10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. IT BECAME A MILITARY OUTPOST IN THE 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. INMATES WERE FORCED TO BUILD THEIR OWN PRISON.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. LIFE THERE WASN’T SO BAD.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. ODDS OF ESCAPE WERE SLIM.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. INMATES LIKED PLAYING SOFTBALL.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. GUARDS LIVED ON THE ISLAND WITH THEIR FAMILIES.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. IT WAS CLOSED FOR BEING TOO EXPENSIVE.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. NATIVE AMERICANS OCCUPIED IT IN PROTEST.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. YOU CAN TAKE A TOUR.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. It’s possibly the only such park that can lay claim to Al Capone once strolling its grounds. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry (via the wonderfully-named Alcatraz Cruises). Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. IT’S LITERALLY GONE TO THE BIRDS.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Invictus Games

Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Though the media tends to dwell on the private life of Prince Harry and his recent marriage to actor Meghan Markle, the Duke of Sussex has more on his mind than tabloids might suggest. Beginning October 20 in Sydney, Australia, and running through October 27, he'll be presenting the Invictus Games, a multi-sport competition he created in 2014 for wounded veterans. Athletes will participate in a variety of sports, including wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, in an attempt to earn medals and, in Harry's words, "demonstrate life beyond disability."

For more on the history (and future) of the Games, check out our round-up below.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY AN AMERICAN COMPETITION.

Prince Harry talks to a Warrior Games representative in the United States
Arthur Edwards-Pool, Getty Images

While on a promotional tour of the United States to raise awareness for his charities, Prince Harry was invited to appear in support of the British team in the Warrior Games, a competition for wounded service veterans that was held in Colorado in 2013. Impressed by the camaraderie and enthusiasm shown by participants, he took the concept and created the Invictus (Latin for "unvanquished" or "unconquered") Games. The inaugural event was held in London in September 2014. "It was such a good idea by the Americans that it had to be stolen," he joked.

2. IT'S FUNDED IN PART BY BANK FINES.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stand on the sidelines
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

While the Invictus Games attract corporate sponsors—including Jaguar—to subsidize the operating costs of the event, funds for the 2014 installment also came from fines levied against British banks that were charged with manipulating currency exchange rates. Approximately £1 million (roughly $1,300,000) were made available from the fines, matching the £1 million Prince Harry donated via his Royal Foundation.

3. THE GAMES FEATURE INDOOR ROWING.

An athlete in the Invictus Games competes in indoor rowing
Steve Bardens, Getty Images for Invictus Games

Invictus invites athletes to compete across a range of adaptive sporting events—sports that have been modified to be all-inclusive for people with an array of physical challenges. In sitting volleyball, athletes have to keep one butt cheek touching the floor while touching the ball. In indoor rowing, athletes use a rowing machine to simulate outdoor rowing.

4. WHEELCHAIR RUGBY GETS INTENSE.

Invictus Games athletes participate in wheelchair rugby
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

If you have an impression that modified sports are somehow easier than their able-bodied counterparts, you're mistaken. In wheelchair rugby, athletes attempt to get a volleyball across a court and between two cones on the opposing team's side. They experience frequent collisions that appear to have more in common with demolition derbies than football, and participants are sometimes blindsided by the hits, which can bend wheels and axles.

5. IT'S NOT JUST FOR HUMANS.

A service dog shakes off water after a swim at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for Invictus

Because many disabled veterans rely on service dogs to assist in tasks of daily living, Games officials were more than willing to open their doors to the animals during the 2016 event in Orlando. At the last minute, organizers permitted the dogs to jump in the pool for an unofficial race. (Though it was held at Disney World, Pluto was not invited to participate in the doggy-paddle event.)

6. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN MADE AN APPEARANCE.

Bruce Springsteen shakes the hand of a war veteran at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Prince Harry's involvement has contributed heavily to appearances by a number of well-known public figures at the Games. Former president Barack Obama and Joe Biden attended the 2017 competition; David Beckham was named the 2018 ambassador. In 2017, Bruce Springsteen closed out the event in Toronto with a solo set. He was later joined on stage by Bryan Adams.

