Alcatraz Island (sometimes informally referred to as simply Alcatraz or by its pop-culture name, 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, when it became a national recreation area.
Today, the island is a historic site supervised 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. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. 
The United States Census Bureau defines the island as Block 1067, Block Group 1, Census Tract 179.02 of San Francisco County, California. There was no population on the island as of the 2000 census.
It is home to the now abandoned prison, the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools, a seabird colony (mostly Western Gulls, cormorants, and egrets), and unique views of the coastline.
The first European to discover the island was Juan de Ayala in 1775, who charted the San Francisco Bay and named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces", which means "Island of the Pelicans".
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 brought thousands of ships to San Francisco Bay, creating an urgent need for a navigational lighthouse. In response, Alcatraz lighthouse #1 was erected and lit in the summer of 1853. As the first lighthouse built on the current US Pacific Coast, this third-order lens fresnel lighthouse contained a California Cottage design with a short tower protruding from the center, similar to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego and to the Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove. In 1856, a fog bell was added to the lighthouse.
After 56 years of use, Alcatraz lighthouse #1 was torn down in 1909 to make way for the construction of Alcatraz prison. Alcatraz lighthouse #2 was located next to the cell house and completed on December 1, 1909. Its 84-foot tower of concrete contained a smaller, fourth-order lens. In 1963, the fresnel lens of Alcatraz lighthouse #2 was replaced with an automated rotating beacon. The keepers were then discharged.
The earliest recorded owner of the island of Alcatraz is one Julian Workman, who was given it by Mexican governor Pio Pico in 1846 with the understanding he would construct a lighthouse on it. Later that same year John C. Freemont purchased the island for $5000 in the name of the United States government, who subsequently wrested control from Freemont after a legal battle .
Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the US Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay. In 1853 the Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858. The island’s first garrison, numbering about 200 soldiers, arrived the following year. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the island mounted 85 cannon (increased to 105 by 1866) in casemates around its perimeter, though the small size of the garrison meant only a fraction of the guns could be used at one time. Alcatraz never fired its guns in anger, though during the war it was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers on the west coast .
Following the war in 1866 the army determined that the fortifications and guns were being rapidly rendered obsolete by advances in military technology. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed (the so called "parade ground" on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). Instead the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation. In 1867 a brick jailhouse was built (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868 Alcatraz was officially designated a long term detention facility for military prisoners.
On March 21 1907 Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western US Military Prison. In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, that remains the island’s dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. In order to accommodate the new cell block the Citadel, a 100ft x 200ft reinforced three story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level, the building having been constructed in an excavated pit (creating a dry "moat") to enhance its defensive potential. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of "dungeons" below the main cell block.
Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.
Inmates also included prisoners from the Spanish American War and the subsequent uprising against American rule in the Philippines at the turn of the century.
During the First World War it held conscientious objectors, including Philip Grosser who wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island’ about his experiences. 
Because of its natural isolation in the middle of a bay, surrounded by cold water and strong sea currents, Alcatraz was soon considered by the U.S. Army as an ideal location for holding captives. The maximum number of inmates was 302. In 1906, following the San Francisco earthquake (which destroyed much of the city), hundreds of civilian prisoners were transferred to the island for safety reasons. By 1912 a large cell house had been constructed on the island’s central crest, and by the late 1920’s, the three-story structure was nearly at full capacity.
Alcatraz was the Army’s first long-term prison, and it was already beginning to build its reputation as a tough detention facility by exposing inmates to harsh conditions and iron fisted discipline. The prisoners who violated the rules faced strict disciplinary measures. Violators were assigned punishments that included, but were not limited to, working on hard labor details and solitary lock-downs with a severely restricted bread and water diet.
