“We are looking forward to great things from Alcatraz.” – Attorney-General Homer Cummings at the official opening in 1934.
“Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.” – Convict Frank Weatherman, Number AZ1576, the last convict admitted to The Rock, on its closure in 1963.
Alcatraz is 85 years old today. At least it’s 85 years to the day since ‘United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz’ officially opened its doors at 9:40am to the first 137 prisoners to fill its cramped, cold, often damp cells. Formerly a military prison, In its early years as a Federal prison Alcatraz became the new home for criminal legends like Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Capone’s nemesis George ‘Bugs’ Moran. John Paul Chase (sidekick of George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson), Alvin ‘Old Creepy’ Karpis (of Barker Gang infamy) and famous escape artist and train robber Roy Gardner also joined the Rock’s less-than-merry guest list.
Despite their huge array of crimes, none of them had the dubious distinction of being the first inmate admitted to Alcatraz. That was Frank Bolt, number AZ1 and a holdover from the military inmates. His crime? Hardly befitting so notorious a prison designed to warehouse the worst of the worst. He was in for sodomy.
Alcatraz represented, according to its supporters anyway, a new concept in American penal policy. The concept was simple, the worst criminals would be drawn from other prisons less able to handle them. Escape artists, troublemakers, inmates with a reputation for inciting riots and strikes and high-profile criminals would find themselves headed for the ‘Bastille by the Bay.’
When Alcatraz opened America was in the grip of the legendary 1930’s Crime Wave. John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were only recent casualties of the War on Crime. Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd were still roaming, robbing and killing at will. Down in Texas Bonnie and Clyde’s former partner Ray Hamilton had recently escaped from Death Row of all places. Hamilton’s brother Floyd would, ironically, serve decades on the Rock. Something had to be, and seen to be done. Alcatraz became a showpiece for law and order.
Once they were there, the idea was simple; Maximum security, minimum privileges. Regardless of their status on the outside inmates were deliberately kept as isolated from the rest of society as possible. If you went to ‘The Rock’ it became your world. As far as possible you’d be kept as clueless as possible about anything and anybody outside the island.
Alcatraz was a response to the ‘Crime Wave’ of the late 1920’s into the early 1930’s. Rackets guys’ like Capone and Moran built huge criminal organisations, some of which still exist today. They made their money through day-to-day rackets like bootlegging, protection, gambling, loansharking, pimping, drugs and union racketeering.
The ‘Yeggmen’ or ‘Yeggs’ were a different kind of gangster. Karpis, Kelly, Chase, Gardner and others made money through armed robbery of post offices, payrolls, trains and sometimes kidnapping for ransom. They might take an Indiana one morning, an Illinois bank in the afternoon and then disappear out of state. In places like Hot Springs, Arkansas or St. Paul, Minnesota fugitives paid off local politicians and cops to live virtually openly.
But, however they made their living, once on Alcatraz they were just names and numbers. Their reputations outside counted for nothing with prison staff. Capone had served time at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in relative luxury. He had meals ordered in from local restaurants, his favourite brand of cigars, a radio in his cell and served the easiest time bribery could buy. At Alcatraz he was Convict AZ85 and nothing more.
Whatever day of the week it was the routine remained the same. Unvarying, monotonous, repetitive and stupefying after a while, it also drove inmates mad. At 6am you woke up. At 6:20 you stood at the front of your cell for a head count. At 6:30 you went to the mess hall. At 6:50 if you had a job your work day started, although even performing prison labour was a privilege at Alcatraz you had to earn. At 11:20 it was lunchtime. At 4:30 you were locked up for the night. At 9:30 the lights went out.
And so on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Aside from lawyers visits, court appearances, exercise time, doctor’s appointments and meals, the routine never, ever varied.
You could only write letters to or receive letters from an approved list of people. You could only receive visitors on the same approved list. No letters could be sent to or received from anybody then serving or having served a jail sentence. No visitors could visit without a full FBI background check. Letters were always censored and checked for invisible ink or hidden codes within the text. Letters were even copied on a typewriter and a copy given the inmate in case the paper was saturated with drugs. There were no phone calls. Even when talking to visitors or writing letter an inmate was forbidden to discuss outside events, criminal cases or the prison itself.
