Alcatraz Island was opened from 1934 to 1963. At that time it was the last stop in the federal penitentiary pipeline. It housed famous criminals such as Al Scarface Capone, George Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud, The Birdman of Alcatraz (American Automobile Association 81).
The warden, James Johnston, turned it into such a brutal place that even the most hardened criminals started calling it Hellcatraz. That raises the question was Alcatrazs brutality essential, or just plain cruel? Located on a twenty-two acre island in San Francisco Bay, about a half mile off shore (National Geographic), Alcatraz was built out of an old military fort. It consisted of a cellhouse, the old fort, work buildings, a lighthouse, and a mess hall.
Some considered Alcatraz escape proof. The entire structure was surrounded by a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. The cellhouse was three stories of reinforced concrete. Elevated gun galleries were built at each end of the cellhouse. Inmates were monitored constantly by guards on a central walkway surrounded by bars. All doors on the island were electronically operated and were designed to slam and let the inmate know the guards were in total control. Coming back from work inmates were checked eleven times and had to get through three metal detectors. Then in their cells they were counted up to thirty times a day (Stuller 87).
Well behaved inmates could spend their Saturday and Sunday afternoons watching a movie or in the recreation yard. In the yard they could lounge about, lift weights, play in a softball game, or sit down to a game of chess, dominoes, or bridge. A typical day went like this: At 6:30 AM you wake up to a loud clang of the prison alarm bell. You crawl out of bed just as a guard walks by your cell taking the first count of the day. Then you have twenty minutes to brush your teeth, get dressed, and make your bed. You lounge around and wait for your fifteen man group to get called to breakfast.
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You spend twenty minutes in the mess hall, hoping the tear gas canisters above your head dont malfunction and go off (Corrections 54).
Then you return to your cell while everyone else eats. You then go down to the workshops for several hours of hard labor. Then you go back to your cell for the lunch rotation After, you spend hours in your small cell, passing the time however possible. Then you go back to work and have supper. At 5:30 PM youre locked in your cell for the next thirteen hours.
Promptly at 9:30 the lights all shut off, leaving you in utter darkness. On foggy days when guards didnt have a clear line of fire, inmates were only let out for meals (Stuller 87).
For several hours a day, convicts could go to the workshops and work. They could craft shoes, make pallets, or wash laundry. They earned small amounts of money, but it was worthless because there was nothing they could buy. The only contact inmates had with the outside world was through heavily censored magazines, censored books, and monthly visits (Corrections 54).
Visits only lasted a half hour and they had to talk over telephones through thick glass.
The conversations were monitored and could be cut off at any time. Inmates could also write letters, but they were heavily censored and rarely mailed. The prison was extremely expensive to run. It cost forty-eight thousand dollars per inmate per year (Corrections 54).
Today it would cost over one hundred thousand dollars. There was approximately one guard for every three prisoners, an extremely high ratio.
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There were about one hundred other prison employees. It could hold two hundred seventy-five prisoners. The cells were five feet by nine feet, less space than many animal shelters give a dog. Because nobody was ever sent directly to Alcatraz (they had to earn their way there by being a threat in other prisons), Alcatraz was filled with horrible criminals. Upon arrival inmates were stripped, showered and searched. This was meant to deflate their egos.
Then they were given thin, plain coveralls, and sent directly into the main population. Inmates who misbehaved had some privileges taken away. If they continued to be bad, they were put in the D Block, nicknamed The Hole. This area had solid steel doors and no windows. Inmates were left in these cells for up to 10 days in complete darkness. If that didnt calm them down they were locked in the damp, cold, basement of the old fort (Stuller 88).
Normal inmates had to find a way to spend hours in their cells. Some wrote letters, read, painted, drew, and others planned escape, ways to get at enemies, and ways to get off the island. Inmates would memorize every move of the guards down to the second. They stole anything they could that would tear flesh, cut steel or chip stone. They would tie strings to these objects and hide them in toilets or down drainpipes. Some of these probably are still hidden today.
Records show that every year an average of fourteen convicts went violently insane and two prison guards were killed. Sixteen prison employees were assaulted every year. One-hundred-nineteen inmates were assaulted every year. But in twenty-nine years only five inmates committed suicide, although countless others tried (Corrections 54).
For example, while in the workshop one day, an inmate named Rufe Persful got hold of a hatchet. He promptly chopped off all the fingers on one hand. Another man named John Stadig pried a vein out of his wrist with a bent fork.
He then bit it in half. He was stopped before he could do it to his other wrist (Stuller 88).
While many people thought Alcatraz was inescapable, they were wrong. The first con to attempt escape was Joseph Bowers. In 1936 he climbed a fence in full sight of the guards and was shot dead. There was always the icy waters and swift currents of the bay. Floyd Hamilton made it to the water and disappeared. A manhunt failed to find him.
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Hamilton couldnt get himself to swim off. He hid in sand caves while deciding to swim. Finally, hungry, wet, and cold, Hamilton snuck into a prison storeroom and fell asleep while awaiting capture. The most fabled getaway involved Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin. In 1962, using stolen tools they chipped through vents in their cells and replaced them with cardboard replicas. With dummy heads in their bunks to fool night guards, they climbed into a utility corridor above the B block, into the ceiling and then cut through a vent.
They made an inflatable raft out of stolen rain jackets The preparation took 6 months. On June 11 they exited through the roof, climbed down a drainpipe and got away. Officials found personal belongings in the bay but no bodies. If they made it to shore, they never pulled another crime (Stuller 90).
In 1946, six inmates took weapons from a guard. They intended to blast out.
Led by Joseph Cretzer and Bernard Coy, the inmates controlled the cellhouse for three days. Thousands of spectators watched from the city as the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines circled the island. The Marines decided to end it and climbed on the roof while throwing grenades down through vents and skylights. Cretzer pointed his gun at a group of guards in a cell and opened fire. Only one was killed. Two of the three ring leaders were later executed (Stuller 92).
Alcatraz housed some of the worst criminals in America and the harsh life they lived was necessary to keep them under control.
Sure life was brutal but every convict in there had earned it one way or another. For many inmates, Alcatraz was the only truly intimidating thing in the world. The Rock (American Automobile Association 81) is a fascinating place with a facinating and sometimes gruesome history.