Located in San Francisco, California, Alcatraz prison is one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Built upon a rugged island terrain and surrounded by freezing water, it was deemed to be an ideal location for high security prison for the country’s most dangerous criminals. It quickly gained a darkened reputation of brutality and inhumane living conditions, and was eventually forced to shut down due to severe structural faults.
History of Alcatraz Federal Prison
Alcatraz Island was reserved for military use in 1850 by President Millard Fillmore, and within several years a fortress was constructed on the rugged terrain. During the American Civil War, the U.S army began to hold military prisoners on the Island. As the entire complex was surrounded by cold, harsh waters, it was deemed impossible to escape from, and therefore ideal as a prison.
The military prisoners being held in Alcatraz in the 1860’s included those accused of treason, Confederate sympathisers, and unruly American Indians. As the Spanish-American war broke out in the 1890’s, the population at Alcatraz substantially rose and the need for an expansion became prominent. Construction began in the early 20th century for a new cell-house (containing 600 cells), a small hospital, a mess hall, and several other buildings, and was mainly carried out by the prison inmates.
It was in 1933 when the military handed Alcatraz Island over to the U.S Justice Department to be used as a high security federal prison. The Justice Department wanted a facility which could hold criminals deemed to be too dangerous for standard prisons. Alterations were made, to ensure the levels of security were high enough to hold such dangerous prisoners,and the facility officially opened on 1 July 1934.
James Johnston was hired as the prison warden, and the first batch of inmates arrived a month after the official open date. A total of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz on 11 August, and consisted of bank robbers, counterfeiters, murderers and sodomites. It is also believed that 32 inmates were those already detained at the facility from when it was a military prison. There were 155 members of staff hired to work at the prison, none of whom were trained in rehabilitation, but rather security.
The inmate population continued to rise, and by June 1935 the facility was holding 242 prisoners, but issues were beginning to arise. The metal detectors in Alcatraz often overheated, leaving officers no other choice but to turn them off for long intervals. After several failed attempts to correct the issue, Teletouch Corporation, the company who provided the equipment, were forced to have their contract terminated, and were charged over $200 for replacement metal detectors.
In January 1935, a severe storm cased a landslide to occur on the island, taking with it the Model Industries building. Many adaptations were made to the Alcatraz after this, including the construction of a rip-rap around the island to avoid further landslides, a guard tower, and adaptations to the barracks building to accommodate for families. By 1936, there were 56 families living on the island,including almost 130 women and children. Despite the additions and adaptations, problems continued to arise within the prison’s utility system, particularly within the older buildings. The following year, further updates were made to Alcatraz, including the installation of two new boilers, a new water sanitation pump and guard rails.
Between 1939 and 1941, a further $1.1 million was spent on a further influx of additions and amendments The New Industries building was constructed, alongside a new water tower, new apartment blocks for the prison staff. The powerhouse on the island was installed with a new diesel engine, and D-block was converted into an isolation wing. For a while, the improvements appeared to be working.
Administration – The focal point for administration at Alcatraz was located at the entrance of the prison, which also included the warden’s office. The administrative section included offices for the associate warden, a mail desk, the captain’s desk, a business office, an accounting office, an officer’s lounge, the armoury and a visitation centre. The control room was added in 1961 and fitted out with modern technology to provide additional security to the facility.
Basement – The basement of Alcatraz contained the prison showers and a small set of dungeons, built by the U.S Military in the late 1800’s. The main entrance to the dungeons was a set of stairs which was situated along Sunrise Alley at the side of A-Block. However, there was a second entrance in the form of a trap door, which was positioned along the corridor of D-Block.
Reports show that during 1912 – 1940 the old dungeons were used to hold the most dangerous criminals from the prison, as a form of punishment The old cells were damp and cold, with no lighting or air ventilation present. Although inmates were never there for long periods of time, many were subjected to being thrown in the dungeons when they misbehaved.
The Cell-house – The new cell-house was built in 1912 and cost a total of $250,00 to construct Upon completion, the building stood at 150 metres long, making it the longest concrete building in the world at that time. It was further modernised in 1933 and was then transformed into the main cell block for Alcatraz prisoners. The cell-house consisted of three-stories, split into four blocks: A-Block, B-Block, C-Block and D-Block. It also included the warden’s office, a visitation room, library and a barbershop.
This section was never used by the federal prison as a permanent holding block, and was only ever used occasionally to hold those awaiting transfer. The block was never modernised, and so the original iron bars, key locks and spiral staircases of the military prison remained, albeit it in a deteriorated condition. It once contained a law library, where inmates were able to read up on legal documents, and also the barbershop which was located at the back of the block. Eventually, the cell-block became a place to store materials from around the prison.