The rules were rigid and unbending, extending even as far as mealtimes. You could have as much deliberately-monotonous food as you wanted, but risked punishment for not finishing every scrap. First offences cost you your next meal. A second meant ten days in solitary confinement and loss of privileges.
If you were thinking of causing a mass disturbance in the dining hall then other inmates would point to large globe-like objects on the walls and ceiling; tear gas bombs. Hence the inmates nicknamed their dining hall the ‘Gas Chamber.’ If the possibility of being gassed didn’t put you off then very obvious gun ports in the walls patrolled by guards with shotguns, rifles and tommy guns were more than enough.
There were no ‘trusty’ jobs. Many prisons operate a ‘trusty’ system where inmates deemed safe enough perform tasks like clerical work. Not on The Rock. There was no inmate council to consult with staff about inmate problems or issues. According to the game plan, inmates never had the slightest choice in anything at all on the island. They were never intended to, either’
Most prisons had an 8-1 ratio of convicts to officers. At Alcatraz there were only 3 inmates per officer. The officers were hand-picked, trained in unarmed combat, marksmanship and especially to out-think inmates planning escapes or riots. There were 12 regular head counts every day, plus another 30 or so special counts in workshops, the showers, the exercise yard etc.
Most hated of all the rules was the rule of silence. From 1934 until 1937 no inmate was permitted to speak at all unless absolutely necessary. Saying more than ‘Please pass the salt’ during meals earned solitary confinement. If you spoke in a workshop except to ask for tools or to use the bathroom you risked solitary. The silence was yet another aspect of a routine expressly designed to be as dull, isolating and monotonous as humanly possible. The only times an inmate could talk were during visits, medical appointments or in the exercise yard. Anywhere else idle chat was strictly forbidden and sternly punished.
Other security precautions made Alcatraz the most secure prison on Earth. Hidden microphones were sprinkled all over the prison. Metal detectors (known to inmates as ‘Snitch Boxes’) were positioned so no inmate could walk through less than eight detectors a day, no matter what they were doing or where they were going.
The nerve centre of the prison was the Armory, run by the Armoror in a system specially designed by the prison’s first Warden, James Johnston. The Armoror controlled every electrically-operated door on the island and could lock them all with the flick of a switch. Nobody could enter or leave the main cellblock without his approval. If trouble started the Armoror could simply lock himself in his post, lock down the entire prison, summon emergency support by radio and issue weapons to as many officers as needed them. His arsenal ranged from pistols and revolvers to tear gas launchers, rifles, shotguns and tommy guns.
Even outside the buildings the security was no more relaxed. Armed guards were sited at gun towers around the island, all linked by a catwalk system. Armed guards could patrol the cellblocks in gun galleries. The galleries were separated from the inmate areas by toolproof steel bars, but officers could still turn a cellblock into a shooting gallery if needed. During the Battle of Alcatraz in May, 1946 they did exactly that. The gun towers covered the island’s roads, boat dock, exercise yard and the surrounding water. Any inmate seen running for the water could be shot on sight. Several were.
The mainland itself was 1.5 miles away from the island. Stories spread by officials about specially-trained marksmen in the gun towers weren’t true. Nor were stories about San Francisco Bay being home to man-eating sharks. But while those tall tales were exactly that, other stories were all too true. Stories about the water being barely above freezing even in summer, of currents too strong to swim against sweeping inmates out through the Golden Gate into the Pacific, about underwater currents dragging would-be escapers to watery graves.
Discipline was harsh, too. Loss of privileges was a standard punishment for minor infractions (there were precious few privileges as it was). More serious breaches meant losing time off for good behaviour as well as your day-to-day privileges. More serious offences earned a visit to the dreaded D Block, home to the solitary confinement cells and the ‘Dark Hole.’ The normal solitary cells were standard open-front cells with inmates losing their standard privileges and eating only bread and water every day. Another little irritation was a ban on tobacco for solitary inmates, annoying if you were used to a pack a day and had no books to read or anything else to pass the time.
