Why were federal prisons built and why did Alcatraz close?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Federal prisons were constructed to hold those criminals convicted of federal crimes, which have separate statutes, or laws passed by the federal government which must be adhered to by all the country's citizens (e.g.Federal Income Tax evasion, crossing state lines with illegal goods). Prior to the creation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1930, federal offenders were either given corporal punishment, fined, or confined to state or local institutions.

In 1891 the Three Prisons Act was passed; three sites around the United States were selected for the construction of federal penitentiaries. Development, however, was extremely slow, and it was not until 1897 that U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth was completed as it took six years to get to the ground-breaking, and 25 years for inmates to build it. In 1902 USP Atlanta was constructed, the largest concrete facility in the country. Then, in 1909, MacNeil Island in Washington state was built, but it, like Alcatraz, which opened in 1934, was closed. Both facilities were constructed on islands, a situation which made the operation of these facilities very expensive since everything had to be transported in and out of the institutions. Alcatraz cost $10 per prisoner per day in contrast to $3 spent in other prisons. In addition, the salt water of the bay had done a great deal of damage to the facility.

Viewed by the Bureau of Prisons as a precursor to the supermaximum prisons such as Marion USP and ADX Florence in Colorado Springs, Alcatraz, located off the coast of San Francisco, housed the infamous Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and "The Birdman of Alcatraz," Roger Stroud. Formerly a military prison from 1907, it was transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933. When Alcatraz closed in 1963, inmates were transported to USP Marion, Illinois, now a level 6 prison, the highest level. For a long time, too, residents of the area had complained of the sewage released into the bay by the 150 inmates and 60 families living on the island.

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