In 1933, the U.S. Department of Justice took control of Alcatraz Island and turned it into the nation’s top maximum-security penitentiary. Meant to hold America’s most “incorrigible” criminals, it was retrofitted to be even more secure. Each prisoner had their own cell and there was one guard on duty for every three prisoners—all to make escape impossible.
In many ways, the creation of Alcatraz as a maximum-security prison was caused by a single factor: prohibition. With the outlawing of alcohol in 1920, the United States experienced a crime wave unlike anything ever seen before in the nation's history—and this crime was organized.
Perhaps the most notorious resident of Alcatraz was Al “Scarface” Capone, who served four years here after wardens realized he was still running his Chicago-based crime ring from his prison cell in Georgia. Another famous Prohibition Era gangster, George “Machine Gun” Kelley, served 17 years at Alcatraz on a kidnapping charge. A gangster listed as “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI, Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz served 25 years at Alcatraz, more time than any other inmate.
The Birdman of Alcatraz
No Alcatraz alumni is as interesting as Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. A self-taught ornithologist who kept and studied birds during his time at Leavenworth Penitentiary, Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz after he stabbed and killed a prison guard. Diagnosed as both a genius and a psychopath, he wrote several books about ornithology while in prison, and even discovered a cure for a common avian hemorrhaging disease.
Burt Landcaster, who personally met with Shroud, depicted his life in the 1962 film “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, available on Amazon Prime, which was based on a book by Thomas E. Gaddis.