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The name Alcatraz is derived from the Spanish Alcatraces. In 1775, the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first to sail into what is now known as San Francisco Bay - his expedition mapped the bay and named one of the three islands Alcatraces. Over time, the name was Anglicized to Alcatraz.

While the exact meaning is still debated, Alcatraz is usually defined as meaning pelican or strange bird. In 1850, a presidential order set aside the island for possible use as a United States military reservation. The California Gold Rush, the resulting boom in the growth of San Francisco, and the need to protect San Francisco Bay led the U. S. Army to build a Citadel, or fortress, at the top of the island in the early 1850s. The Army also made plans to install more than 100 cannons on the island, making Alcatraz the most heavily fortified military site on the West Coast. Together with Fort Point and Lime Point, Alcatraz formed a triangle of defense designed to protect the entrance to the bay.

The island was also the site of the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States.

By the late 1850s, the first military prisoners were being housed on the island.

While the defensive necessity of Alcatraz diminished over time (the island never fired its guns in battle), its role as a prison would continue for more than 100 years. In 1909, the Army tore down the Citadel, leaving its basement level to serve as the foundation for a new military prison.

From 1909 through 1911, the military prisoners on Alcatraz built the new prison, which was designated the Pacific Branch, U. S. Disciplinary Barracks for the U. S. Army. It was this prison building that later became famous as The Rock.

The U. S. Army used the island for more than 80 years-from 1850 until 1933, when the island was transferred to the U. S. Department of Justice for use by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Federal Government had decided to open a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary to deal with the most incorrigible inmates in Federal prisons, and to show the law-abiding public that the Federal Government was serious about stopping the rampant crime of the 1920s and 1930s. USP Alcatraz was not the Americas Devils Island that many books and movies portray. The average population was only about 260-275 (the prison never once reached its capacity of 336 - at any given time, Alcatraz held less than 1 percent of the total Federal prison population). Many prisoners actually considered the living conditions (for instance, always one man to a cell) at Alcatraz to be better than other Federal prisons, and several inmates actually requested a transfer to Alcatraz.

The islands most famous prisoner was probably Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz.

In reality, Stroud never had any birds at Alcatraz, nor was he the grandfatherly person portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the well-known movie. In 1909, Stroud was convicted of manslaughter; ...

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