By Lynda Millner   |   April 2, 2020
Approaching Alcatraz from the ferry

I’ve been studying to be a docent at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and learning historical facts. I never knew that the building at the back part of the Courthouse with the turret on top was once our jail. The first floor held the sheriff’s offices (it still does), the second floor was for the jailer and his family to live, the third was for female prisoners, the fourth for men, and fifth for exercise. Two cells for solitary confinement were in the tallest tower. The jail held 140 inmates in cells similar to Alcatraz because they were all built about the same time. The Courthouse was finished in 1929.

The former jail at the Santa Barbara Courthouse

Although Alcatraz is best known for its 29 years (1934 to 1963) as the site of one of our most infamous federal penitentiaries, it has a much longer history as a “prison island.” Probably one of the most famous islands in the world. It’s known as “The Rock” and is located in San Francisco Bay 1.5 miles offshore from the city. It originally served as a lighthouse. The U.S. Army established a fort on the barren, turtle-shaped island in 1853. The Army occupied Alcatraz for about 80 years, but its protection of the Golden Gate as a lighthouse is not what gained the 22-acre island recognition. Alcatraz housed many famous criminals such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and can be visited by ferry.

In 1859 eleven military prisoners accompanied the first garrison. They were placed in a dungeon-like room that was accessed with a ladder through a hatch in the floor of the guardhouse. Thus began imprisonment. Over time four separate buildings were added to hold prisoners. In 1908 the War Department constructed a fourth and last cell house which is the large concrete building you see today.

Life in the 600 cement cell house was governed by military rules of conduct but something new was added – rehabilitation. A school was begun with departments for education, vocational, and military training. Every prisoner went and many returned to active Army service. Seventy percent finished their tours of duty in good standing.

In 1933 the expense of transporting supplies and personnel to and from was too expensive. The Army gave it to the Department of Justice. With renovation, it became a jail.

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from the Alcatraz ferry

Yes, people did escape. The military prison was not maximum security and was staffed with soldiers, not trained guards. They came later in 1907. In May 1878, two prisoners commandeered a boat and got away. In 1877, nine prisoners fled from work assignments in San Francisco. My favorite escape is in 1906 when four convicts stole a butter vat from the bakery and tried to paddle it the mile and a quarter to San Francisco Currents and wind forced them to return and they were found hiding in a power magazine. The next year three men tried it on a bread kneading trough.

In 1912 two prisoners tried to escape on a raft. Another time a pair tried clinging to a log; one drowned and the other was caught. Forgery and disguise were also tried. In 1903 four prisoners drafted an official looking document recommending their own release and forged the commanding officer’s signature. They were freed; one was caught but three vanished.

During the flu epidemic in 1918, inmates stole uniforms and flu masks and boarded an Army launch but were captured a few days later.

In the movie Escape from Alcatraz, the warden says to a new prisoner (Clint Eastwood), “If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison. If you disobey the rules of prison, they send you to us.” And that’s the way it really was. Women convicts were never housed in Alcatraz. It was segregated with African American inmates housed in the top tiers of B and C Block while Asian and Latino inmates were mixed in with white prisoners. Over the course of the years it was a federal penitentiary (1934-1963). 1,545 men did time on Alcatraz. All but 71 were transferred from other prisons after creating problems of one kind or another.

One of the cells similar to the ones in Santa Barbara’s former jail

Did anyone escape from the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary? Yes, No. Maybe. Between 1934 and 1963 a total of 34 men tried to escape in 14 separate attempts. Five were never seen or heard from again and presumed to have drowned. Two tried to escape twice. And the list goes on.

By the 1960s U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy reevaluated the prison. The marine environment had deteriorated the cement cell house and a new sewage system was needed. Rehabilitation was in the future so Alcatraz was closed March 21, 1963 with the inmates transferred to other prisons.

My last prison story is about Saint (Santa) Barbara who, legend has it, was locked in a tower by her father to keep her safe from suitors. This was about 250 A.D. and maybe in Turkey. While he was gone she added a third window to her tower representing the trinity. When her father returned he knew that meant she had turned Christian. He was so angry that he chopped her head off. The minute he did, he was struck dead by lightening. She is the patron saint of munitions and dangerous jobs. Maybe she zapped him!

Walking around Alcatraz as part of the self-guided tour with earphones

The next time you’re in San Francisco, if you’ve never been to Alcatraz, hop on that ferry for a fascinating and emotional self-guided tour with headphones to direct you. The National Park service is the caretaker now. In the words of inmate Jim Quillen #AZ586, “Nothing could blot out the knowledge of what and where you were, or the certainty that this was all that life held for you in the future. Man was never intended to live as a caged animal; I often speculated as to whether life was worth living under these conditions.”

Maybe when things get back to normal, you’ll come to the Courthouse for a docent led tour. They’re free.


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