The lower tier of B-Block (‘Fish Row’) was allocated to the new arrivals at Alcatraz, where they would stay in ‘quarantine status’ for a period of 90 days. During this time, the prisoners were kept in isolation, and were forbidden to have any visitors or contact with anyone on the outside world. The other two tiers of B-Block were used as the general population for the moderately behaved prisoners. In June 1962, Clarence and John Anglin and Frank Morris escaped from the prison by entering the utility corridor behind B-Block.
C-Block was used as the main general population unit, containing three tiers of cells. Half of the cells faced North, and the other half facing South, with a utility corridor running between them to supply the cells with plumbing, circulation and electricity. Each cell was around 9 feel by 5 feet, and contained a bed, a sink, and a toilet. Two cells at the end of C-Block were allocated as rest rooms for the prison guards.
D-Block was reserved for the most dangerous inmates at Alcatraz, and contained 36 segregation cells and six solitary confinement cells. It quickly gained the reputation of a ‘treatment block’ and was notorious for the harsh punishments inflicted upon the inmates. In this cell block, prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for up to 19 days. They ate in their cells, were forbidden to work and were reduced down to two showers per week. Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, had one of the longest stays in D-Block, after spending six years in solitary confinement in cell 42.
The worst part of D-Block was known as ‘The Hole’, and was located at the end of the block in cells 9- 14. These cells were reserved as a form of punishment for misbehaving inmates, and were kept at a colder temperature than the rest of the prison cells, and were completely devoid of light. Prisoners who were sent to ‘the hole’ were often stripped, beaten, starved, tortured and left to sleep on the cold concrete floor. The cells in ‘the hole’ contained nothing but a sink and a toilet, and the prisoners often threw faeces at the prison officers whenever they were presented with the opportunity.
Henri Young described his experience in ‘the hole’ at his trial in 1941:
“Its size was approximately that of a regular cell-9 feet by 5 feet by about 7 feet high. I could just touch the ceiling by stretching out my arm… You are stripped nude and pushed into the cell. Guards take your clothes and go over them minutely or what few grains of tobacco may have fallen into the cuffs or pockets. There is no soap. No tobacco. No toothbrush, The smell – well you can describe it only by the word ‘stink.’ It is like stepping into a sewer. It is nauseating. After they have searched your clothing, they throw it at you. For bedding, you get two blankets, around 5 in the evening. You have no shoes, no bed, no mattress-nothing but the four damp walls and two blankets. The walls are painted black. Once a day I got three slices of bread-no-that is an error. Some days I got four slices. I got one meal in five days, and nothing but bread in between. In the entire thirteen days I was there, I got two meals… I have seen but one man get a bath in solitary confinement, in all the time that I have been there. That man had a bucket of cold water thrown over him.”
Corridors – The Cell-house in Alcatraz has a multitude of corridors which were named after major American landmarks and streets. The corridor to the side of A-Block was known as Michigan Avenue, the one in between blocks B and C was called Broadway. Times Square was the inmates meeting point near the dinning hall, and the corridor between C-Block and the library was Park Avenue. The corridor which ran through D-Block was known as the Sunset Strip.
Dining Hall – The dining hall in Alcatraz was more commonly known as the Mess Hall, and it was the location where prisoners and staff alike ate their meals. Located on the west end of the main cell-house, it is connected to the corridor known as times square and is situated in the very centre of the island.
The dining procedure was well regimented at Alcatraz, with a whistle system set in place to command different cell blocks at a time to enter or depart the hall. Prisoners were sent to breakfast at 6:55am and their menu often consisted of dry cereals, steamed whole wheat, scrambled egg, milk, fruit, toast and butter. The dining hall was able to seat up to 250 people at in one interval, feeding prisoners and guards at the same time.
The Recreation Yard – The yard was located opposite the dining hall facing the mainland, and was surrounded by a high wall and a fence. The guard tower lay to the west of the yard, to ensure the inmates could be watched at all times. The yard was used for the inmates recreational time on a Saturday and Sunday for a maximum of 5 hours, but was also banned as a punishment for the badly behaved prisoners. Prisoners were allowed to play a variety of games in the recreation yard, including baseball, softball and chess and were provided with the necessary items,such as gloves, bats and chess sets.
From the very first day as a federal prison, Alcatraz gained a fearsome reputation. It was known to hold America’s most dangerous criminals, and reports of brutality and violence soon leaked out into the public domain. Prisoners would tell their families tales of inhumane conditions within the walls of Alcatraz, describing the isolation and filth which would severely test their sanity. In 1939, the U.S Attorney General, Frank Murphy declared that “the whole institution is conductive to psychology that builds up a sinister ambitious attitude among prisoners.”