7. THERE WAS A GAP YEAR.

Prince Harry talks to representatives at the Invictus Games
Gregory Shamus, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

After the 2014 Games in London, Orlando hosted the 2016 contest and Toronto held the 2017 installment. There was no 2015 edition—the Games used a gap year in order for Orlando to raise the funds to organize the event. The competition will also skip 2019, moving to the Hague in the Netherlands for the 2020 Games.

8. IT'S GETTING MORE VETERANS INVOLVED IN SPORTS.

A group of athletes huddle during the Invictus Games
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Members of the armed services don't need to compete in the Games to feel their influence. Following the inaugural 2014 event, Help for Heroes, which assisted in recruiting British athletes for competition, reported that there was a 463 percent increase in veterans signing up for archery talent assessments and a 633 percent increase in powerlifting enrollees.

9. THE GAMES WILL BE STUDIED BY SCIENCE.

An Invictus Games athlete holds up a trophy
Paul Thomas, Getty Images for Jaguar Land Rover

Participation in Invictus appears to be a significant boost for the overall morale of contestants. And thanks to a grant from the Forces in Mind Trust, we'll eventually have some objective evidence of it. For the next four years, researchers will follow 300 athletes to assess their overall well-being compared to non-participants. Such evidence of the benefits of adaptive sport will likely contribute to a greater number of participants—and funding—in the future.

10. A COMMEMORATIVE COIN WAS ISSUED IN BRAILLE.

An Invictus Games commemorative coin features text in Braille
Royal Australian Mint

In honor of the Invictus Games' vision-impaired contestants, the Royal Australian Mint issued its first-ever coin with Braille text. Intended to commemorate and publicize the 2018 event in Sydney, the coin features a disabled competitor and "Sydney '18" in Braille. The $1 AUD coin sells for $15 AUD (about $11) and is limited to a run of 30,000. A gold-plated version is limited to 2018 copies and sells for $150 AUD ($108).

12 Facts About Fibromyalgia

iStock.com/spukkato
iStock.com/spukkato

To people living with fibromyalgia, the symptoms are all too real. Muscle tenderness, full-body pain, and brain fog make it hard to function—and getting a restful night’s sleep isn’t much easier. To the frustration of patients, other aspects of the chronic condition—such as what causes it, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it—are more of a mystery. But after decades of rampant misconceptions, we know more facts about fibromyalgia than ever before.

1. SYMPTOMS FEEL DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary widely. The defining characteristic of the condition is widespread pain, or pain felt throughout the entire body, but how often this pain occurs and how intensely it’s felt is different in each patient. Some people may feel pain reminiscent of a sunburn, a pins-and-needle sensation, sharp stabbing, or some combination of the above. Beyond pain, the condition can come with fatigue, disrupted sleep, depression and anxiety, and trouble focusing (known as “fibro fog").

2. IT AFFECTS MOSTLY WOMEN.

Most fibromyalgia patients are female, making it more prevalent in women than breast cancer. Not only are women more likely to have fibromyalgia than men, but they report experiencing the symptoms more acutely as well. Researchers still aren’t sure why the condition has a disproportionate impact on women, but they speculate that because the diagnosis is most common during a woman's fertile years, it may have something to do with estrogen levels. Some experts also suspect that the condition may be under-diagnosed in men because it’s often labeled a woman’s problem.

3. IT’S RARE.

Though it has gained visibility in recent years, your chances of experiencing fibromyalgia are still slim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects roughly 4 million adults in the U.S., or 2 percent of the population. Fibromyalgia’s similarity to other mysterious conditions also means it is likely overdiagnosed, so that number may be even lower.

4. MOST PEOPLE GET IT IN MIDDLE AGE.

People who have fibromyalgia tend to develop it well into adulthood. The condition is most common in 30- to 50-year-olds, but people of all ages—including children and seniors—can have it. Fibromyalgia in patients 10 and younger, also called juvenile fibromyalgia, often goes unrecognized.

