Alcatraz Continues to Fascinate

Institution's Lore Sparks Interest in Crim Jay Careers

alcatraz island

By Paula Nechak

October marks Alcatraz Island's anniversary as a federal penitentiary, but the legendary "clink" almost didn't make bail. During the Great Depression, cutbacks nearly forced Alcatraz, nicknamed "The Rock" because of its craggy terrain, to close, but the U.S. Justice Department decided it would be a perfect place to inter the country's most incorrigible criminals. In October 1933, Alcatraz was transferred over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and for the next 30 years became "home" to such toughened thugs as Al "Scarface" Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud.

An Online Criminal Justice Lover's Heaven

Even with the first military garrison's arrival in 1859, Alcatraz Island—named Isla de los Alcacones (Island of Pelicans) by Spanish explorers in 1775—had begun to garner infamy. Six years earlier, Army engineers began construction on a military fortress and lighthouse after recognizing that the island was the ideal location for an impenetrable military lockup. Located 1.5 miles off of San Francisco's misty coast and surrounded by the Pacific Ocean's cold, dangerous current, Alcatraz Island's isolation ensured it would be difficult to escape.

In 1861, Civil War prisoners arrived, and 30 years later the Spanish-American War would push the convict population to over 450. After the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, those incarcerated in the city's jails were transferred to Alcatraz, and by the late 1920s the cell house, built in 1912 on the island's central crest, was nearly full.

Oddly enough, the island's tough reputation belied the fact that while it held harsh rules for the most seasoned offenders, the penitentiary was mostly minimum security and the inmates worked as servants for the island's community. Prisoners were even allowed to tend to the children of the Alcatraz staff. Some of the inmates took advantage of the relaxed code and plotted to escape, but of those who made an attempt, most turned back after struggling in the freezing water. The others were swept away in the current and were assumed to have drowned.

Escape from Alcatraz

But on the night of June 11, 1962, Alcatraz's most famous escape occurred: three inmates climbed over a 15-foot fence and made it to the island's shore, where they inflated rafts and life vests. They set out into San Francisco Bay and were never seen again. It is still unknown whether or not they succeeded. The story was so intriguing it contributed to the prison's legend and it later became the basis for the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie, "Escape from Alcatraz."

The Mystique Lingers

In 1963, Alcatraz—suffering from budget cuts and in a state of disrepair—closed its doors as a penitentiary. It lay deserted until 1969, when a group of American Indians declared it Native American property and created a plan for the island, including building schools and homes. But the problem of no resources and the difficulty of transporting food and water caused tension between officials and Indians, and in 1971 the Coast Guard removed the few residents who remained.

Two years later, Alcatraz opened its once-impenetrable doors to the public and, according to the National Parks Service, remains one of America's most popular parks. It continues to spark interest for not only the curious, but students of criminal justice and corrections. Viewers of television shows like "Law & Order" and "CSI" have also helped popularize the field of criminal justice and have made jobs in corrections a great career choice.

In fact, for those hoping to pursue a career in criminal justice, whether in an online criminal justice program or a traditional classroom, employment growth is expected to rise faster than average. Layoffs are rare as jobs are plentiful in not only the areas of Criminal Justice and Corrections, but in Homeland Security and Crime Investigation as well. This flexibility alone makes the field a stable—and smart—career option.