LIVING ON THE ROCK
30. How was the Alcatraz cellhouse laid out?
The Alcatraz cellhouse featured four two-sided banks of cells, called cellblocks.
From roughly north to south, they were named cellblocks A, B, C and D. This was
the setup in place when the Bureau of Prisons took over the facility from the U.S.
The Bureau of Prisons only planned on using the two innermost cellblocks--B
Block and C Block--but soon found a need to handle rule-breakers and
troublemakers at Alcatraz, so they began using the outside cellblocks, A and D, for
isolation and punishment. In 1940, Cellblock D was rebuilt to further this
purpose, serving as the "Treatment Unit" for inmates who demonstrated a need
for more intense custodial management. At that point, Cellblock A began being
used primarily for administrative purposes and storage.
The "main line", or general population of Alcatraz, lived in either Cellblock B or
Cellblock C. Each of the cellblocks had three tiers of cells, half facing out north,
half facing south, with a utility corridor for plumbing, air circulation and electrical
conduits running down the middle, between the backs of the cells in each block.
31. What determined where an inmate lived in the cellhouse?
New Alcatraz inmates started out on "Fish Row", the floor-level cells (called "the
flats") near the main entrance and visiting area on the east end of "Broadway", the
main aisle that ran between B Block and C Block. If their behavior reflected a
positive adjustment, the new inmates would be moved into more permanent
Some inmates had limited choices. For much of Alcatraz' penitentiary history,
most mainline inmates who were racial minorities lived in cells on the upper
tiers, down by the west end of Broadway.
Inmates who worked in the culinary crew had to be near the kitchen, so they lived
on Broadway, primarily on the flats down by the mess hall. That way, the bakers
and cooks could be released quietly from their cells in the early morning to
prepare breakfast for the prison.
32. Did Alcatraz inmates prefer cells in any particular areas of
Some inmates enjoyed living in cells in the middle of the cellhouse, on Broadway,
with a view of the cells of their fellow inmates across the aisle from them, while
other inmates preferred the relative privacy of the outside of B and C Blocks, with
no inmates living across from them.
A number of Alcatraz inmates expressed a preference for sections of the outside
cellblocks that had views of the bay, while other inmates refused to consider
taking any cell with a view; for these latter inmates, a view was nothing more than
a depressing reminder of where they could not go.
Another factor, for inmates who liked to read, was the advantage of a cell on the
top tier. After "lights out" at 9:30 p.m. in the cellhouse, at which time their
individual cell lights were turned off, there was enough light from the cellhouse
lights on the ceiling, which remained illuminated for security, for inmates closest
to those lights to continue reading. The security lights didn't provide as much
illumination as the 75-watt light bulbs inside the Alcatraz cells, but inmates could
read by them. For some inmates, having the opportunity to occupy their minds for
a few extra hours by reading, was considered quite a benefit.
Some inmates in the upper tier of the cellhouse also felt that they stayed warmer
during those fog-chilled evenings--the heat from the radiators rising up to take
the chill off the cold concrete and steel of the cellhouse.
33. Was Alcatraz racially segregated?
Yes. Reflecting social practices and conditions outside prison during much of that
historical period in America, black inmates had their cells clustered together away
from white inmates, sat at separate tables in the mess hall, kept to themselves in
the Alcatraz recreation yard and had separate work locations.
For example, for many years in the Alcatraz laundry, white inmates worked
downstairs, while black inmates worked upstairs, on the second floor.
Even haircutting was racially segregated, with white inmates cutting white
inmates' hair and black inmates cutting black inmates' hair. Like on the outside,
as time went by, there was some racial integration at Alcatraz.
34. What could Alcatraz inmates do in their cells?
Up until nearly 1940, the Alcatraz inmates were not allowed to speak in the
cellhouse. They could talk in the recreation yard or during "smoke breaks" at
work, but not while they were in their cells or dining in the mess hall. Warden
Johnston felt that if he allowed the inmates to talk, the inmates would probably
talk about escape. As Johnston explained, "When escape-conscious men with
established escape records are housed together, they are bound to talk and plot
and plan and scheme and contrive to get away."
