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Intro to Alcatraz Island

In San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island is located 1 ½ miles offshore from the city of San Francisco in California. Often called ‘The Rock,’ the small island was home to a few things at one time , such as a lighthouse, military prison, and then a federal prison that operated until March 21, 1963. In this article, you will learn about some of the attempts that were made by inmates looking for a way to escape.

Life in Alcatraz Prison was considered quite harsh. The rules and regulations of the prison were strict, inmates were subjected to hard labor, and the living conditions were poor. Punishments at the prison included beatings with iron clubs, isolation, diets consisting of bread and water, sensory deprivation, and time spent in windy dungeons. Many longed to break free from what was considered one of the most feared criminal institutions in the United States. However, the prison was set on an isolated island with freezing cold waters surrounded the land.

Before an inmate could even dream about swimming the San Francisco Bay towards freedom, they had a staff of 90 guards to overcome. They worked on the island , guarded their 260 or more prisoners. The majority of the guards actually lived on the island with their families in apartment buildings and wooden houses. The warden claimed a large house on the island.

Since Alcatraz was a prison for the United States, it operated for 29 years with 14 attempts of escape that involved a total of 36 inmates. On official records, every attempt was met with failure, as most of the criminals were killed or quickly recaptured. During the attempts in 1837 and 1962, the inmates were presumed dead because they disappeared without their bodies ever being recovered. Because of this, some believe that at least one person was successful in breaking out of Alcatraz.

The First Attempted Escape

The first time someone tried to escape from Alcatraz was in April 27, 1936. Joseph Bowers was burning garbage at the island’s incinerator as part of his job when he decided to run and climb a chain link fence in an attempt to make it to shore. A guard in a watch tower quickly spotted his actions and called down for him to stop, but Bowers ignored his words, as well as a warning shot that was let off. Finally, he was hit by rifles shots, falling 10 to 20 meters to the shore below and died. Since his plan didn’t seem well thought out and doomed for failure, many inmates believed that Bowers was attempting suicide rather than trying to escape from the prison.

To learn of other escape attempts from Alcatraz Island, read the article titled “Escape from Alcatraz.”