Once the site of one of America’s most formidable prisons, Alcatraz Island recently gave up a fresh and tantalizing secret when a team of scientists from Texas A&M University turned ground-penetrating radar on it. The scientists discovered a labyrinth of underground tunnels — located under what was the prison recreational yard.
In Yahoo News, writer Mike Krumboltz teasingly asks, “Was Al Capone trying to pull a Shawshank?” Then Krumboltz answers his own question: “Not so fast Hollywood. The tunnels were from the 19th century, when the island was used as a military fort.”
Alex Grieg writes in MailOnline, “Scans of the prison yard have revealed a subterranean tunnel system that would have been used to transport people and ammunition, and would have been covered in earth to protect it.”
Several buildings constructed during Civil War era when Alcatraz was a fort still stand and it was already known that underground tunnels had been constructed. However, Mike Krumboltz reports, “Experts had believed the tunnels were destroyed long ago.”
How did the radar enable scientists to discover that the tunnels still exist? Texas A&M Professor Mark Everitt explains that the radar “has a transmitter and a receiver – it sends an electromagnetic wave into the ground that then reflects off all the different structures underneath.” Everitt elaborates that the process is similar to X-raying a person. “Much like medical imaging would make a scan of the body, we are making a scan of the ground under the rec yard,” he comments.
The scientists who discovered the tunnels believe they have also found other structures underground such as magazine buildings that were used to store ammunition. Oulimata Ba reports in Headlines & Global News that Everett believes the tunnels “would have been used for the fortifications. There would have been movement of men and ammunition; it would have been bomb proof and covered with earth so it would have been protected.”
The tunnels were reinforced with concrete and that surprised scientists because concrete was not manufactured in the United States during that era. Tanya Wattenburg Komas, Director of the Concrete Preservation
Institute, suggests that the concrete “probably came as cement in barrels from Europe. To find it on top of a mid-19th Century battery is very exciting.” Indeed, the concrete in the tunnels is some of the oldest concrete in America.
Cage Containing Crooks
Located in the waters off California’s San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island has a history both colorful and creepy – in about equal measure.
Greig observes, “The fort was built as San Francisco’s fortunes boomed with the discovery of gold in California and it proved to be of strategic value at the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.” In the International Business Times, Philip Ross writes, “During the American Civil War, Alcatraz Island served as a military base that held West Coast Confederate sympathizers. The defense structures were built starting in the mid-1850s and included barracks and gun batteries.” However, the island saw no combat. Ross notes, “While much of the country was embroiled in bloody battle, the Alcatraz fortress remained quiet with not a single defense shot fired.”
What had been a military installation in the 19th Century was turned into an army prison at the start of the 20th Century. Ba states, “The army prison laid the grounds for the island to be turned into a federal prison. But there was little to no evidence of the fortress left once the [army] prison was built in 1915.” However, somestructures connected with the fortress did remain and stand on the island to this day.
Alcatraz became a federal prison in 1934. Often called “The Rock,” it was a prison was designed for the “worst of the worst.” Prisons in general remove people considered “bad apples” from normal society; Alcatraz was designated the barrel of the rottenest of the bad apples. It was a place for the most dangerous inmates and inmates considered troublemakers in other prisons. As Mike Krumboltz noted in his whimsically rhetorical question, notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone served time at Alcatraz. James “Whitey” Bulger, George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Mickey Cohen were some other infamous Alcatraz inmates.
The prison’s name became part of the nickname of one of its best-known prisoners. Robert Stroud was called the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” The real Robert Stroud was a far cry from the caring, sensitive character played by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 motion picture called Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud was a pimp who shot a bartender to death because a prostitute working for Stroud said the man failed to pay her. An especially violent and hostile inmate, he killed a second time when he stabbed a guard. Stroud was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to life without parole.
Placed in solitary at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, Stroud found an injured canary in the prison yard and nursed it back to health. Believing that the dangerous inmate might as well use his time productively, Leavenworth authorities permitted Stroud to breed birds and work with them. This was in fact a good use of time as he authored two books on canaries and canary illnesses. According to alcatrazhistory.com, “Stroud was able to make scientific observations that would later benefit research on the canary species.” Officers found him using lab equipment as a still to make alcohol and he was transferred in Alcatraz in 1942 where he was imprisoned until his death. Ironically, although famed as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Stroud was not allowed to keep birds at Alcatraz.