Alcatraz was said to be impossible to escape from, but this did not stop prisoners from trying. A total of 36 inmates tried to escape the prison during 14 separate attempts. Out of these 36, 23 men were caught, six were shot and killed, two drowned in the San Francisco Bay and five men are listed as ‘missing and presumed drowned.’
Joseph Bowers – The very first attempt to escape Alcatraz was on 27th April 1936 by Joseph Bowers. He was assigned the chore of burning rubbish at the prison incinerator, when he climbed the large chain link fence at the edge of the island. Officers in the guard tower spotted him immediately and ordered him to climb down. After Bowers refused to return to the ground, the guards shot him and he fell to his death. There was much debate at the time as to whether this was a serious escape attempt, a suicide attempt, or an innocent attempt to feed seagulls. Fellow inmate Henry Larry reported seeing Bowers just before his escape attempt feeding seagulls. He claimed that he watched Bowers stack several empty barrels and climb up the fence to retrieve some food which had been caught on the fence.
Other theories show that Bowers was not adapting to life in Alcatraz prison, and that his intention was to be killed from the fall, or from the shot of a prison guard. Other inmates deemed Bowers to be criminally insane, and his previous suicide attempts were largely known around the facility. He was not ever officially declared insane, and regardless of his motives, he was declared the first attempted escapee.
Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe – The second escape attempt was in December 1937 by Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe. Whilst performing their work assignments in the workshop,the pair managed to cut through the flat iron bars of a window, climb through and escape the facility. There was a severe storm that day, causing the surrounding waters of San Francisco Bay to become highly turbulent, and the pair were presumed drowned. Although their bodies were never found, it is presumed that their bodies were swept out in to the sea during the harsh storm..
The Battle of Alcatraz – The Battle of Alcatraz is known as the most violent escape attempt in Alcatraz. It began on the 2 May 1946 when six prisoners (Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Clarent Carnes,Marvin Hubbard and Miran Thompson) over powered the guards and took over control of the cell-block, and stole the keys to the recreation yard.
Their plan was to escape by taking a boat from the island’s dock, but this failed when they failed to locate the key to the outside door. When the six inmates realised they weren’t going to get out, they took two guards hostage and eventually shot them at close range. Both prison officers died as a result. After this incident, three of the prisoners (Shockley, Thompson and Carnes) returned to their cells, leaving the remaining three to pursue their fight alone.
On the 4 May, the U.S Marines entered the facility and shot and killed the three armed inmates, Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard. Besides the two guards and three prisoners who were killed during the battle, a total of 17 other guards and one inmate were seriously injured. The three men who returned to their cells were tried for the murder of the two guards, William Miller and Harold Stites. Both Shockley and Thompson were sentenced to death via gas chamber, which was carried out at San Quentin in 1948. As Carnes was only 19 years of age at the time of the battle, he was not given the death penalty, but handed another life sentence.
Three Missing, Presumed Drowned – In June 1962, Frank Morris, and John and Clarence Anglin executed one of the most famous escapes from prison of all time. The inmates gradually chiselled away at a unguarded utility corridor behind B-Block. Using tools such as spoons, coins and even a makeshift electric drill, the prisoners were able to dig their way through the eroding walls and into the fan vent, using fake walls to hide their work. The three prisoners removed the fans and motor in the vent, and replaced them with a steel grill with a shaft large enough for a person to fit through.
During this elaborate escape attempt, the prisoners had made an inflatable raft out of stolen raincoats they mad managed to procure, which had been made on the top of the cell block, and concealed by sheets. On the night of the escape, the prisoners placed papier-mâché dummies in their beds, to fool the guards into thinking they were still in their cells, and headed though their self-dug tunnel.
Allen West was meant to be the fourth member of the group, but when the escape was brought forward, he had problems with his fake wall and his escape was delayed. By the time he had managed to crawl out of the air vent, the other prisoners had already gone. The prisoners were never found, but the FBI determined that it was doubtful the three escapees would have survived the harsh waters of the bay, or the freezing temperature which lingered that night. Despite this, there have been claims of an illegal boat spotted in the bay the night of the escape, and that a vehicle was stolen by three men on the mainland.
- James A. Johnson
Term: 1934 – 1948. James Johnson was the first warden to be hired at Alcatraz. He was the previous warden at both Folsom and San Quentin, and was a played a crucial role in the development of turning Alcatraz into a Federal Prison. During his career, he was known as a strict disciplinarian who imposed strict regimes upon the inmates, such as time in silence, solitary confinement and even straight jackets. Despite his strict rules and conduct, Johnson was liked and respected by both the guards at Alcatraz and the majority of the inmates, and earned himself the nickname“Old Saltwater.”
