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Alcatraz - Frequently asked questions.
By Scott McCaffrey - Knight-Ridder Newspapers
It's doubtful any of the 1,576 men who were imprisoned at Alcatraz felt as nostalgic about the place as Warden Blackwell did. Besides the food - described by inmates as the best in the federal prison system - the 12-acre island fortress that housed the nation's most incorrigible prisoners from 1933 to 1963 had little positive going for it.
Instead of prisoners, the island in San Francisco Bay now attracts more than a million visitors a year who take ferries from Fisherman's Wharf to see what it was like when Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly called the ''Rock'' home.
Alcatraz is a place of contradictions, caught between past and present, its grim former reality and its current tourist status.
''Indians Welcome'' - graffiti from the 19-month Native American occupation of the island in the early 1970s - has never been removed from the dock area. A chipper Park Service guide reminds visitors that ''Alcatraz is not a good place to break a federal law'' as she ticks off prohibitions on picking flowers and harassing migratory birds.
The place is so steeped in legend that sometimes it's tougher to separate fact from fiction than it was to escape. As Sgt. Joe Friday would say, just the facts:
What does the name Alcatraz mean?
Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted San Francisco Bay in 1775 and named it La Isla de los Alcatraces - island of the pelicans.
Who were the biggest names to receive a ''government-funded vacation'' at Alcatraz?
Mob chieftain Al Capone was incarcerated from 1934 to '39 - remember that it was the IRS, not the FBI, that finally nailed him. All-around monster Machine Gun Kelly was held there from 1934-51.
Racketeer Mickey Cohen was behind bars at Alcatraz from 1961-62, and Richard Stroud (see next item) called the Rock home from 1942-59, most of it in the hospital wing. Kidnapper/bank robber Alvin ''Creepy'' Karpis was imprisoned from 1936-62.
How many birds did Richard ''Birdman of Alcatraz'' Stroud keep at Alcatraz?
None. Stroud, imprisoned on the Rock from 1942-59, gained fame as a bird keeper during an earlier incarceration at Leavenworth. He was, according to guards and fellow inmates, thoroughly unlikable. He was sent to Alcatraz for murdering a guard at Leavenworth.
How big were the cells?
They were 5 feet by 9 feet, with a cot, basin and toilet. Prisoners spent 16 to 23 hours a day there.
How long was the average stay?
Only inmates who were too tough for regular federal prisons to handle were sent to Alcatraz. On average, they stayed about eight years before being sent back to other prisons. Few were directly paroled from Alcatraz to the outside world.
What did inmates fear most?
Being sent to solitary confinement. The average stay was a couple of days; the longest, 19 days in a row. It was reserved for serious infractions of the rules.
Was there anything good about life on the Rock?
According to inmates, the food here was better than prison grub served anywhere. ''Take All That You Wish - Eat All That You Take'' was the rule. Breakfast might consist of eggs, juice, fruit, cereal, meat and milk.
But there was a reason for this seeming opulence: The dining hall was the one place where prisoners had a potential advantage, since they had metal (forks and trays) and the guards on the floor were without weapons. To lessen tensions, the food was kept high-quality. For added insurance, tear gas canisters were installed on the ceiling. They were never used, though.
How did inmates spend their days?
The federal government operated a jobs program at the prison. Inmates made everything from stop signs to high-tech ('50s-style) equipment that was sold to government agencies.
The recreation yard was a privilege that could be granted or taken away depending on behavior. It offered baseball and a variety of other activities. It also offered a splendid view of the Golden Gate Bridge, despite the barbed wire.
Could inmates have visitors?
One per month, with no discussion of current events or prison life and no physical contact.
What about corrections officers and their families - how did they live?
More than 300 civilians, including 60 to 80 children, lived on Alcatraz at any one time when it served as a prison. They had their own bowling alley, soda fountain and the best view around; kids took the ferry to San Francisco to school every day.
Did anyone ever escape?
Thirty-six men attempted to prematurely depart the Rock. Most drowned, were shot or were quickly recaptured. In 1962, though, three inmates got away and were never seen again. Federal officials contend Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin died in their attempt, but the proof isn't convincing. It was their well-conceived plan that was documented in Clint Eastwood's Escape From Alcatraz.
Why did the government stop using Alcatraz as a penitentiary?
Same reason the Army did three decades earlier: rising costs and crumbling facilities. San Francisco Bay's salt water ultimately did the prison in, causing rapid deterioration of the stone buildings.
What almost happened to the island after it closed?
The federal General Services Administration attempted to find a buyer interested in turning Alcatraz into a casino. No takers. Instead, the property was turned over to the National Park Service and opened to the public in the early 1970s.
Who are the only permanent residents today?
The island is home to many unique species of flora and fauna and serves as a breeding ground for an array of migratory birds.