As well as serving as the prison for inmates considered especially dangerous and inmates who were troublemakers in other prisons, Alcatraz was the destination for escape-prone prisoners. It was considered virtually escape-proof partly because the building was refortified before being opened as a federal prison and partly because of its island location.
Thirty-six prisoners made escape attempts in fourteen incidents but most were caught or known to have died.
However, on June 11, 1962, three Alcatraz inmates, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made an escape attempt, the result of which remains a mystery to this day. The article on this website entitled “The Mystery of the Alcatraz ‘Escape” gives the full story of this baffling incident. The trio secretly created makeshift rafts out of raincoats and other materials. They made it off the island but whether they made it to shore is unknown. Investigation continues although most investigators believe they probably drowned.
According to alcatrazhistory.com, “After the escape of Morris and the Anglins, the prison fell under intense scrutiny due to its deteriorated structural condition and the diminishing security measures that had resulted from governmental budget cuts.” It continues that the “corrosive effects of saltwater” on the prison building and other factors led then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to order the prison closed on March 21, 1963.
Although businesses and other organizations lobbied the government with development plans, alcatrazhistory.com relates that the island “remained essentially abandoned” for several years.
American Indian Activists Occupy Alcatraz
On November 20, 1969, a group of seventy-nine American Indians landed on Alcatraz and occupied it. The group included college students, married couples, and children. Alcatrazhistory.com relates that they said they hoped “to start an educational Native American Cultural Center” on the island. Carl Nolte writes forSFGate that the Occupiers also thought they might found “a small university devoted to native studies.” They issued an Alcatraz Island Proclamation asserting, “It would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world entering the Golden Gate would first see Indian land and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation.”
The Occupation lasted for nineteen months, during which activists came and left and the group grew and shrank. The Alcatrazhistory.com website continues, “Federal officials met with them, often sitting crossed-legged on blankets inside the old prison Dining Hall, to discuss the social needs of the rebel group.”
The Alcatraz group drew widespread attention and awakened interest in Amerindian issues. One especially media friendly leader was handsome, articulate Richard Oakes, a Mohawk. Journalists called him “the “Chief” or the “Mayor of Alcatraz.”
Early in 1970, his stepdaughter Yvonne fell from a third-story balcony to her death. The grief-stricken Oakes family departed from Alcatraz. Without this star orator, the Occupation lost energy. In the following months, public interest lessened. The Occupation ended when federal marshals removed a handful of unresisting activists in June 1971.
It is widely thought the Occupation was a milestone for “Red Power.” An article on PBS.org states that observers believe the occupation influenced Congress to pass proposals supporting tribal self-rule and then-President Richard Nixon to increase by 225% the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) budget, double funds for Amerindian health care, and form the Office of Indian Water Rights.
Alcatraz Island was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the San Francisco Bay Island with a bizarrely multi-layered history is a popular tourist attraction. Approximately 1.3 million people flock to Alcatraz every year to view buildings dating from when the island served as a military fort and experience the chills and thrills of examining the place that once caged some of the most dangerous criminals in America.
The “Alcatraz Cruises” website notes that visitors can “also see visible reminders of the American Indian Occupation that started in 1969 after the prison closed, highlighting an important milestone in the American Indian rights movement.” Those “visible reminders” are graffiti the occupiers with messages such as “This Is Indian Land” and “Custer Had It Coming.” The faded signs were restored in late 2013 to highlight the Occupation. There is an irony in the restoration since making graffiti is a federal crime. Nevertheless, the U.S. government approved restoring this graffiti. Alcatraz Site Supervisor Marcus Koenen explains, “We restored it because it has a social significance.”
Some American Indian organizations hold ceremonies on Alcatraz Island on special days such as what they call “Un-Thanksgiving Day.” The ceremonies are not “celebrations” but events mourning the dispossession of Amerindians from their ancestral lands, honoring Amerindian activists, and demanding justice.
Further scientific exploration may produce an even more richly textured understanding of the history of this very special island. As Professor Mark Everett says, “What we don’t really know is what exactly became of the fortifications, what state they are in, and what is left of the cultural resources. And although it is not always desirable to excavate, with geophysics we can help people to know what is below the surface without actually disrupting it.”
Alcatraz tourists not only view much that is historically significant but see bountiful beauties of the natural world. As the “Alcatraz Cruises” website boasts, “Alcatraz is now home to rare flowers and plants, marine wildlife, and thousands of roosting and nesting sea birds.”
A war fort, a super-prison, a watershed in a modern social movement, and a site of rich natural beauty – Alcatraz Island is indeed a special place.