The Long History of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Military Prison (1907-1934)


Buildings on Alcatraz Island, 2009. Kathy Weiser-Alexander. Click for prints & products.

As the ships of the U.S. military became more and more powerful, the defensive purposes of Alcatraz became obsolete. In 1907, Alcatraz was re-designated as the “Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison” and prison guards replaced infantry soldiers.

New projects soon began to accommodate the many military prisoners and during World War I, the prison housed German prisoners of war. The upper citadel was torn down and a huge cell house was built over the citadel basement and moat. The new cell house, completed in 1912, was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world at the time, containing four cell blocks with a total of 600 cells, each with a toilet and electricity.

In 1915, the island was re-named the “Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks” and a new emphasis was put on education and rehabilitation. Those convicted men with less serious offences soon began to attend military training, remedial education, and vocational training. The plan was so successful, that many of the soldiers were restored to active duty after their sentences were served. Prisoners with more serious offences were not give these opportunities and were dishonorably discharged from the Army after having served their terms.

As a disciplinary barracks, Alcatraz was a minimum security prison and most prisoners were locked in their cells only at night. During the day, they spent their time in classes or work activities. Throughout these years, several inmates tried to escape the island by boarding boats heading to the mainland, swimming, or clinging to wooden objects.

Driftwood was used for escape attempts in 1912, 1916, 1927 and a ladder was used during an escape attempt in 1929. Most of those who attempted escape through the water never made it to shore. Of those who tried, some were rescued and returned to the island, but others drowned.

The most successful escape was on November 28, 1918 when four prisoners managed to escape with rafts. The authorities assumed they had drowned in San Francisco Bay, but they later appeared in Sutro Forest. Only one of them was recaptured.

As a Military Prison, there were at least 80 men who attempted to escape in 29 separate attempts. Of those, 62 were captured and returned to the prison, one may have drowned and the fate of 17 others were unknown.

By 1933, the army decided that the island was too expensive to operate. Its location was the biggest problem, with the high costs of importing water, food and supplies.

At this time, the gangster era was in full swing, brought on by the desperate need of the great depression, combined with Prohibition. The nation’s cities were witnessing terrible violence as shoot-outs and public slayings became frequent when mobster’s took control. The ill-equipped law enforcement agencies were often bought off by the gangsters or cowered before the better-armed gangs of nattily dressed men. Simultaneously, the existing prisons were experiencing a number of escapes, rioting and gang-related murders.

Alcatraz was the ideal solution to the problem and J. Edgar Hoover jumped on the opportunity to create a “super-prison” that would instill fear in the minds of would-be criminals, offered no means of escape, and a place where inmates could be safely controlled. Negotiations soon began and Alcatraz was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons in October 1933.

By the early part of 1934, eighty years of U.S. Army occupation ended. With the exception of 32 hard case prisoners, who were to remain on the island and incarcerated in the “new” prison when it was completed, the others were transferred to Fort LeavenworthKansas and Fort Jay, New Jersey.

Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary (1934 -1963)

Cell block at Alcatraz today, July, 2009, Kathy Weiser

Cell block at Alcatraz today, July, 2009, Kathy Weiser

Beginning on January 1, 1934, much to the chagrin of the people of San Francisco, the Bureau of Prisons began the process of selecting a warden and upgrading Alcatraz to an “escape-proof” maximum security prison. Four guard towers were constructed at strategic points around the island and 336 of the cells were reconstructed with tool-proof steel cell fronts and locking devices operated from control boxes. None of the cells adjoined a perimeter wall.

Each and every window in the prison building was also equipped with tool-proof steel window guards and two gun galleries were erected in the cell block that allowed guards, armed with machine guns, to oversee all inmate activities.

The mess-hall and main entrance were equipped with built-in tear gas canisters in the ceiling that could be remotely activated from both the gun gallery and the outside observation points.

New technology allowed electromagnetic metal detectors to be utilized, positioned outside the mess hall and at the workshop entrances. Electricity and sanitary facilities were upgraded in each cell, and all of the utility tunnels were cemented so that no prisoner could enter or hide in them.

In addition, the barracks buildings were altered to provide comfortable quarters for the prison guards and their families. The living facilities included four wood frame houses, one duplex and three apartment buildings. A large house, adjacent to the cell house was designated for the warden, while the duplex was assigned to the Captain and Associate Warden.

The collaborative effort of U.S. Attorney General, Homer Cummings, and Director of the Bureau of Prisons, Sanford Bates, produced a legendary prison that seemed both necessary and appropriate to the times. It was so forbidding that it was eventually nicknamed “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island.”

Appointed as the first warden, James A. Johnston came with more than twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin and Folsom Prisons. Johnston had already developed a reputation for strict ideals and a humanistic approach to reform. However, he was also known to be a strict disciplinarian and his rules of conduct were among the most rigid in the California correctional system.

Believing in a system of rewards and consequences, Johnston, along with Federal Prisons Director, Sanford Bates, established the guiding principles under which the prison would operate. He and his hand-picked correctional officers then enforced the guidelines by rewarding inmates with privileges or sentence reductions for hard work, and harshly punishing inmates who defied prison regulations.

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