Life on Alcatraz
When you think of a maximum-security prison, most likely you'll think of Alcatraz. What was once a small island in San Francisco Bay became the world's most feared and famous prison. What was Alcatraz really like though? What REALLY went on inside its walls? Historians have looked at a lot of data and interviewed former inmates, and now there is a clearer picture of life in Alcatraz. Want to know more? Let's get started!
A Bit About The Island
Alcatraz Island is located 1.25 miles off the mainland of San Francisco, California. Originally, the US Army had used the site as a military base after the conclusion of the Mexican-American war in 1849. During the Civil War, in 1861, Fort Alcatraz became a military prison.
In 1909, the US Army began to build the giant cell block, and they completed that in 1912. You can still see that block on the island today. The cannons in this picture date back to the original 1861 fortification. The Army had a problem though and the war was coming.
World War I
During World War I, Alcatraz held two kinds of prisoners: military offenders and regular criminals. Prior to 1913, people guilty of felonies and those guilty of misdemeanors were all put in the same blocks. This was considered an objectionable practice and caused problems in the prison population.
For the military prisoners, training exercises were still held, despite the fact that no one in the prison would ever serve again. It was considered to be part of military punishment. After World War I, things would change at Alcatraz.
The Department Of Justice
In 1934, the island was transferred to the Department of Justice, who used it in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. During the Prohibition and Depression eras, organized crime had become such a huge problem in the US, that they needed a new, maximum-security prison.
Alcatraz was the perfect place for this. The buildings were already built, and no one had ever escaped. It was also isolated, so organized crime bosses would have a tough time communicating with their families. Many famous inmates were incarcerated there.
The vast majority of inmates in Alcatraz were men who simply couldn't be held in any other place. Either they had repeatedly broken the rules at previous institutions, they were considered extremely violent, or they were considered likely to escape.
Despite how it's usually depicted in the movies and TV, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary wasn't actually that big. The capacity was only 336 inmates, and they never reached any higher than 275. They didn't get many privileges either.
Due to the "special" nature of the prisoners there, very few privileges were given to the inmates. They always had access to food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, but not much else. Other privileges could be earned though, such as the use of the prison library.
Another myth about Alcatraz was that all prisoners had access to the "Yard" every day. This isn't true. Access to the outside facilities for exercise was limited to those who showed "good behavior". They weren't always there forever either.
The prisoners who were brought in from other facilities weren't always kept at Alcatraz for their entire sentences. Usually, if the prisoner stayed on his best behavior and was no longer considered dangerous or a flight risk, he would be sent back to his original prison.
This was done for two reasons. First, the use of a special prison like Alcatraz needed to be restricted to only the most dangerous criminals. Second, this would make the use of the island into a deterrent, since the prisoner would go back and tell other inmates about the conditions. What were the conditions like?
According to a 1938 Reader's Digest article written by Bryan Conway, the conditions were pretty rough. Conway was prisoner 293, and served time at the same time as Al Capone. He had a lot to say describing the conditions there.
When asked why other prisoners feared going there, he said "Because the discipline is as severe as it can possibly be. Literally, you leave all hope behind, for clemency is all but unknown; only a few short-timers get out." Conway had other descriptions of the conditions too.
More First-Hand Experience
Conway also said that some inmates would be driven insane by the experience of being there. He recounted one prisoner that he had seen that had gone "stir crazy" as they called it. Often times these were actually seen as escape plans.
He also described the guards' nightly target practice as something horrible because it made it difficult for the inmates to sleep. The target practice was done on rubber dummies, which were then laid out in the mornings so that the prisoners could see them. There were some other, more general problems with living there too.
Other Living Conditions
Metal detectors were a new technology used at Alcatraz, and according to Conway, the prisoners called them "snitch boxes". This was a new technology, and it was used to make sure that prisoners weren't hiding any self-made weapons.
The bars on the cells were made from a special new type of steel developed to make them resistant to being cut with a hacksaw. The cells were specially made too, and they were the most advanced cells of their day.
The cells in the A, B, and C block were quite standard. Each cell was 9'x5'x7' foot, which is very small by any prison standard. They had one metal sink, a bed, and a metal toilet. They also had a small desk and a washbasin.
Towards the end of the life of the prison, sinks were installed in the main cell blocks. None of the cells backed up to an outside wall for obvious reasons. There was one other block of cells that was a bit different. That was D-block, and there was a good reason why it was not the same.
D-Block was the area of the prison used for solitary confinement. This was not only isolating, but the conditions were worse too. Depending on the severity of the punishment, there were different cells that were used for different levels.
The less severe offenders had relatively normal cells, although they were only allowed to take showers twice per week. They also had to eat meals in their cells, away from the other inmates. More difficult prisoners got special cells. These were much worse.
The Hole was the next level of punishment. These were cells 9-14 in D-Block. They were worse than the first eight cells because they were soundproofed and dark. One prisoner, Jim Quillen, had to spend 19 days in The Hole. He later wrote a book to talk about his experience.
The cells in The Hole only had a toilet and a washbasin with no bed or desk. No one stayed in The Hole for more than 19 consecutive days. If a prisoner still didn't behave, there was one last level of solitary. It was terrifying.
The Strip Cell
The final cell in D-Block was called "The Strip Cell". This cell was for the worst offenders. There was no toilet, just a hole in the floor, and there were no bars on the door. That's because it was a solid wooden door so no light could get in or out.
The "toilet" was flushable, but only the guards could control when it was flushed. This was the very worst place for an inmate to be in Alcatraz, and that is saying something. It wasn't just prisoners on the island though. The guards and their families lived there too.
Since the island was out in the Bay, the guards had to live there too. They often had families, and their children had to take a boat ride into the mainland every day to go to school. There were around 300 civilians who lived on the island, along with the guards and prisoners.
It wasn't an easy place to live for the civilians either. In order to even go shopping, they had to take a boat into the mainland. There was also a constant fear that there would be an escape. The government eventually shut the prison down in 1962.
Alcatraz was closed on March 21, 1963. The budget of the prison had been called into question for over twenty years, but remained open. Unfortunately, by the 1960s, the prison was becoming structurally unsound, and it was less expensive to build a new prison in Illinois than it was to keep Alcatraz open.
The prisoners were moved throughout 1962, and it was empty on the day of its closure. It remains open as a tourist attraction run by the National Park Service to this day.
Alcatraz is one of those places that has captured peoples' minds for close to a century. It remains one of the most mysterious and talked about places in American History. If you know someone else who is fascinated by Alcatraz, please share this story with them. Thanks for reading!