82. Did many Alcatraz inmates try to commit suicide?
No. Relatively few Alcatraz inmates seriously attempted suicide, and prison
records indicate that only five inmates killed themselves at Alcatraz. Inmates were
watched so closely and counted so frequently, that sufficient time and solitude
weren't readily available for successful suicide.
Another factor was the difficulty inmates would have in carrying out a
suicide--there were no guns, knives, ropes or narcotics left lying around for the
inmates to use. And having a hospital on the premises led to quick medical
But suicide wasn't really a major issue at Alcatraz. These inmates were serious
offenders serving serious time. They had made their choices in life, and most of
them were resigned to enduring the consequences in an environment that really
wasn't all that bad. In other prisons they had to associate with low class losers,
but at Alcatraz they were, in their opinions, associating with a higher class of bad
83. What about insanity, didn't Alcatraz drive some inmates
over the edge?
Probably. As Warden Johnston explained, "it should not be surprising that queer,
peculiar, erratic, eccentric, mentally defective or hallucinated persons are found in
prison". At Alcatraz, the discipline system was set up to punish behavior, not
evaluate personality, so if someone became borderline psychotic, and still obeyed
the rules, he was likely to be tolerated.
If you did something really bizarre, you would be evaluated by the psychiatrist
during one of his periodic visits to the island. If you kept it up, you would be sent
to D Block, or if the psychiatrist thought you were seriously disturbed, you would
be sent up to the "bug cages"--special observation cells in the Alcatraz hospital.
Profoundly mentally disturbed Alcatraz inmates were transferred to a Bureau of
Prisons medical facility, but since a transfer to a lightly-guarded medical facility
was what a lot of inmates wanted, they had to present some pretty outrageous
behavior to get transferred from Alcatraz.
One inmate who did was Rufe Persful, an inmate who grabbed a fire axe at work
one day, then chopped off the fingers on one of his hands. Rufe Persful was
transferred to Springfield Medical Center.
84. What about routine illness on Alcatraz-what kind of
medical attention did inmates receive?
The United States Public Health Service provided health care services for Alcatraz
inmates. Sick call was held daily, after lunch, by an MTA (Medical Technician
Assistant). The MTA handed out aspirin and other basic over-the-counter
remedies, or scheduled the inmates who had more serious medical complaints for
a doctor's examination.
Traumatic injuries and a wide variety of illnesses were treated upstairs in the
Alcatraz hospital, which was quite a well-equipped medical facility. Located above
the mess hall, the Alcatraz hospital had an x-ray room, pharmacy and two-chair
Some minor surgical procedures were performed in the Alcatraz hospital, because
that was considered safer than bringing Alcatraz inmates to the Public Health
Service's medical facility in San Francisco.
85. Alcatraz was so harsh, did inmates get sick a lot while
These were healthy guys in the prime of their lives, and life on Alcatraz was
certainly healthier than life on the lam. Alcatraz inmates were able to live in a safe
environment, they ate nutritious food and had clean and comfortable conditions,
regular opportunities for exercise and plenty of quiet time to relax. Inmates
typically put on more than 10 pounds of weight during incarceration at Alcatraz.
Though inmates did get sick, conditions at Alcatraz were not conducive to
epidemics. Some inmates reported regularly to sick call, most just to get
medication for minor maladies. The medical staff claimed that many of the
inmates they saw at sick call were there because they were sick of doing time.
86. Did any inmates ever die at Alcatraz?
According to records, fifteen prisoners died from natural causes while at Alcatraz;
a pretty low total considering many of these guys had lived lives and enjoyed
lifestyles that were hard on the body.
Perhaps San Francisco's sea breezes were beneficial to the Alcatraz inmates. More
likely, inmates with poor medical prognoses would be transferred to the
Springfield Medical Facility, and they died in that facility.
From what we can tell from the records, only a handful of Alcatraz inmates
committed suicide, another seven or eight were killed by other inmates, seven
inmates were shot and killed rioting or trying to escape and one inmate drowned,
also trying to escape.
87. Were any inmates executed at Alcatraz?
No. You won't find "Old Sparky", as electric chairs were called back then, on
Alcatraz Island. If any Alcatraz inmates had been executed before 1937, the
execution would have been by hanging.
Since 1937, when federal prisoners are sentenced to death, the nearest available
state execution facility is pressed into service. In California, that meant execution
in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison. Indeed, execution did take place
at San Quentin for two Alcatraz inmates involved in the "Battle of Alcatraz" in