You may think you’re the proverbial “black sheep” in your family, but one of your forebears might have an even spottier record… and that record might run through Alcatraz. has finished digitizing records for all 1,575 inmates who were ever incarcerated at the island fortress in San Francisco Bay during its 29 years as a civilian federal prison. Residents of Alcatraz included gangster Al Capone, who was sent there from Leavenworth in Kansas to serve even harder time. (In its history, Alcatraz was also a military prison, and was occupied for 19 months by American Indian protesters.)

The database also covers the federal prisons at Leavenworth, Atlanta and McNeil Island.

The physical records from Alcatraz rest at a branch of the National Archives in San Bruno. That’s lucky for Bay Area residents who may want to see their relatives’ original records, says Quinton Jackson, the website’s director of content acquisition who negotiated this deal.

“You can… get the actual casefile, which may be up to 700 pages long about any one individual, along with a mugshot,” said Atkinson.

Listen to Joshua Johnson’s interview with’s Quinton Atkinson: [audio:]

The public can EMail requests for casefiles to the local branch’s main address. The agency says it will answer requests within ten business days. The waiting list is pretty long, though. It also takes longer to release files on people who are still alive, due to privacy issues.

The thought of learning you have relatives that were high-level federal convicts might be unsettling to some, but Atkinson found that a similar release of prison records from Australia has been a hit with users there.

“Maybe at the family barbecue you would discuss some of the interesting stories,” Atkinson said. “Maybe one of your ancestors wasn’t as notorious as Al Capone, but you could find out that they rubbed shoulders in the same place.”

Check out the database at And if you do find a relative there, tell our blogger, Jon Brooks, about it. 

BTW, the Archivist of the United States has also released what’s believed to be the only surviving audio recording from Alcatraz — a disciplinary hearing for an inmate accused of sneaking croutons into the prison. No, that’s not prison slang for something else; I actually mean CROUTONS: crunchy cubes of bread that spice up a salad. Truly, a menace to society!

Did your relatives do time at Alcatraz? Find out! 29 October,2010Joshua Johnson


Joshua Johnson

Joshua Johnson is the creator and host of Truth Be Told, a special series on race from KQED and PRI. Prior to creating the show, he served as the station’s morning news anchor for five-and-half years.

Prior to joining KQED, Joshua spent six years as an anchor/reporter for WLRN Miami Herald News. He’s a native of South Florida, with degrees from the University of Miami. His reporting and newscasting have won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and from the National Association of Black Journalists. Joshua is also active in his union, SAG-AFTRA. He lives in San Francisco.

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