The Long History of Alcatraz Island

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 mobsters 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 by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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.

One of the regulations that was enacted for the prison was that no prisoner would be directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Instead, they “earned” their transfer to the island from other prisons by attempting to escape, exhibiting unmanageable behavior, or those that had been receiving special privileges. Therefore, Alcatraz became home to the “worst of the worst” criminal elements in the nation.

On July 1, 1934, the maximum security, minimum-privilege penitentiary, officially received its first prisoners. The 32 hard-case prisoners who had been “left” by the Army were turned over to Alcatraz authorities, the first of which was a man named Frank Bolt, who was serving a five-year sentence for sodomy.

Al Capone

Al Capone

Other inmates in this first group of men had committed such crimes as robbery, assault, rape, and desertion. The next month, 69 more prisoners arrived from the McNeil Island and Atlanta Penitentiaries, the most famous of which, inmate #85, was Al Capone.

Warden Johnston began a custom of meeting the new inmates upon their arrival to Alcatraz. When Capone arrived, Johnston immediately recognized the grinning man who was quietly making smug comments to nearby inmates. When it was Capone’s turn to approach the warden, he attempted to flaunt the power he had enjoyed at the federal pen in Atlanta by asking questions of the warden on the inmate’s behalf.

While in Atlanta, he had been successful in bribing the guards for additional favors such as unlimited visiting privileges, liquor, and uncensored reading materials.

He was so successful in gaining special privileges, that family members had taken up residence at a nearby hotel, through whom, he continued to run his organization in Chicago.

However, Johnston was not to be manipulated and immediately assigned him his prison number and ordered him back in line with the others.

Capone’s arrival at Alcatraz generated more newspaper headlines than the opening of the prison itself, beginning an era of public fascination with the maximum security prison.

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