88. Is it true that there was a dungeon at Alcatraz?
When Alcatraz opened, the Bureau of Prisons believed that just isolating their 250
worst troublemakers out on a desolate island would be enough. Provisions
weren't made for constructing any segregated punishment areas within Alcatraz.
But when inmates broke the rules, Alcatraz needed a place to punish them.
At first, the existing isolation cells from the military cellblocks, including cells in
the original D Block and dark cells up on the third tier of A Block, were used to
segregate troublemakers. Serious offenders were sometimes taken down beneath
the cellhouse, into an old military prison segregation unit the inmates referred to
as The Dungeon. It was actually the old foundation of the Army's citadel-a
collection of storage rooms and cells left over from the military prison days before
the cellhouse was built.
89. Why did Warden Johnston change the harsh policies of
silence in the cellhouse and punishment in a dungeon?
First, these policies weren't very effective. The Alcatraz inmates found ways to
communicate in the cellhouse, including using emptied-out toilets and the
plumbing that connected them, so that the guards eventually considered the rule
of silence virtually unenforceable.
And the "dungeon", for all its fearsome reputation, was known to be a weak spot
in the security of the penitentiary. The dungeon was outdated technology-relying
on damp, old brick walls to hold the convicts. Shackles were necessary to keep the
men from digging their way out.
Beyond their ineffectiveness, enforced silence and the use of a dungeon began to
be viewed as harsh. For its first few years, Alcatraz operated under a pretty
effective shroud of secrecy. But by the late 1930's, both the public and its elected
representatives were starting to hear stories about Alcatraz from released
And the stories-describing the rule of silence and the dungeon-were met with
outrage in some quarters. In 1939, a new U.S. Attorney General, Frank Murphy,
wanted to close Alcatraz down, saying "The whole institution is conducive to
psychology that builds up a sinister and vicious attitude among the prisoners".
Rather than close it down, Warden Johnston eased the rule of silence in the
cellhouse, and the Public Works Admin-istration pumped more than a million
dollars into a facilities upgrade program. Much of that money was used to
remodel Cellblock D into a high-security isolation area called the Treatment Unit.
90. How did conditions change for the inmates over the years?
In general, things seemed to get easier for the Alcatraz inmates. When the prison
first opened, the inmates weren't even allowed to talk inside the cellhouse.
Subsequently, the inmates were allowed to "hold quiet conversations", but "loud
talking, shouting, whistling, singing or other un-necessary noises" were still not
After 1940, and especially after Warden Johnston retired in 1948, conditions for
the Alcatraz inmates continued to improve, as they received additional time in the
recreation yard, radio access, more magazines, musical instruments, art supplies,
and movies twice a month.
91. Did anything change at Alcatraz during World War II?
Anti-aircraft guns on the roof were one indication that the war years were not
going to be business as usual on Alcatraz. The war years at Alcatraz also meant
substitute guards--new hires and returning retirees to replace the guards who
were inducted into the armed forces. To keep the men informed, Warden
Johnston posted a bulletin board outside the mess hall with updates on major war
Prison Industries work on Alcatraz Island was expanded and adapted to wartime
purposes; changes included sewing more military uniforms, manufacturing cargo
nets for amphibious naval landings and repairing and maintaining buoys for the
submarine nets that were stretched under the Golden Gate Bridge. Inmates began
being paid a few cents per hour for their work, and many used this money to buy
war bonds in support of the war effort.
Food rationing hit Alcatraz during the war, as it did the rest of the country, which
caused some grumbling among the inmates. The inmates generally supported the
American war effort, though there were some reports of workplace vandalism to
protest inmate labor being used for military purposes.
92. Why did things seem to get easier for the inmates as time
The gangster problem was part of the 1930's and 1940's. Back then, there were no
questions asked about the high cost or custodial excesses of Alcatraz. These
"tough hombres", as Director Bennett called them, were considered beyond the
reach of rehabilitation; the public wanted something done--irrespective of the
cost, regardless of the privations.
But as time went on, with the few gangsters still at Alcatraz getting old, the big
budget became difficult to justify. Alcatraz was still filled with troublemakers
from other prisons, but in later years the inmates weren't as well known. There
weren't as many bank robberies, and kidnapping rates had plummeted because of
the FBI and the death penalty.
As times changed at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, and the prison filled with
inmates who had far less notoriety, times also changed across America. Post-war
prosperity enabled the American public to lose their Depression-era
preoccupation with crime and punishment.
As public pressure went down, prison budgets also went down. Moreover, political
decisions, judicial guidance and new thinking in penology also led politicians,
judges and prison administrators to modify regulations, modernize penal
institutions and improve the conditions for prisoners in many American prisons,
93. How does Alcatraz compare with prisons today?
Alcatraz was smaller, stricter, and had less turnover than prisons today. But the
big difference is in the way prisoners were united against the administration in
the old days-and splintered into gangs today.
That, along with the violence this splintering leads to, are reasons why inmates
who did time at Alcatraz claimed to be terrified of prisons in the modern
post-Alcatraz era; not because of the rules and restrictions, but because of the lack
of integrity among inmates. The era of "solid cons doing their own time" had been
replaced by an environment in which inmates feared each other more than they
feared the guards.