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Is Alcatraz Still a Prison?

Alcatraz is a small island located in San Francisco Bay that is famous for the maximum security federal prison that operated there from 1934 to 1963. During its 29 years of operation, Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious criminals including mob boss Al Capone, murderer Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), and gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Today, Alcatraz is no longer used as a working prison, but it remains an intriguing and iconic part of American history.

Brief History of Alcatraz as a Prison

The initial purpose of Alcatraz was to be an “inescapable” prison to house the worst of the worst criminals where escape would be nearly impossible. Its isolated location and natural barriers of cold water and strong currents surrounding the island made Alcatraz an ideal spot for a maximum security prison.

The first prisoners began arriving in 1934 after the prison was renovated to include tighter security measures and more solitary confinement cells. The strict rules and harsh conditions earned Alcatraz a reputation for being the toughest prison in America. Security was incredibly tight with guards constantly watching over inmates. The prison cells were small and sparse, and prisoners were permitted minimal privileges. Attempts to escape were punished severely.

During its years as a federal prison, Alcatraz housed a total of 1,576 men including some of the most notorious criminals in American history like Al Capone, Robert Stroud, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Alvin Karpis. Escape attempts were made by dozens of inmates, but most were caught or died in the attempt. Only 5 men ever successfully escaped, though most were captured or killed soon after.

By 1963, the prison was decaying and too expensive to continue running. On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz closed after 29 years as a federal prison. It was designated a national historic landmark in 1986.

Timeline of Alcatraz as a Federal Prison

1934Alcatraz federal prison opens
1936Most notorious inmate Al Capone arrives
1937Alvin Karpis, “Public Enemy #1” arrives
1938Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” is transferred there
1946Battle of Alcatraz – violent escape attempt by prisoners
1962Frank Morris masterminds elaborate escape from Alcatraz
1963Alcatraz federal prison closes

Is Alcatraz Still a Working Prison Today?

So is Alcatraz still a functioning prison today? The answer is no. After closing in 1963, Alcatraz was abandoned for several years. In 1969 a group of Native American activists occupied the island demanding ownership, bringing Alcatraz into the national spotlight again. Their occupation lasted 19 months before being forcibly removed by the government.

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In 1972, Alcatraz was incorporated into the newly formed Golden Gate National Recreation Area and opened to the public. Today, Alcatraz Island is a popular tourist destination managed by the National Park Service. Visitors can take ferry rides to explore the grounds of the former prison for a glimpse into its notorious history. More than a million tourists visit Alcatraz each year.

However, the prison itself is no longer operational. The cellhouse has been preserved to look as it did during the years Alcatraz served as a federal prison, but no convicts are housed there anymore. Tourists can walk through the empty cell blocks, visit the solitary confinement areas, and see the prison industries rooms. Many of the cells have been recreated with authentically detailed interiors. Exhibits at Alcatraz display historical artifacts, photos, and information about the federal penitentiary years. But the days of Alcatraz acting as an active high-security prison are long over.

Why Did Alcatraz Prison Shut Down?

So why exactly did Alcatraz shut down after almost 30 years as a prison? There were several factors that led to its demise:

High Operating Costs

Keeping Alcatraz running was incredibly expensive. Transporting supplies, food, and new prisoners to the isolated island was costly. Maintaining the aging buildings and complex security measures also drained the budget. The per prisoner expenditure to keep Alcatraz running was about $10 per day, significantly higher than other prisons.

Prison Deterioration

By the 1950s and 1960s, the prison infrastructure was slowly falling apart. Saltwater exposure and erosion caused by the moist ocean air weakened the concrete buildings. The cellhouse and facilities were in need of major repairs and updates to continue safely housing inmates.

Outdated Methods

The strict isolation and harsh disciplinary tactics used at Alcatraz were becoming increasingly controversial and outdated. Newer prisons focused more on reform and rehabilitation through work programs, vocational training, and group therapy sessions. Alcatraz’s once innovative solitary confinement model was no longer palatable.

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Public Outcry to Close Alcatraz

There was increasing public pressure to close Alcatraz in the post-war years. Critics believed these draconian methods were inhumane and left inmates mentally anguished. Activists, inmates’ families, journalists, and politicians pushed to decommission Alcatraz and other antiquated prisons.

