69. Who was in charge of Alcatraz?
In October of 1933, Attorney General Homer S. Cummings appointed James A.
Johnston, a politically-connected San Franciscan, to be the first warden of
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
Warden Johnston, nicknamed "Saltwater", had been a reformer-eliminating
corporal punishment and striped prison uniforms, for example-as warden of
Folsom and San Quentin state prisons in California.
Johnston established the initial standards for security and discipline on Alcatraz,
standards from which subsequent wardens deviated to varying degrees.
After serving as warden for fourteen years, "Saltwater" Johnston retired in 1948
and was replaced by Edwin Swope. Warden Swope was also an outsider, coming
from the New Mexico prison system.
Warden Swope was succeeded at the Alcatraz helm by "Promisin' Paul" Madigan
in 1955. Paul Madigan had come up through the ranks of the federal corrections
system, with most of his Bureau of Prisons time being spent at Alcatraz.
Warden Madigan moved on in 1961, and was replaced by Olin Blackwell, who
presided over a cash-strapped institution rife with rumors of impending closure.
Lax security under Warden Blackwell's watch was sometimes given as a reason
why three Alcatraz inmates were able to dig out of their cells and escape through
the cellhouse roof in 1962.
70. Where did the guards come from?
It was a civil service position. If jobseekers passed a government test, they were
offered work in a variety of federal agencies. Some chose the Bureau of Prisons.
When Alcatraz opened in 1934, it was staffed with both new correctional officers,
many of whom had hiring eligibility because they had been laid off from federal
jobs during the Depression, as well as experienced correctional officers who had
been recruited or transferred from other federal prisons. Prior to Alcatraz'
opening, the recruits were sent to McNeil Island for training, while the
transferred correctional officers made their way to California.
Alcatraz opened with the most troublesome inmates from the other federal
prisons, "the worst of the worst" as the newspapers called them, but Alcatraz also
opened with many of the best of the management staff and senior officers from
those same institutions. Over the years, correctional officers who had an eye on
promotion learned that service time at Alcatraz could be helpful to their careers.
But other correctional officers learned that different civil service jobs paid the
same salary and were less stressful. Consequently, as time went on, there was a
high turnover, especially among entry level positions at Alcatraz.
71. Where did the guards live?
Many of the guards lived on Alcatraz, in apartments with their families or in a
dormitory for bachelor officers. Others commuted from San Francisco, but there
was a high demand for the Alcatraz accommodations. It was a great place to
live--close to work, with subsidized housing.
Typically, rent for the families who lived on Alcatraz was about five dollars a
month per room, in a nice furnished apartment, while bachelors in the dorm paid
ten dollars a month-which included utilities and laundry service. This was much
more affordable than similar housing on the open market in San Francisco.
And family budgets were always pretty tight. After all, an Alcatraz correctional
officer was only paid about $1,700 a year in 1934, when the prison first opened. By
1950, the correctional officers were making about $3,000 a year, and when the
prison closed in 1963, a year's pay for a correctional officer was a bit over $5,000.
Staff members and their families who lived on Alcatraz valued the small town
atmosphere (with big city treats just a short boat ride away), the spectacular views
and the safe environment. Alcatraz was a neighborhood where residents felt safe,
because they knew where all the criminals were--they were locked up behind bars.
72. Where did children of the guards go to school?
Children who lived on Alcatraz took a morning boat ride to San Francisco to go to
school, as did the working wives of the guards. The prison launch, the General
McDowell II, and later, the Warden Johnston, ran on a frequent schedule until
Also, an Army transport, the General Frank M. Coxe, made frequent trips across
the bay on a circuit between Fort Mason in San Francisco, Alcatraz Island and
But the guards and their families didn't have to go over to San Francisco to
experience a social life. The kids had lots of fun places to explore and play, and
there was a recreation hall for parties and get-togethers, equipped with a two-lane
73. What were the duties of the Correctional Officers?
From the loneliness of sitting in an elevated tower all night, peering out into the
darkness, to being surrounded by hundreds of inmates in the recreation yard, the
guards had a variety of assignments and work schedules, into which they were
rotated four times a year.
Regular guard duties might include tapping cell bars with a mallet to see if they
had been cut, counting inmates in the cellhouse once an hour during the night,
searching dirty laundry for contraband, or standing in a gun gallery, ob-serving
inmates who were watching a holiday movie.