Even after the rule of silence was eased, life in an Alcatraz cell was pretty dull. If
they worked, inmates spent at least 14 hours a day in their cells. If they didn't
work, nearly 23 hours a day would be spent locked up by themselves in a cell that
measured five feet by nine feet. There weren't many diversions to help pass the
time--smoking and reading were pretty much it. In later years, the introduction of
radio broadcasts into the cells was a welcome break.
35. Was smoking permitted in the Alcatraz cellhouse?
Permitted? Smoking was encouraged!
At the end of each cellblock there was a pipe-tobacco dispenser for the corncob
pipes the cons were issued, as well as dispensers of Target rolling papers and
tobacco for rolling their own cigarettes. And for some of the penitentiary years,
the inmates were issued packages of Wings cigarettes.
During this period of history, most Americans smoked. No one wanted to get
these inmates agitated by depriving them of their cigarettes. In other prisons, with
canteens selling cigarettes, they became a medium of exchange for gambling. At
Alcatraz, the inmates couldn't gamble as easily, because there were plenty of free
smokes for everyone.
36. How were the cells furnished?
Alcatraz cells were pretty spartan. A chain-operated light bulb on the cell ceiling,
controlled by the inmate until "lights out", illuminated one cell wall with a
chain-suspended bed, across from a wall with a folding steel table and chair.
The cell's back wall had a shelf to hold each inmate's toiletry articles--razor, cup,
soap, tooth powder, toothbrush and a comb--as well as a steel mirror, toilet paper,
shoe polish and a small broom for sweeping the cell.
The back wall also had a toilet and wash basin, three pegs for holding clothing,
and a small, screen-covered ventilator down by the floor. The front wall of the cell
was, of course, a barred door.
In later years, as conditions eased at Alcatraz, the cells were decorated with
inmate artwork and furnished with desk extensions that inmates constructed to
enable them to write or paint from the comfort of their beds.
Alcatraz inmates were also permitted to store musical instruments and art
supplies in their cells. In later years, inmates were able to use those art supplies,
paintings and musical instruments to facilitate escape from the cellhouse.
37. The inmates had razors? Wasn't that pretty dangerous?
The inmates did have shaving razors, but not blades.
Three evenings a week, a correctional officer carried around a board with
numbered spaces containing razor blades. Each inmate would be given his blade,
and he would shave using the cold water of the cell's wash basin. The same guard
would then go around and collect each blade.
Inmates were not allowed to grow mustaches or beards. If they didn't shave, they
were shaved by the guards--with little or no water.
38. What was it like in the shower room?
Inmates would shower twice a week. They marched to the Alcatraz shower room
by tiers, meaning a couple dozen inmates would go to the shower room at one
time. They wore robes and slippers, carrying their soiled linen and clothing, which
would be searched by guards before being dropped into laundry bins.
The Alcatraz inmates took nice hot showers. In the early years, the showers were
in private stalls; later, the stalls were taken down and the men showered in a large
After their showers, the men would pick up fresh linen and clothing and return to
their cells. Inmates who worked in the kitchen or in the laundry also had access to
showers at their work sites.
39. Alcatraz seems like such a tough place to be an inmate.
Were there any good points about Alcatraz, compared to
Yes. At least in the early years, Alcatraz was filled with no-nonsense career
criminals. As the inmates put it, they were "solid cons" who "knew how to do their
Also, Alcatraz' custodial staff had more experienced, mature correctional officers,
and fewer rookies who wanted to prove how tough they were.
Those guards understood those with whom they were dealing. They knew that
men living under the restrictions imposed by the Alcatraz system would blow up
at times-that some violent behavior was inevitable in a population of
troublemakers living in such close quarters, so they cut the inmates a little slack
when tempers cooled down.
Most of the inmates gave good reviews to the food at Alcatraz--the chow was high
quality and there was plenty of it. Inmates also spoke favorably of the Alcatraz
library--not very up-to-date, but a nice variety of titles.
Alcatraz inmates felt good about the general look and feel of the institution and
its inmates. The facility was kept in good shape and the inmates were expected to
look good and stay sharp. Alcatraz inmates were neat and clean, and they dressed
in well-tailored, clean clothes, thanks to the clothing factory and the laundry.
Another aspect of prison life that many inmates liked about Alcatraz, was the fact
that they lived by themselves in single cells. Prisoners ran into problems in other
prisons with two-man cells or three-man cells.