy has the curious Leaning Tower of Pisa. From China and it’s Great Wall to Egypt with it’s pyramids and sphinx popular man-made landmarks are everywhere. America even has its own glorious landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. All of these are excellent examples of beauty and excellence that are rooted deeply in their country’s history and even somewhat of their identity.

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On the other hand, every country also has landmarks that bring an eerie and disdainful mark upon them. Nothing seems to do this better than a prison, and America has it’s fair share of popular prisons. These include: Leavenworth (Hot House), Eastern State Penitentiary (Cherry Hill), Attica, San Quentin, Sing Sing (The Big House, Up the River, The Last Mile), and Folsom. These are some of the largest and most popular prisons of America, but there is one that surpasses them all with unprecedented popularity.

It has been featured in hit movies from Hollywood, and featured in video games such as Rush 2 and Tony Hawk Pro-Skater. The prison of course is Alcatraz, or more popularly called by those who were incarcerated there, “The Rock. ” There are three things that made Alcatraz Island a maximum security prison which were: It’s location, it’s setup and, and chilling swift currents. Alcatraz Island is located one and a half miles off shore in the San Francisco Bay. It was formed more than fifteen thousand years ago during the closing stages of the last ice age (Davis 21).

The enormous glaciers melted away over many years, splitting the island forever from any other land. It was not until Juan Manual Ayala, who was a Spaniard, landed on the Island and named it “Isla de Los Alcatraces,” or in English; “Island of the Pelicans” (Davis 21). “Alcatraces” eventually became Alcatraz. Alcatraz was actually first used as an United States Army base starting in 1853 (Davis 21). It was thought to make a great place to put a large amount of cannons on the island to protect the settlers who had moved to California because of the large quantity of gold found around the San Francisco Bay area.

The U. S. Army also built a lighthouse which was the first lighthouse that was fully operational on the West Coast and is still on the island to this day. During the late 1850’s guardhouses were erected which became the first jail on the island. In the 1860’s the island had over 100 prisoners. It was not until 1933 when the Department of Justice took over under J. Edgar Hoover and became a federal penitentiary. James Johnston was appointed the first warden Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary (Davis 21).

During the twenty-nine years of operation, there were a total of thirty-six men who were involved in only fourteen escape attempts (Hodak). Alcatraz’s location had much to do with this because as previously stated, Alcatraz was over a mile and a half from the nearest seashore. Of the thirty-six who attempted to escape only ten even made it to the water (Esslinger 2005). On December 16, 1937 Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe reached the shore, but during a bad storm which made San Francisco’s Bay current even stronger, leading officials to believe Cole and Roe were swept out to see.

Both are listed missing and presumed dead. On September 15, 1941, John Bayless thought he would have a try at escaping only to give up seconds after hitting the frigid Bay waters. James Boarman, Fred Hunter, Floyd Hamilton and Harold Brest attempted their escape on April 14, 1943. Shots were fired at Hamilton, Brest and Boarman who were swimming away and Boarman was hit by the shots and sank to never be found again. Breast and Hunter were both apprehended while Hamilton was presumed drowned only to be found hiding in a cave.

On September 29, 1958 Clyde Johnson and Aaron Burgett overpowered a guard and tried their luck with the swim. Johnson was caught and Burgett’s body was found about two weeks later. The most famous escape attempts, (thanks in large part to Clint Eastwood’s movie Escape From Alcatraz) is the escape attempt of brothers Clarence and John Anglin and Frank Morris on June 11, 1962. They erected homemade drills and enlarged the air vents enough for them to fit through. They then made realistic dummy heads with real hair they got from the barbershop to put in their place during the night.

They made their way to the shore with life vests made of raincoats. No sign of the men were ever found other than a body in blue clothes that was deteriorated too much to identify (Esslinger 2005). Army records have shown that no prisoner successfully escaped from Alcatraz (Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology). Through all these failed escape attempts one can see that the location of Alcatraz was a key role in making it a maximum security prison. Another major factor that made Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary a maximum security prison was it’s setup.

At less than eighteen acres, Alcatraz was small enough to be able to watch every section of the island from the light tower and guard posts. Warden James Johnston personally supervised the refurbishing of Alcatraz to make certain that it would be tight enough to hold infamous prisoners such as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud “The Birdman”, and the most famous of all, Al Capone, that would soon be taking residence there. He also wanted to make sure that it would disrupt prison gangs because the leaders of the gangs would be sent to Alcatraz.

Being able to control prisoners who broke rules and abused privileges was also a high priority. Each and every innovation that was possible at the time was used as well as full body metal detectors. Every area was enclosed with a combination of cyclone wire and barbed wire. Utility tunnels and sewers were blocked off and the most innovative change was the replacement of soft-steel cells with new tool-proof steel (Davis 21). Each cell was only five feet by nine and only held one prisoner instead of the traditional two.

This helped keep the dangerous inmates from more frequent attacks and the prisoners actually “enjoyed” having their own cell (Esslinger 2005). Another key factor was that Alcatraz’s maximum capacity of 312 was never reached. The most prisoners at any one time was about 250-270. This may not seem like much but forty or fifty extra inmates can certainly add many dangers of attacks or escaping. One last factor about Alcatraz that helped was the chilling and swift currents. On average waters in the San Francisco Bay are forty to fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

In water this cold it only takes a few minutes for extremities such as your arms and legs to become numb. Within as few as fifteen minutes one could lose consciousness, and eventually hypothermia will set in. This explains why so many prisoners who actually made it to the water ended up drowning. In fact, hypothermia can even set in in seventy degree water if one is in it long enough (theithacajournal. com). Not only is the Bay water frightfully cold, it also has a very strong current. Currents off Alcatraz can easily move at four to eight miles per hour or three to five knots (Davis 23).

Cite this Factors That Made Alcatraz Island a Maximum Security Prison

Factors That Made Alcatraz Island a Maximum Security Prison. (2017, Mar 29). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/factors-that-made-alcatraz-island-a-maximum-security-prison/

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