5. IT’S HARD TO DIAGNOSE.

There’s no one medical test that you can take to confirm you have fibromyalgia. Instead, doctors diagnosis patients who exhibit the condition’s most common symptoms—widespread pain, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and muscle tenderness in certain points on the body—by process of elimination. Polymyalgia rheumatica and hypothyroidism (or an underactive thyroid gland) provoke similar symptoms, and both show up in blood tests. Doctors will usually tests for these conditions and others before diagnosing a person with fibromyalgia.

6. THE NAME IS RELATIVELY NEW.

People have suffered from fibromyalgia for centuries, but it received its official name only a few decades ago. In 1976, the word fibromyalgia was coined to describe the condition, with fibro coming from fibrous tissue, myo from the Greek word for muscle, and algia from the Greek word for pain. The name replaced fibrositis, which was used when doctors incorrectly believed that fibromyalgia was caused by inflammation (which -itis is used to denote).

7. IT MAY BE ASSOCIATED WITH PTSD.

Health experts have long known that post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest in physical symptoms—now they suspect the disorder is sometimes connected to fibromyalgia. According to a study published in the European Journal of Pain in 2017, 49 percent of 154 female fibromyalgia patients had experienced at least one traumatic event in childhood, and 26 percent had been diagnosed with PTSD. Researchers also saw a correlation between trauma and the intensity of the condition, with subjects with PTSD experiencing more and worse fibromyalgia pain than those without it.

8. IT’S NOT “ALL IN YOUR HEAD.”

As is the case with many invisible illnesses, fibromyalgia patients are often told their symptoms are purely psychological. But findings from a 2013 study suggested what many sufferers already knew: Their pain is more than just a product of mental distress or an overactive imagination. The small study, published in the journal Pain Medicine, found extra sensory nerve fibers around certain blood vessel structures in the hands of 18 of 24 female fibromyalgia patients compared to 14 of 23 controls. The study proposed that the nerve endings—once thought to merely regulate blood flow—may also be able to perceive pain, an idea that could help dispel a harmful myth surrounding the condition.

9. IT’S CONNECTED TO ARTHRITIS, CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME, AND IBS.

For many patients, fibromyalgia isn’t the only chronic condition they suffer from. Fibromyalgia has been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, and other medical problems. In some cases, as with chronic fatigue syndrome, the two conditions have such similar symptoms that their diagnostic criteria overlaps. Others conditions like irritable bowel syndrome are related to fibromyalgia—not confused with it.

10. IT'S PROBABLY NOT GENETIC—BUT IT CAN CLUSTER IN THE FAMILIES.

If you're closely related to someone with fibromyalgia, you're more likely to have it yourself. Studies have shown that the diagnosis tends to cluster in families. At first this seems to suggest that the condition is genetic, but scientists have yet to identify a specific gene that's directly responsible for fibromyalgia. The more likely explanation for the trend is that members of the same family experience the same environmental stressors that can trigger the symptoms, or they share genes that are indirectly related to the issue.

11. ANTIDEPRESSANTS CAN HELP ...

Since we don't know what causes fibromyalgia, it's hard to treat. But patients are often prescribed antidepressants to ease their symptoms. These medications have been shown to alleviate some of the most debilitating hallmarks of the condition, such as general pain and restless nights. Doctors who support antidepressants as a fibromyalgia treatment are quick to note that that doesn’t make the condition a mental disorder. While these drugs can lift the depressed moods that sometimes come with fibromyalgia, they also function as painkillers.

12. ... AND SO CAN EXERCISE.

One of the most common pieces of advice fibromyalgia patients get from doctors is to exercise. Hitting the gym may seem impossible for people in too much pain to get off the couch, but physical activity—even in small doses—can actually alleviate pain over time. It also works as treatment for other fibromyalgia symptoms like depression and fatigue.

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