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Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. Often referred to as "The Rock," the small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison (1868), and a federal prison from 1933 until 1963. Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of American Indians from San Francisco who were part of a wave of Indian activism across the nation with public protests through the 1970s. In 1972 Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the island's facilities are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco. Hornblower Cruises and Events, operating under the name Alcatraz Cruises, is the official ferry provider to and from the island. Hornblower launched the nation's first hybrid propulsion ferry in 2008, the Hornblower Hybrid, which now serves the island.
The first Spaniard to document the island was Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted San Francisco Bay and named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces," which translates as "The Island of the Pelicans," from the archaic Spanish alcatraz, "pelican", a word which was borrowed originally from Arabic: القطرس al-qaṭrās, meaning sea eagle. In August 1827, French Captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly wrote "...running past Alcatraces (Pelicans) Island...covered with a countless number of these birds. A gun fired over the feathered legions caused them to fly up in a great cloud and with a noise like a hurricane." The California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) is not known to nest on the island today.
It is home to the abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools and a seabird colony (mostly Western Gulls, cormorants, and egrets).
The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island became a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison in August 1934. Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held such notable criminals as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda (a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954), Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker, James "Whitey" Bulger, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoner had successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as "missing and presumed drowned". The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946, when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz.
On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised. Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3-foot (0.91 m) wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and the progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.
The escape route led up through a fan vent; the prisoners removed the fan and motor, replacing them with a steel grille and leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to enter. Stealing a carborundum abrasive cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen raincoats for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells affixed with stolen human hair from the barbershop, they escaped. It is estimated the prisoners entered San Francisco Bay at 10 p.m.
The official investigation by the FBI was aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who was part of the escapees' group but was left behind (West's false wall kept slipping so he held it into place with cement, which set; when the Anglin brothers accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall, but by the time he got out, his companions were gone). Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were discovered on nearby Angel Island. The official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay.
The attempt was the subject of the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz with screenplay by Richard Tuggle, directed by Don Siegel, and starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, Jack Thibeau as Clarence Anglin, and Fred Ward as John Anglin. The film implied that the three made it. The MythBusters investigated the incident, concluding it is "plausible" that the three survived their intricate escape attempt.
The escape was examined in a 2011 National Geographic Channel program entitled Vanished from Alcatraz. According to the newly uncovered official records discussed on the program, a raft was discovered on Angel Island with footprints leading away from it. There was also a report of a car stolen in the area that night, which could have been used by Morris and the other escapees. However, while confirming these facts, which were hidden from the officials for quite some time, the findings of further investigations remain inconclusive. As a result, the U.S. Marshals office is still investigating this case, which will remain open on all three escapees until their 100th birthdays.
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