45. What kind of security did the inmates encounter at
Maximum custody was the concept-a tight schedule of activities for the inmates,
under the constant watch of correctional officers. By conducting official counts as
often as every 30 minutes during the day, as well as unofficial counts sometimes
twice that often in some of the work areas, the administration kept close tabs on
the convicts. Wherever the inmates went--mess hall, factories, chapel, shower
room or cellhouse--the inmates were secured behind locked doors, with
tool-resistant steel bars on all the windows.
The inmates were observed by unarmed guards on foot patrol, backed up by
armed guards stationed inside protected "gun galleries". Whenever the inmates
moved about the island, to and from work in the factories for example, they were
under the constant scrutiny of heavily armed guards in elevated guard towers
positioned throughout the island.
There were also "snitch boxes", as the inmates called them, both fixed and
portable metal detectors used to find contraband being carried or hidden by
While every effort was made to keep secure custody of the inmates on the island,
there was a pretty good backup security system in place if inmates escaped the
confines of Alcatraz. The mile and a quarter, minimum, that an escaping inmate
would have to swim in the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay was an
important--and effective--component of the security system at Alcatraz.
46. If San Francisco Bay is so dangerous, what about those
swimmers in Aquatic Park who are swimming in the bay?
San Franciscans love to swim in their bay. In 1933, the year Alcatraz' acquisition
by the Department of Justice was announced, several local high school girls swam
around Alcatraz from San Francisco, a feat many others have accomplished.
Today, several groups use Alcatraz for organized swimming contests, and
members of local swimming clubs swim in Aquatic Park daily.
Trained cold-water swimmers--with lots of practice--can accomplish the Alcatraz
swim. These swimmers are highly conditioned athletes, and they usually schedule
their Alcatraz swims for a time when the tides are moderate. At Alcatraz, inmates
were not privy to tide charts, and the Alcatraz inmates certainly weren't given an
opportunity to practice swimming in cold water.
47. What made Alcatraz such a bad place for inmates--isn't
one prison pretty much like another?
Warden Johnston pointed out that it was the same at Alcatraz as it was at other
prisons, except that Alcatraz was smaller and more isolated, the rules were
stricter--though fairly enforced--and the population was small with little turnover,
unlike other prisons that had to absorb a steady flow of new prisoners from the
These distinctions served to reinforce Alcatraz' guiding philosophy. The intent of
the institution--based on the disciplinary foundation of maximum custody with
minimum privileges--was a dull routine for inmates.
At Alcatraz, this achingly dull routine has been called the "exquisite torture of
monotony". You lived in a tiny, boring cell, in a small cellhouse, with other men
wearing identical, nondescript uniforms, marching to jobs that were usually
boring, repetitive, mind-numbing tasks.
On smoke breaks, you could talk to the same guys you saw every day, but what
kind of conversations could you carry on? Nobody ever had any weekend plans to
talk about, nobody had a few days off with the family, nobody watched the latest
episode of the Ed Sullivan Show.
Everybody was in the same place doing the same thing-nothing. As one inmate
complained to Warden Johnston, "I have nothing against Alcatraz. I like it better
than some other prisons I've been in, and you know I've been around. I'm square
treated by the officers and I've got a good job in the Industries, but I'm sick of
bending my ear to the same old gripes of the same old cons day after day".
48. The A Block cells have locks on the doors, but the B Block
and C Block cells don't have any locks. Why not?
The old military prison cells in A Block used a lock and key to open and close each
door, with a mechanical lever to secure the entire block. To let one inmate out of
his cell, you had to partially unlock all the cells on that tier of A Block. One of the
improvements made to the cellhouse when Alcatraz opened as a federal
penitentiary, was the installation of new cell fronts in the two cellblocks they
planned to use to house prisoners. The new cell fronts had special "tool proof"
steel bars and used a mechanical system of levers and pulleys to open and close
the cell doors--individually or all at once.
One reason for the mechanically controlled doors was to reduce the security risk
of keys, because keys can be stolen or illicitly duplicated. The locking mechanisms
at the end of each cellblock were operated by an unarmed cellhouse guard, under
the watchful eye of an armed gun gallery guard.
Correctional officers are considered to be a lot safer in a prison without keys. It's
the same kind of idea with guns. The correctional officers at Alcatraz walked
around the inmates while carrying whistles, not guns. If an inmate were to attack
a guard and take his whistle, Alcatraz would have had a problem--but not a crisis.
But if that guard carries a weapon, it becomes a crisis.
49. Did the inmates ever try to get guns away from the armed
Yes. In May, 1946, during the "Battle of Alcatraz", an inmate was able to spread
the bars of the west-end gun gallery, surprise and overpower the guard in that gun
gallery, and get the guard's weapons and keys.
But the inmate, Bernie Coy, only acquired two guns from his gun gallery
takeover--a rifle and a handgun. The main cache of weapons at Alcatraz was in the
armory, a secure area near the front of the prison, controlled by the correctional
officer guarding the cellhouse's sallyport entrance.
The cellhouse sallyport was a short passageway, locked at both ends, supervised
from the adjacent, but inaccessible, armory. The armorer would unlock the door
at one end, and a guard would let you into the sallyport. Once you were in the
sallyport, the armorer would lock that door behind you, then let you through the
next door, which he also unlocked and then locked. If there was any problem,
such as a hostage situation or an inmate trying to sneak away, the armorer would
lock the whole sallyport down.
The security of the armory was never threatened by inmates. This was a real
concern for prison authorities; shortly before Alcatraz opened, John Dillinger's
gang captured the entire weapons cache of a police department during one of the
gang's jailbreaks. By using the sallyport to protect the armory and the cellhouse
entrance, the Bureau of Prisons made sure this wouldn't happen at Alcatraz.
To keep the inmates from acquiring guns elsewhere, correctional officers used
metal detectors at the dock, at the front entrance, at the rear door and at the
bottom of the stairway leading to the work areas.
Officials also placed buoys in the bay, two hundred yards from the island, along
with large signs warning mariners that unauthorized vessels were not allowed
within that perimeter. Warden Johnston knew that many of his inmates still had
crime partners at large, and there were recurring rumors of armed attacks from
boats to free the inmates. But though the Alcatraz tower guards had to use the
spotlights or fire warning shots on occasion to remind errant vessels about the
perimeter, sightseers and becalmed sailors were the only problems Alcatraz
encountered from the bay.
50. So inmates only got hold of weapons at Alcatraz that one
time, in 1946?
The "Battle of Alcatraz" blastout, in May of 1946, was the only time inmates had
real weapons, but these men had 24 hours a day to find ways around the rules and
security at Alcatraz. The inmates could make weapons out of practically
anything-shards of broken glass taped to a book cover, sharpened screwdrivers or
machinery parts, even ordinary paper towels, moistened then braided, could be
used as weapons by desperate men.