Prison System: Federal Bureau of Prisons
Status: Inactive; active as a military prison from 1910 to 1912 and as a civilian population federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Currently open as a museum and for tours.
Offender Gender: Male
Distinguishing Feature: Located over a mile from the shore of San Francisco, surrounded by cold water with strong currents and sharks, Alcatraz was designed to be the most escape-proof prison in the world.
Wardens: James Johnston; Edwin Swope; Paul Madigan; Olin Blackwell
Alcatraz is probably the most famous prison in the world and has played such a pivotal role in American culture that it continues to be operated as a National Park and museum more than half a century after its closure.
The living conditions at Alcatraz have been described as being so horrific by former inmates that they would be difficult to believe if the former prison was not still being run as a tourist attraction and museum. While other prisons might earn the descriptor “medieval,” Alcatraz actually had a dungeon. The prison cells were primitive, even compared to other prison cells of that time period. None of the prison cells was on an outside wall. The cells were 9 feet by 5 feet and only 7 feet tall. They featured a bed, desk, washbasin, and toilet. Prisoner bedding consisted of a blanket and prisoners had to earn the privilege of having any type of personal belongings. The prison was segregated because of racial violence and was also divided into different risk or threat levels.
There were four main halls at Alcatraz: A, B, C, and D. A hall was used for temporary housing of inmates, a legal library, and administration. B was the main corridor for housing new arrivals, who had to stay there for the first 3 months they were at Alcatraz. Inmates could be placed in B-block or C-block. D-block was considered the punishment corridor. Solitary confinement was similar to solitary confinement in many modern prisons; prisoners wer kept in their cells, not permitted to work, and had restricted access to showers. Cells 9-14 at the end of D-block were referred to as “The Hole.” The Hole was reserved for punishing the worst offenders in prison. The cells were dark, which made them colder than the rest of the prison. Inmates were tortured in The Hole, and, in turn, they created a very dangerous scenario for the guards. The cells in The Hole had only a sink and a toilet, and prisoners were often stripped, beaten, starved, and left to sleep on the floor when they were put in The Hole. One cell in The Hole was known as the Strip Cell or The Oriental. It had no toilet, but simply a hole in the floor. It was common practice to strip a prisoner and then confine him in The Hole for up to two days.
However, some of the worst horrors of Alcatraz occurred underneath D-block, in a dungeon with cells specifically designed for torture. There, inmates would literally be chained to the walls. They were fed a diet of bread and water, given a bucket as a toilet, and left standing chained to the wall at night.
While Alcatraz was not known for its treatment or rehabilitation orientation, the inmates did have access to some forms of recreation. The prison had an extensive library and the prisoners were generally given time to read each evening. Prisoners were also encouraged to play instruments and there was even a prison band. There was also a baseball field in the exercise yard, and inmates were allowed to form teams and play competitive games.
Because it was built as an escape-proof prison, the most interesting historical stories involving Alcatraz invariably involve escape attempts. While the prison was in use, there were 14 escape attempts by a total of 36 prisoners. Of those who attempted to escape, 23 were apprehended, 8 died during the escape, and 5 are still missing. On December 16, 1937 Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe managed to escape the prison and get to the bay; they were not captured and their bodies were never found, but they are presumed drowned. On May 2, 1946, six prisoners took control of the cell house, captured the weapons room, and planned to escape by boat. They did not have an exterior door key and took two guards hostage. Three of the six prisoners eventually returned to their cells, but the other three persisted. The Marines intervened, killing the three prisoners who remained. The three who had returned to their rooms were convicted for killing the guards. The most famous escape attempt occurred on June 11, 1962. Brothers John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, Allen West, and Frank Morris used a variety of handmade tools to widen an air vent that would give them access to a utility corridor. They dug during the music hour, when the instruments would block the sound of them digging. They also used false walls to conceal their progress, but West’s false wall actually set in place and he could not escape with the others. When they escaped, they put paper mache dummies on their beds; the dummies had actual hair that they had stolen from the barber shop. They constructed a raft from raincoats. The escapees’ belongings, including parts of the raft and paddles they had constructed from plywood, were found on Angel Island, but the bodies of the prisoners were never located. They were determined to have died during the escape attempt, but the U.S. Marshals Service still lists them as fugitives and their families say that the men sent cards after escaping and one friend has a picture that purportedly shows the Anglin brothers in South America after their escape.
Alcatraz had a number of very famous inmates including Al Capone, Doc Barker, Creepy Karpis, and Machine Gun Kelley. However, the most infamous inmate at Alcatraz was Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud has, at times, been portrayed as a misunderstood eccentric, and the self-taught ornithologist was responsible for writing one of the most respected textbooks for bird-watchers. However, Stroud was actually an extremely violent man; he was a pimp and murderer who was transferred to Alcatraz after killing a guard at another prison. His behavior in the prison was so extreme that the guards kept him in solitary confinement for approximately 6 years.