The ‘Dark Hole’ consisted of six cells without beds, furniture, bedding, toilet or sink (the toilet consisted of a hole in the concrete floor). They had one tap dispensing only cold water and a solid steel door allowing no light at all. The cell walls were painted black, ensure absolute darkness. The maximum amount of time in the ‘Dark Hole’ was mandated by Federal law as being no more than 19 consecutive days.
This didn’t mean a maximum sentence there was 19 days, though. If you were given more than 19 days then you’d spend the 20th day in an ordinary, open-front solitary cell before returning to the ‘Dark Hole for another 19 days and so on until the end of your solitary sentence. Some inmates spent years in the ‘Dark Hole’ with light and warmth only 1 day in every 20.
Many former inmates also allege that D Block was home to rampant abuse and brutality inflicted by officers on inmates. Officers manning D Block have been accused many, many times of delivering beatings with blackjacks, brass knuckles, truncheons, nightsticks, fists, boots and rubber hoses.
Problems were rife on The Rock. Inmate murders, escape attempts, suicides, attacks on staff, inmates were regularly taken off the island having been certified insane, self-harm (especially inmates using razor blades to sever their heel tendons) was so common as to arouse little comment. All were regular fare while Alcatraz was a Federal prison.
Not for nothing was a stretch on Alcatraz described as having the “Exquisite torture of routine”, a routine that never wavered for weeks, months, years and decades of an inmate’s sentence. The self-harm wasn’t only a cry for help, it was also a calculated act of protest against the staff denying inmates their constitutional rights, especially access to the courts.
Inmates in other prisons had the right to sue the prison administration over conditions, punishments and prison regulations. They also had that right at Alcatraz, but their writs didn’t always reach the courts for a judge’s consideration. Sometimes they never left the island. This didn’t go over well with inmates, and especially not with federal judges when they found out.
By the early 1960’s the Alcatraz concept and the prison itself were crumbling. Attitudes in penology had changed. The ‘Crime Wave’ of the late 1920’s into the early 1930’s was fast receding into memory. The buildings, long subjected to permanent damp, salty air and water with icy winds, were crumbling, increasingly unsafe and increasingly vulnerable to escape.
The final nail in Alcatraz’s coffin, was its running costs. Keeping inmates there cost three times more per year, per inmate than any other American prison.The concept was discredited, the buildings were falling apart and the cost was unsustainable. Alcatraz became increasingly regarded as a symbol of outdated ideas that should be confined to history along with Devil’s Island and Botany Bay. Alcatraz would have to be replaced.
It was. After receiving 1576 inmates over 29 years the Rock was itself confined, to history. 36 inmates attempted escape of whom 5 were killed, 23 recaptured, 2 drowned and 5 are still listed as missing. After multiple murders, suicides, assaults and one enormous riot the Alcatraz experiment had ended in failure., Throughout 1962 inmates were gradually shipped out to other prisons in small numbers to avoid press speculation and public attention. When Alcatraz officially closed on March 21, 1963 only 27 inmates hid their faces from TV cameras as they were shipped to other institutions. The Rock, Hellcatraz, Isle of No Return, America’s Devil’s Island, call it what you will, had been consigned to penal history. It was replaced with a brand-new facility at Marion, Illinois (now widely regarded as one of the worst prisons in the country).
After its closure in 1962, the native American occupation in 1969-1970 and being handed over to the National National Park Service in 1972, the Rock sat idle for years. It’s now California’s most popular tourist attraction receiving over a million visitors a year.Ironic, when you consider how desperately its first visitors wanted to leave. Even more oddly, former officers and former inmates have frequently found themselves working together guiding tour parties around their former home.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. Long before the Spanish discovered the island, the Americans turned it into a fortress, military prison and finally a convict penitentiary, there were Native Americans. Unlike the Spanish and the Americans they tended to avoid the island, refusing to approach it for centuries. Why?
They thought it a dwelling place for evil spirits.