59. What was so high-security about the Treatment Unit,
The Treatment Unit, as it was known after D Block was remodeled in 1940, was
walled off from the rest of the cellhouse. Rather than the back-to-back
configuration of the other cellblocks, D Block cells had a wall behind the utility
corridor, not another cell. Cells on D Block's floor level, or "the flats", had to be
unlocked by the guard in the gun gallery before the D Block guard could open the
The inmates in the Treatment Unit stayed in D Block all day. While mainline
inmates went out to dinner, D Block denizens stayed put-the cells in D Block
came equipped with a slot in the front, through which food trays could be passed.
Shower facilities were installed at the west end of D Block, so that the
troublemakers didn't have to mingle with the general population in the shower
room, and recreation yard time was scheduled so that inmates in the Treatment
Unit did not share their brief time in the yard with the general population.
60. What about those cells in D Block with solid doors instead
The signal punishment feature in the remodeled D Block was the area on the D
Block flats used for solitary confinement, known as the Special Treatment Unit
(S.T.U.). These are the so called "dark cells". This was as bad as it could get at
Alcatraz, especially the cell down at the end of the S.T.U., known as the "strip cell".
They were called "dark cells" because each cell had two doors; the inner door was
tool-resistant steel bars with a slot for food, like all of the other D Block cells, but
the outer door was solid, with a shuttered glass panel a guard could open to look
in and check on the well-being of the inmate. Each "dark cell" came equipped with
a light fixture controlled by the guards, not by the inmate.
The first five of these Special Treatment Unit dark cells came furnished with
sinks, beds (a mattress given to the inmate at night, then taken out in the
morning) and toilets. The sixth cell, the "strip cell" down at the end, had none of
these furnishings-only a hole in the floor that could be flushed by the guard. This
cell was usually used for inmates who were so out of control that they would
destroy the plumbing fixtures in their cells. Recognizing the privations of this
Special Treatment Unit, prison regulations limited the duration of an inmate's
stay in one of these "dark cells".
61. What did an inmate have to do to be put into one of the
dark cells in D Block?
Time in a dark cell was usually the result of violence in general population or a
behavioral problem in D Block. If an inmate had a behavioral problem in D Block,
he was already in a punishment cell, so there wasn't much he could do to get into
trouble. Throwing something at a correctional officer or trying to break up the
fixtures in his cell were offenses that could get the inmate transferred downstairs
to the Special Treatment Unit.
If an inmate's behavior in the dark cell didn't improve, correctional officers turned
up the pressure. Guards could stop giving the inmate a mattress at night, keep the
light in his cell turned off (or on), or deliver his meals after the food had been
blended into liquid. Ultimately, the recalcitrant inmate could find himself in the
strip cell for a few days of misery. The response was based on his behavior. If his
behavior improved, he would soon find himself out of the dark cell and up on the
second floor of D Block.
62. How long were inmates kept in the dark cells in D Block?
Typically after a violent outburst, inmates were released from a dark cell after
three or four days, usually up into one of the regular D Block Treatment Unit cells
to make sure that they were completely calmed down and ready for general
population. On the other hand, hard cases who thought they could beat the
system by enduring a couple of weeks in a dark cell, and came out with the same
attitude and behavior, could be marched right back into the dark cell for another
stretch. During most of Alcatraz' history as a federal penitentiary, regulations
limited the duration of dark cell punishment to 19 consecutive days.
63. Who determined when an inmate should be sent to the
Inmates who were found by guards to be in violation of the regulations at Alcatraz
were "shot" as the inmates called it--written up for an infraction. Subsequently, a
disciplinary board would convene, usually made up of a lieutenant and senior
correctional officers, and the inmate would be brought in to speak to them.
If punishment resulted from the adjudication of the incident, it could range from
a loss of privileges--perhaps no family visits for a year--for minor offenses, to a
loss of "good time" and/or punishment in the Treatment Unit for a more
egregious violation of the rules--especially for an assault or attempted escape.
There were also some Alcatraz inmates who were in D Block for non-disciplinary
reasons. Many of the inmates on the top tier of D Block were segregated there for
their safety and protection. They had done something to somebody that made it
unsafe for them to stay in general population. In addition to inmates who felt
threatened by other inmates, cellhouse snitches and former police officers would
also use D Block for protective custody.
64. Why are the cells larger in the Treatment Unit?
The original Alcatraz cells, constructed by the U.S. Army for their military
prisoners, conformed to War Department regulations in effect for military prisons
when the cellhouse was built. When the Department of Justice put out the bid for
construction of new cells in D Block in 1939, the proposed cells had to follow the
design guidelines in effect for civilian prisons in 1939. The specifications had
changed, and the cells had to be built larger to meet those specifications.
The cells were larger, but inmates stayed inside those D Block cells nearly 24
hours a day-no visitors, no magazines, restricted mail, no jobs, only a few hours of
recreation time every week. It usually wasn't long before inmates were asking to
write a note of apology with a request to be allowed back into general population.