The Women of Alcatraz

Alcatraz, located just over a mile from San Francisco, CA is one of the most well-known high-security prisons in America. Housing infamous criminals such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud, Alcatraz has been the inspiration for numerous books, movies and tales. Open for just 30 years from 1933-1963, Alcatraz was home to over 1,500 inmates at one point or another. Remarkably, not one of these inmates was a woman, and none of the guards were either.

I visited Alcatraz earlier this week and stopped to ask one of the rangers about this gender discrepancy. She informed me, “there were hardly any women’s prisons at that time. There simply wasn’t a need, as women were not the ones committing the crimes.” Despite what you might believe from shows like Orange is the New Black, these numbers haven’t changed a lot since then. Today, women are usually not the people committing hard crimes. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, today 93.3% of inmates are male. That means that the vast majority of of criminal behavior is committed by men. Further, women are more likely to be incarcerated for a non-violent crime (such as a drug related offense). What is it that makes men more likely to engage in criminal behavior? Is it something innate? Is it something they are taught? Obviously this could lead us into a never-ending nature vs nurture debate. As this is a very complex topic, I will have to address this more in a later blog post.

So, if there were no women inmates and no women guards at Alcatraz, were there any women there? Yes! In fact, hundreds of women lived on Alcatraz island. At any point in time over 60 guard families lived on Alcatraz, including women and children. It was a miniature society there with a post office, a general store, and even a Ladies Club. The children would take a ferry each day into San Francisco to go to school, and then they would come back to the island to play, do homework and eat dinner. Some of the girls who grew up on the island described it as “idyllic” and “fabulous.” Ann Burrows Eib, the daughter of one of the guards, even had her wedding on Alcatraz while it was still a functioning prison. Talk about an unconventional location for a wedding!

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This is one of the buildings the families lived in on Alcatraz. Room with a view!

Today, Alcatraz is populated mostly by tourists coming to see the prison remains. However, Alcatraz is also known for its flora and its bird population. See, the women of Alcatraz helped leave behind a legacy in the beauty they brought to the island. Before Alcatraz was inhabited there were few to no plants or flowers on the island. Then, the military and the families brought plants to garden that still exist today. The island is filled with exquisite flowers and plants everywhere you turn! This work was not done only by the women on the island, but they certainly had a large role, the fruit of which is still being enjoyed today.

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