40. Why was the mess hall considered the most dangerous
place at Alcatraz?
Mean, hungry men with knives. Three times a day the inmates gathered for meals,
sitting at tables with forks and spoons--even steak knives when the menu called
Alcatraz inmates might have been able to stay away from encounters with
enemies in the cellhouse and at work, but in the mess hall they were vulnerable,
so security in the Alcatraz mess hall was serious.
Inside the mess hall, in addition to unarmed guards on patrol, there were several
tear gas canisters mounted on the ceiling; outside the mess hall, armed officers on
a catwalk peered in. The armed guard in the west-end gun gallery also monitored
the mess hall during meals.
41. How was the food?
The tedium of Alcatraz--the sameness of the people, work and living space--was
broken only by the variety of the menu. The food was practically considered part
of the security program at Alcatraz.
The quality was reputed to be the best in the prison system--officials claimed they
spent more money for food per inmate than other prisons did, and there was
plenty to eat for everybody. The Alcatraz guards ate the same food in their dining
It was reported that, while Federal regulations stipulated a minimum allocation of
2,100 calories per day, per federal prison inmate, at Alcatraz the inmates generally
received more than 3,000 calories per day, per inmate. The inmates on Alcatraz
Island had fresh bread and pastry, butter on the tables and pie and ice cream for
Wartime food rationing and occasional budgetary challenges led to a few bumps
in the culinary road, but overall, especially given conditions across America during
the Depression and war years, dining at Alcatraz was a pretty good deal. Good food
meant inmates who were relaxed and content.
In the mess hall, inmates could have as much food as they wanted, but if they left
food on their trays, they could miss their next meal. If it happened again,
punishment could be more severe.
42. Did anything bad ever happen in the mess hall?
A few table-flipping food fights occurred, to break the monotony or to agitate for
better food or treatment, and fist fights broke out occasionally, but the armed
guards on the outside catwalk rarely had to break the windows with their rifle
butts, and they never had to fire any warning shots or release the gas canisters.
One of the low points of Alcatraz history occurred when Warden Johnston--
standing, as was his weekly custom, at the mess hall door--was attacked and beat
up by a disgruntled inmate, Burton "Whitey" Phillips. Phillips was sent to the
Treatment Unit for that assault, and Whitey reportedly didn't leave the Treatment
Unit until Warden Johnston retired and left Alcatraz, several years later.
43. Did Alcatraz inmates do all of the cooking and serving?
Yes. The stewards--civilian government employees--were in charge. According to
inmates who worked in the kitchen, the stewards mostly supervised and did
paperwork inside the glass walls of an office. The convicts did nearly all of the
food preparation and service work.
It was ironic; you had two unarmed stewards locked in a small room, surrounded
by men with weapons-sharpened meat cleavers and butcher knives. The stewards
kept a wary eye on all of those sharp knives, making sure the cutlery was
accounted for before any inmates were released from their kitchen jobs. And as
the culinary crew left work, they were often sent through a metal detector or
frisked by guards.
Kitchen knives were used maliciously in 1945, with Rufus Franklin's recreation
yard stabbing of Henri Young, and a year later in the "Battle of Alcatraz", when
kitchen worker Marvin Hubbard took a butcher knife from the kitchen at the start
of that failed blastout--a knife Hubbard died clutching two days later in the C
Block utility corridor.
44. What was the mealtime routine in the mess hall?
Tier by tier, the cell doors would rack open and the main-line inmates would come
out of their cells in order. The inmates marched into the mess hall and split off
into two lines at the steam tables set up in front of the kitchen.
Food was taken by the inmates, cafeteria style, using trays that were divided into
five compartments, so that the different items wouldn't spill over into each other.
Most food items could be taken in whatever sized portion the inmate wanted,
except for portioned servings of the main course and dessert, which would usually
be served by the kitchen crew.
The men carried their trays to their (for most years) ten-man tables; then, after
taking a look to see that all of their utensils were set in the correct places at the
table, the inmates would await the signal from a guard to be seated.
Once seated, the men would eat, and when all ten were finished, they would, after
a signal from a guard--who also double-checked that the utensils were all
accounted for--rise and return to the cellhouse.
Meal service generally took less than an hour. The first table of convicts was ready
to leave, just as the last group was walking in.