The average age for law-offending soldiers was twenty-four years, and most of the prisoners were serving short-term sentences for desertion or lesser crimes. However, it wasn’t uncommon to find soldiers serving longer sentences for the more serious crimes of insubordination, assault, larceny, and murder. The prisoners were allowed to stay in their cells. They could clean up, play cards or read books with their neighbors. They were still required to do their work assignments, but once they were done they could go to their cell. Inmates with first or second class rankings were allowed to go anywhere about the prison grounds, except for the guards’ quarters on the upper levels.
Despite the strict rules for criminals, Alcatraz primarily functioned in a minimum-security capacity. The types of work assignments given to inmates changed depending on the prisoners, their classification, and how responsible they were. Many inmates worked as general servants who cooked, cleaned, and attended to household works for the families who lived on the island. In many cases, select prisoners were given the responsibility to care for the children of staff members. Alcatraz was also the home of several Chinese families, who were employed as servants and made up the largest segment of the island’s civilian population. The lack of a strict focus on prison security helped some inmates who hoped to be able to escape from the prison. But in spite of their best efforts, most escapees never made it to land, and usually turned back to be rescued from the freezing waters. Those who failed to turn back died because of the cold water.
Over the decades the prison’s routine became more relaxed, and recreational activities were more common. In the late 1920’s prisoners were permitted to build a baseball field, and were even allowed to wear their own baseball uniforms. On Friday nights the Army hosted "Alcatraz Fights" that featured boxing matches between inmates selected from the prisoner population. These fights were highly popular, and often civilians from San Francisco would come to Alcatraz just to see the fights.
Due to rising operational costs because of its location, the War Department decided to close this famous prison in 1934, and it was subsequently taken over by the Department of Justice.
The Great Depression and Prohibition contributed to a severe crime increase during the late 1920s and 1930s, which produced a new era of organized crime. The nation witnessed a sharp rise in horrific violence, which was brought on by the combined forces of prohibition and great need. The American people watched in fear as influential gangsters and public enemies gained heavy influence in metropolitan areas and the authorities that were responsible for their safe-keeping. Law enforcement agencies were not equipped to deal with the situation, and would frequently be beaten by better armed gangs in a shoot-out.
Alcatraz was perceived as the best solution that the government could find in response to these problems. It could serve the dual purpose of placing public enemies away from the general population, and also to serve as a warning to this new and ruthless brand of criminals that were ruling the streets of the country. Sanford Bates, the head of the Federal Prisons, and Attorney General Homer Cummings led the project, and they were responsible for the finely detailed design concepts. One of the top security experts of the day, Robert Burge, was asked to help design an escape proof prison. The original cell block, built in 1909, would undergo an extensive process of upgrades and renovations.
In April of 1934, the work gave the military prison a new face and a new identity to the prison. The soft squared bars were replaced with very modern tool-proof iron bars. Electricity was routed into each cell, and all of the utility tunnels were cemented to completely remove the possibility that a prisoner could enter or hide in them for escape purposes. Tool-proof iron window coverings would protect all the areas that could be accessed by inmates. Special gun galleries surrounded the cell block perimeters, allowing guards to carry weapons while being protected behind iron barriers. These secure galleries, which were elevated and out of reach of the prisoners, were to be the control center for all keys, and would allow the guards the ability to keep an eye on all the inmate activities.
Special teargas canisters were permanently installed in the roof of the dining hall, and they could be activated remotely, from the gun gallery as well as from the outside observation points. Guard towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter, and new technology allowed the use of metal detectors, which were positioned outside of the dining hall and on the Prison Industries access path. The cell house contained a total of nearly 350 cells, which were very far from the perimeter wall. If an inmate managed to tunnel his way through the cell wall, they would still need to find a way to escape from the cell house itself. The inmates would only be assigned to B, C, and D blocks, since the primary prison population was not allowed to exceed 300 inmates (although the record was 302). The implementation of these new measures, combined with the natural isolating barrier created by the very cold Bay waters, meant that the prison was ready to receive the nation’s most incorrigible and dangerous criminals.
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