Freelance writer from Cornwall
“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 80 years old today. At least it’s 80 years to the day since ‘United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz’ officially opened its doors to the first 34 prisoners to fill its cramped, cold and often damp cells. In the first month of its existence as a Federal prison Alcatraz became the new home for criminal legends like Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Capone’s Chicago nemesis George ‘Bugs’ Moran, John Paul Chase (sidekick of George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson and famous escape artist and train robber Roy Gardner. But, 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. 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, 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.’ Once they were there, the idea was simple. Maximum security and minimum privileges while inmates were deliberately kept as isolated from the rest of society as possible. If you were sent to ‘The Rock’ then it became your world and 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 their confederates made money through serial bank robbery, robbing post offices, payroll deliveries, trains and also through kidnapping for ransom. They might take a bank in Indiana one morning before nipping into Illinois and robbing a Chicago bank in the afternoon and then disappear to places where gangsters were protected by corrupt police officers political figures, places like Hot Springs, Arkansas or St. Paul, Minnesota.
But, however they made their living, once on Alcatraz they were just names and numbers and their reputations on the outside counted for nothing with prison staff. Even Capone, who’d served time at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in relative luxury, with meals ordered in from local restaurants, his favourite brand of cigars, a radio in his cell and serving the easiest time bribery could buy, were treated simply as convicts and nothing more.
Whatever your status on the outside, once on ‘The Rock’ the routine was the same. It was unvarying, monotonous, repetitive and stupefying after a while. 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 youhad a job your work day started, although even performing prison labour was a privilege at Alcatraz that you had to earn. At 11:20 it was lunchtime. At 4:30 you were locked up in your cell for the night. At 9:30 the lights went out. And so on, day after day, week after week, month after month and 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 already 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 or criminal cases.
The rules were rigid and unbending, extending even as far as mealtimes. You could have as much of the deliberately-monotonous food as you wanted, but you risked punishment for not finishing every scrap. First offence meant losing 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 the large globe-like objects on the walls and ceiling. These weren’t for decoration, they were 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 the 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 would perform tasks like clerical work. Not on The Rock. There was no inmate council to consult with staff about inmate roblems or issues as. according to the game plan, inmates never had the slightest choice in anything at all on the island. Most prisons had a ratio of 8 officers to each convict, at Alcatraz there were only 3 inmates per officer. The officers were hand-picked, all well-trained in unarmed combat, marksmanship and specially trained to out-think plotters and schemers 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 and so on.
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. If you dais more than ‘Please pass the salt’ during meals you could expect a stay in solitary confinement. If you spoke in a workshop except to ask for a tool or to use the bathroom then 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 normally were during visits 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 positoned in such a way that 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 Armoury, run by the Armouror in a system specially designed by the prison’s first Warden, James Johnston. The Armouror 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 the Armouror’s approval. If trouble started the Armouror 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 if you were outside the buildings the security was no more relaxed. Armed guards were sited at a number of 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 armed officers would still have been able to turn a cellblock into a shooting gallery if needed..The gun towers covered the roads on the island, the boat dock, the exercise yard and the surrounding water. Any inmate seen running for the water could be shot on sight. Several were, trying to swim for the mainland. The mainland itself was 1.5 miles away from the island. The stories spread by the staff about specially-trained marksmen in the gun towers weren’t true. Nor were the stories about San Francisco bay being populated with Great White 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 Ocean, and about rip tides dragging 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 your time off for good behaviour as well as losing your privileges. For more serious offences you risked all of those, plus a trip 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 privleges and being fed 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 help pass the time. The ‘Dark Hole’ consisted of six cells without beds or furniture or bedding. These also had no toilet or sink (the toilet consisted of a hole in the concrete floor), one tap dispensing only cold water and a solid steel door allowing no light at all. Any inmate in the ‘Dark Hole’ also soon realised that the cell walls were painted black to ensure absolute darkness. The maximum amount of time in the ‘Dark Hole’ was mandated by Federal law as being no more than 19 days consecutively. This didn’t mean a maximum sentence there was 19 days. If you were given more than 19 days then you’d spend the 20th day in an ordinary, open-front solitary cell before being returned to the ‘Dark Hole for another 19 days and so on until the end of you 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 subjecting inmates to 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 often denying inmates their Constitutionally-guaranteed 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 staff often simply refused to deliver their writs to the courts for a judge’s consideration as required by the US Constitution. This didn’t go over well with inmates, and especially not with federal judges when they discovered the practice.
By the early 1960’s the Alcatraz concept (and the prison itself) was crumbling. Attitudes in penology had changed. The ‘Crime Wave’ of the late 1920’s into the early 1930’s was fast receding into memory for many Americans. The prison buildings themselves, long subjected to permanent damp and salty air and water, were crumbling, increasingly unsafe and increasingly vulnerable to inmates and their escape plans. Crucially, the final nail in the Alcatraz coffin, was its cost to run and maintain. Keeping an inmate at Alcatraz cost three times more per year, per inmate than any other prison in the country.The concept was discredited, the buildings were falling apart, the cost was unsustainable and the island increasingly regarded as a symbol of outdated ideas that should be confined to history along with Devil’s Island and Botany bay. The island prison would have to be replaced.
It was. After receiving 1576 inmates in a 29-year career, with 36 inmates attempting escape of whom 5 were killed trying, 23 were recaptured, 2 drowned and 5 are still listed as missing, after multiple murders, suicides, assaults and one enormous riot (the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946) the Alcatraz experiment had ended in failure., Throughout 1962 inmates were gradually shipped out to other prisons in small numbers to avoid speculation in the press. By the time Alcatraz finally closed on March 21, 1963 there were only 27 inmates left to hide their faces from TV cameras as they were shipped to other institutions around the country. The Rock, Hellcatraz, Isle of No Return, America’s Devil’s Island, call it what you will, had been consigned to penal history and replaced with a brand-new facility at Marion, Illinois (nowadays itself widely regarded as being 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 park Service in 1972, Alcatraz is now California’s most popular tourist attraction receiving over a million visitors a year.Ironic, when you consider how badly its inmates must have 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 first a fortress, then a military prison and finally a convict penitentiary, there were Native Americans. Unlike the Spanish and the Americans they tended to avoid the island and refused to even approach it for centuries. Why?
They thought it was a dwelling place for evil spirits…