- Edwin B. Swope
Term: 1948 – 1955. Edwin Swope was the second warden to be placed at Alcatraz. He had previously been the warden at New Mexico State Prison and the Washington State McNeil Island, and was also a member of the Demographic Party. Just like his predecessor, Swope was a strict disciplinarian, but he also make several attempts to reform the prisoners, instead of simply disciplining the. He introduced painting sessions into the daily regime, alongside a prisoner’s orchestra and movie showings every other weekend. Despite his changes, Swope is considered to be the most unpopular warden at Alcatraz, gaining approval from neither his guards nor his inmates.
- Paul J. Madigan
Term: 1955 – 1961. Paul Madigan was the third warden at Alcatraz, and the only one to have worked his way up through the prison hierarchical structure. Once a correctional officer on the island, Madigan had gained a promotion to the Associate Warden when James Johnston was in charge. When finally appointed warden in 1955, Madigan brought a softer approach to the prisoners than his previous predecessors, and was well liked among the staff an prisoners alike.
- Olin G. Blackwell
Term: 1961- 1963. Olin Blackwell was the fourth and final warden to be hired at Alcatraz prison. Before his position as warden, Blackwell was the Associate Warden to Paul Madigan, and was promoted in 1961. He served as warden at the most strenuous time sin the history of the prison, and faced major issues with the deterioration of the building and financial troubles.
The Decline and End of Alcatraz
Although the prison regimes were improving, and ideas of reform were surfacing at Alcatraz, it began facing extremely negative responses from the 1950’s onwards. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) declared it to be the most expensive penal institution in the country, and in 1952, the Director called for a more centralized prison to replace Alcatraz.
The major flaw with Alcatraz was the core structure of the building, and its vulnerability to the salty air and winds of the San Francisco Bay. Millions of dollars had been spent since its opening on attempting to protect the building from the elements, but it was estimated in the 1950’s that a further $5 million would be needed to repair the facility. These repairs began in 1958, but two years into the operation, the building was declared to be a lost cause by engineers. The 1962 escape attempt added to the already negative reputation of the prison, and demonstrated its inability to provide the levels of security it was built for.
The structural problems combined with the escape attempt proved too much for the prison, and it was officially closed on 21 March 1963.
The island was declared as a national recreation area in 1972, and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. The facility is now a museum, managed by the National Park Service and is open to the public. Visitors can take a short ferry ride to the island from Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco,and are able to tour the old Cell-block. Many visitors have described a dark and ‘eerie’ sensation as they walk past the corridors, yet it remains one of the city’s major tourist attractions.
The old prison attracts up to 1.5 million visitors per year, and work continues to be done on keeping the buildings maintained and protected against the harsh surrounding weather.
Alphonse “Al” Gabriel Capone – Al Capone was an American gangster who was sent to federal prison for tax evasion in 1931, and resided in Alcatraz from 1934– 1939. It is believed by many that Capone was responsible for ordering the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood on the North side of Chicago. These claims have been widely disputed, and no one has ever been taken to trial for the seven murders.
Robert Franklin Stroud (“Birdman of Alcatraz”) – In 1909,Stroud shot and killed a barman and a prostitute, and was sentenced to 12 years of incarceration at McNeil Island. During his time there, he became known as a dangerous criminal, confronting both prison guards and inmates. In 1916, he stabbed a prison officer to death, and was given a death sentence for the crime. He was sent to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, where he found a net with three injured sparrows inside.
This began his collection of birds, and after several years he had a collection of over 300 canaries, which earned him his nickname. During his years at Leavenworth, Stroud reared and sold many birds, and became a well respected ornithologist after years of study. His business was stopped when he was found to be using his equipment to manufacture alcohol in his cell, and in 1942he was transferred to Alcatraz, where (despite his nickname) he was not permitted to keep birds.
Alvin Francis Karpavicz (“Creepy Karpis”) – Karpis was a Depression-era gangster nicknamed”Creepy” for his sinister smile. He was a Canadian born criminal of Lithuanian descent known for being one of the three leaders of the Barker-Karpis gang in the 1930s. He was the last “Public Enemy #1” to be taken. He also spent the longest time as a federal prisoner in Alcatraz Prison, serving twenty-six years after being sent there in 1936.
George Barnes (“Machine Gun Kelly”) – Barnes was an American gangster known as Machine Gun Kelly because of his favourite weapon, a Thompson sub machine gun. In July 1933,he kidnapped the oil tycoon Charles Urschel and collected a $200,000 ransom fee. Barnes and his gang left behind considerable evidence, and the FBI were able to locate Kelly which led to his arrest in September 1933. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1934, where he remained until 1951.
Roy Gardener – Known as the most ruthless inmate in Alcatraz, Gardener was a celebrated outlaw and American bank robber. He stole over $350,000 throughout his robbing career, and renowned as ‘The King of the Escape Artists.’ He was the ‘most wanted’ gangster of 1921.