The National Museum of Crime and Punishment & Alcatraz Island

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This is a 7:07 excerpt from AMERICAN MOSAIC, June 19, 2008.

The National Museum of Crime and Punishment opened recently in Washington, D.C.  It shows an interesting part of American history. We have more from Faith Lapidus.

The museum exhibits are separated into different time periods in America. For example, the Great Depression in the early 1930s was a very difficult period. During this time, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow became famous for stealing from stores and banks and killing police officers in several states.  Police officers finally shot and killed them in their car along a highway in Louisiana in 1934.

Bonnie and Clyde influenced popular culture over time because of their loyalty to one another. There are many songs and movies about them. In the museum, you can see a copy of their car with many bullet holes. There is also a bullet from their real car, as well as a piece of glass from a window.

One of the most famous criminals in American history was active during the 1920s.  Al Capone was often called "Scarface."  He was the head of a criminal group in Chicago, Illinois. He became known as "Public Enemy Number One."  Capone was involved in many illegal activities as well as murder.  He finally was sent to jail for not paying income taxes in 1931.  He lived a wealthy life, which you can see in the jail cell recreated to look like the one Capone occupied when he was in prison.

Al Capone lives on in many movies, as well as on television and in books. "Scarface" is one famous film based on his life. The museum shows the gun that was used in the movie.

Part of the museum tells about unsolved murders in which the killer has never been found.  These are called "cold cases." Two of the most recent are the murders of rap performers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. They were shot and killed while in their cars in the late 1990s.

One part of the National Museum of Crime and Punishment is about solving crimes. People can try to solve a "murder." A false dead body, drugs, and weapons are all part of the case.

You can learn about toxicology reports, which show what chemicals were in a person's body when he or she died. You can also learn how a person's face can be recreated with a computer or with clay. Most importantly, learning about crime can help you protect yourself from it.

While we are on the subject of crime, our listener question this week comes from Mohamad Firouzi in Iran. He wants to know about the history of Alcatraz Island and the prison that once operated there.

Alcatraz Island is in the harbor of San Francisco, California. It is best known for being a federal prison, which was also called "The Rock." It was once the most famous prison in America.

Alcatraz was a military prison from the late 1850s until the 1930s. Then it became a federal prison for the country's worst criminals. These included murderers, bank robbers and kidnappers.  One of the main reasons federal officials chose Alcatraz Island to detain these prisoners was because they thought it would be impossible for prisoners to escape.

Cold, deep and dangerous waters surround the island. Also, the distance between the island and San Francisco is too far for most humans to swim. No prisoner was ever officially reported to have successfully escaped.

However, in 1962, three men broke out of the prison. Each man worked very hard at night for many months to cut through the stone wall of his cell. They made false heads out of paper, paint and hair. On the night of June eleventh, the men placed the heads in their beds to make it look as if they were sleeping. Then, the prisoners escaped through the holes in their cells to get to the water. The men were never seen or heard from again. It is believed that they drowned while trying to swim to San Francisco.

The prison closed in 1963 because of the high cost of keeping prisoners there and the need for major repairs. The last prisoners were moved to other jails.

In 1972, the United States Congress passed a bill creating the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Alcatraz Island and the old prison are part of this area.

Each year, more than one million people visit Alcatraz to see the prisoners' cells and listen to stories about the jail's history. But unlike the prisoners who once lived there, visitors can escape from the prison whenever they want and return back across the harbor to San Francisco.

This was written by Elizabeth Stern and Caty Weaver who were also our producers.