RIOTS AND STRIKES
65. Did the Alcatraz inmates ever go on strike?
Yes, there were occasional inmate protests and uprisings at Alcatraz-mostly
hunger strikes and work strikes. Warden Johnston put it this way: "A certain
amount of `beefing' goes on in all prisons, and perhaps it is well that it does,
because it certainly wouldn't be good if prisoners were entirely content to be
restricted and circumscribed as they are by walls and gates and bars and cells and
loss of liberty".
Strikes were the most powerful weapon prison inmates had in the old days,
especially at Alcatraz, which, by design, was shielded from public scrutiny. If the
Alcatraz inmates didn't go to work, the Army's laundry didn't get clean and the
contracted manufacturing quotas for furniture, gloves, raincoats, brooms and
mats didn't get met. Before long, the Alcatraz warden would start getting phone
calls from his superiors in Washington.
The same with hunger strikes. When the inmates didn't eat, they were putting
themselves at risk, though in American prisons, hunger-striking inmates get
force-fed before their health is compromised. The real problems began when word
would get out about the hunger strike; the press would start asking questions,
then the phone calls from Washington would start again.
1940 was the big year for strikes on Alcatraz Island; most of the inmates stopped
working, and many of them also went on hunger strikes, in the spring and then
again that summer.
66. Were there any other rebellions or protests at Alcatraz?
A different type of protest came in the form of legal briefs filed to protest the
conditions at Alcatraz. Inmates had lots of time on their hands, and many of them
used the time to "work" the legal system. The law got them into prison, so some of
them figured that maybe the law could spring them. Many of their petitions were
frivolous motions filed in the federal district court, and most of them were quickly
In addition to inmate strikes and court petitions, there were also more violent
types of protest. From time to time, Alcatraz inmates would demonstrate their
displeasure, or just let off steam, by throwing wild, destructive tantrums while in
Usually done individually by a "stir crazy" inmate, the ruckus would sometimes
spread throughout the Alcatraz cellhouse. Inmates would bang bunks up and
down on their chains, scream, whistle, yell and shout deprecations at prison staff.
Sometimes these disturbances would escalate, and the inmates would set fire to
anything flammable in their cells, vandalize their toilets and flood the cellhouse
with the over-flowing water, and throw everything in their cells out onto the
cellhouse floor. New Year's Eve was a traditional time for this type of inmate
One bizarre type of protest at Alcatraz occurred on a few occasions, when inmates
with grievances cut their Achilles tendons in the back of their ankles, disabling
themselves to make a point.
67. What did Alcatraz authorities do to quell inmate protests?
The institution's initial response to most disturbances was to isolate the
ringleaders in D Block, then wait for the problem to slowly dissipate.
Another strategy that worked well after an initial cooling off period, if inmates
weren't returning to work, was to tell Alcatraz short-timers-men with sentences
that had a year or less to run-that if they didn't return to work, their "good time"
would be taken away. So instead of less than one year to serve, they would be back
to ten or more years in some cases. That threat usually got them to go back to
68. What about the "Battle of Alcatraz" in 1946?
The so-called "Battle of Alcatraz" was supposed to have been an escape attempt,
but since none of the would-be escapees got out of the Alcatraz cellhouse, the
Bureau of Prisons officially considered it a riot.
On May 2, 1946, this three-day riot by armed inmates began shortly after lunch,
when most of the inmates were out of the cellhouse at work. The only armed
correctional officer in the cellhouse, Bert Burch, was in the west-end gun gallery,
but he was watching D Block, behind a closed door that prevented him from
monitoring the rest of the cellhouse.
With no other armed correctional officers in the vicinity, inmate Bernard Coy, a
cellhouse janitor, attacked and over-powered the sole unarmed cellhouse guard,
William Miller. While Coy's accomplices bound Officer Miller, then threw the
unfortunate officer into a cell, Coy climbed the outside bars of the gun gallery.
Bernie Coy had constructed a "bar spreader", a device he could crank like a car
jack. When he reached the top of the gun gallery bars, Coy used this device to
spread the gun gallery bars apart and gain access to the gun gallery. It wasn't
easy-it was a very tight fit-but Coy had dieted for several months as he prepared
Coy squeezed into the gun gallery, then burst through the door into D Block. He
surprised Officer Burch, attacked Burch and knocked him unconscious. Coy took
Burch's weapons and keys, went back out to the cellhouse through the same gun
gallery bars he had spread apart, and released most of the inmates from their D
A series of unsuspecting correctional officers, including Captain Weinhold and
Lieutenant Simpson, entered the cellhouse, where they were quickly taken
hostage by the group of inmates-chiefly Coy, Sam Shockley, Marvin Hubbard, Joe
Cretzer, Miran Thompson and Clarence Carnes. When Lieutenant Miller heard a
garbled message from the kitchen supervisor--something about a disturbance in
the cellhouse--he went in to investigate.
By this time, inmates Coy and Cretzer had donned guard uniforms, but as
Lieutenant Miller approached them, he saw through the ruse and hightailed it
back to the armory to set off the alarm. Warden Johnston ordered the prison boat
to leave the island, ensuring the inmates would be unable to use it to escape. Then
Johnston contacted all the local law enforcement agencies for help, and started
planning a counter-offensive against the would-be escapees.
The rioting inmates had trouble locating the key to the recreation yard door,
which, in violation of Alcatraz security procedures, had been pocketed by Officer
Miller instead of being kept with Officer Burch in the gun gallery. So the escape
never really went anywhere.
But even with the siren wailing, all of their paths for escape cut off and officers
rushing to the cellhouse, three of the inmates, Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard, didn't
give up. Instead, they callously opened fire on the nine hostage guards they had
accumulated in two cells.
Officer William Miller, who had saved the day by hiding the key to the recreation
yard door, was killed, as Joe Cretzer fired numerous rounds from Officer Burch's
weapon into the hostage-filled cells. Several of the other imprisoned officers were
Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard took refuge inside the C Block utility corridor, from
which they periodically fired shots at the guards who were trying to keep them
In all the confusion, as the Alcatraz correctional officers attempted to take back
the cellhouse, Officer Harold Stites was shot and killed. In response, grenades
were fired into the cellhouse and explosives were dropped through holes cut into
After nearly three days of ferocious counter-attack, the Alcatraz cellhouse was
retaken by the guards, with assistance from various federal, state and local police
agencies and correctional officers, plus forces from the United States Army, the
United States Navy, the United States Coast Guard and the United States Marines.
The three conspirators who hadn't given up the fight were bombed by the
Marines, as they tried to hide deeper in the recesses of the C Block utility corridor.
When riflemen finished blasting the utility corridor, the bodies of Coy, Hub-bard
and Cretzer were found--dead.
Subsequently, three other inmates who participated in the plot were put on trial
and convicted of the murder of Correctional Officer William Miller. Sam Shockley
and Miran Thompson were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin State
Prison, while Clarence Carnes, the youngest inmate incarcerated at Alcatraz
Federal Penitentiary, received a life sentence--on top of the life sentence and the
99-year sentence he already had.