By 1963, the US Justice Department determined that the high costs and dated methods could no longer be justified. On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz closed its doors for good, ending its notorious reign as America’s toughest prison. No prisoners have populated “The Rock” since.

What is Alcatraz Used for Now?

Today Alcatraz stands not as a working prison but as a historical landmark and popular tourist attraction. People come from all over the world to learn about its storied history through guided audio tours, exhibits, books, movies, and first-person accounts of former guards and prisoners.

Here are some facts about how Alcatraz is used now:

  • Managed by the National Park Service and opened to the public in 1972 as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
  • Over 1 million visitors annually take the ferry to Alcatraz and audio tours of the cellhouse
  • Parts of the prison have been preserved or restored to demonstrate its conditions during operation
  • Exhibits detail the history of Alcatraz from its military fort days to its time as a federal prison
  • Native American graffiti from the 1969-71 occupation remains on the walls
  • Several movies and TV shows have been filmed on location at Alcatraz
  • The island’s facilities are regularly maintained and patrolled by park rangers
  • Flora and fauna unique to Alcatraz Island are now protected within the recreation area
  • Access to the island is strictly controlled and visitors must purchase ferry tickets and follow set guidelines

So while no longer a working penitentiary, Alcatraz continues to fascinate people as a historical landmark and popular tourist destination keeping its notorious past alive. The preserved prison remnants allow visitors a window into this unique icon of American incarceration history.

Frequently Asked Questions About Alcatraz Prison

Here are some common questions people have about the history of Alcatraz as a federal prison:

Why was Alcatraz chosen as the site for a maximum security prison?

Alcatraz was selected for a high-security prison in the 1930s mainly due to its isolated, remote location. Surrounded by the cold waters and strong currents of San Francisco Bay, it was believed the island would be impossible to escape from. Alcatraz’s secluded position also minimized any risk of criminal outsiders attempting to break inmates out.

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How many inmates were housed there?

During its 29 years of operation from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz had a total of 1,576 prisoners pass through its cells. The population on a given day averaged around 260 men.

What was daily life like for Alcatraz prisoners?

Inmates experienced a rigid, unvarying routine. They were allowed very limited privileges or activities. A typical day involved waking at 6:30am, eating meals in the cellblock, working various prison jobs, and spending the rest of the time confined in isolation within the small barren cells. There was no congregating with other inmates.

Were any infamous criminals held at Alcatraz?

Some of America’s most notorious felons did time at Alcatraz including mobsters Al Capone and Alvin Karpis, murderer Robert Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Many more underworld criminals and public enemies spent part of their sentences there.

How many men successfully escaped from Alcatraz?

There were 14 known attempts to escape Alcatraz involving 34 inmates over the years. Most were caught or died during their escape attempts. Only 5 men made it off the island – but all 5 were listed as missing and presumed drowned. They either couldn’t survive the frigid waters or were never found after making it to land.

Why did the prison shut down in 1963?

Deteriorating facilities, costly upkeep, more modern prison models, and public pressure to close cruel institutions like Alcatraz led to its closure in 1963. The isolated island prison was no longer sustainable or politically acceptable.


Alcatraz’s reign as America’s toughest federal penitentiary has become the stuff of legend. For almost 30 years, it housed infamous mobsters, violent psychopaths, and some of the country’s most hardened criminals that other prisons couldn’t control. Its remote island location and imposing architecture cemented Alcatraz as a symbol of ultimate incarceration punishment.

While Alcatraz is no longer the dreaded maximum security prison it once was, its infamy lives on. Tourists flock to walk the halls and peer inside the lonely cells that confined the likes of Al Capone and Robert Stroud. Hollywood continues to immortalize “The Rock” in movies and TV dramas. And Alcatraz’s notorious past as the nation’s most feared prison remains alive in American folklore and culture.

So even though Alcatraz ceased functioning as an active penitentiary in 1963, its reputation and history will forever mark it as an iconic relic of uncompromising criminal detention unlike any other. Visitors today can get a firsthand look at life behind the cold bars and granite walls of America’s most mythical and mysterious island prison.

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