ALCATRAZ, an island in San Francisco Bay, California, was discovered by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. The United States took possession of the island in 1850 and fortified it, using it first as a military prison and later as a federal prison, beginning in 1933. Because of the strong, cold currents surrounding the island, most authorities considered it escape proof. Of the twenty-six prisoners who attempted escapes, five remain unaccounted for. The prison closed in 1963.
In November 1969 Native American activists occupied the island for over nineteen months, taking a stand
that marked a turning point in the American Indian Movement, which had begun earlier in 1969 and remained active into the late 1970s. Because the occupation brought together activists (and their broader base of supporters) from many different tribes, historians generally credit the occupation with breaking down the tribal nature of pre-1969 protests and helping to create a more unified fight for autonomy, self-determination, and appreciation of Native American cultures, even though the occupation did not achieve its initial goal of laying claim to title of the island. The island was opened to the public as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972.
Eagle, Adam Fortunate. Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Odier, Pierre. The Rock: A History of Alcatraz. Eagle Rock, Calif.: L'Image Odier, 1982.
Paul S.Voakes/c. w.
Alcatraz (ăl´kətrăz´) [Sp. Álcatraces=pelicans], rocky island in San Francisco Bay, W Calif, about one mile (1.61 km) north of San Francisco. Alcatraz was first sighted by the Spanish in 1772 (and possibly three years earlier). Its name derives from the presence of a pelican colony, but Spanish and Mexican maps referred to Yerba Buena Island as Alcatraz until 1826, when the two islands clearly acquired their present names.
Alcatraz came under U.S. control in 1850 and became the site of the first U.S. fort on the West Coast. It was used as a U.S. military prison from 1859 until 1933, when it was transferred to the control of the Dept. of Justice. A year later it became a federal prison housing the most dangerous criminals; it was closed in 1963. Nicknamed "The Rock," it was a symbol of the impregnable fortress prison with maximum security and strict discipline.
From 1969 to 1971 a group of Native American activists occupied the island in the unsuccessful hope of establishing a center there, but the occupation contributed to the growth of Native American activism and was an impetus to the adoption of federal reforms. Alcatraz became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, and by the mid-1990s it was attracting almost a million visitors a year. In 2014–15 Alcatraz was the site of a multimedia exhibition by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei that focused on human rights and prisoners od conscience.
See study by E. N. Thompson (1979); D. Ward, Alcatraz: The Gangster Years (2009).