51. Could inmates write letters?
Yes. Alcatraz inmates who were in good status could send two letters a week, and
receive seven letters a week from approved correspondents. All outgoing
correspondence was monitored and censored. Incoming letters were re-worded
and re-typed on prison stationary to preclude any secret messages or other
chicanery. Since outgoing mail carried an "Alcatraz" postmark (see below), some
inmates reported feeling uncomfortable writing to relatives in small towns.
52. Where did inmates get books to read?
From the Alcatraz library, which, in the 1940 remodeling, was relocated next to D
Block, across from the outside tiers of C Block. The library shelved about 15,000
volumes, many of which were books left over from the military prison library.
Books about sex, violence or crime were not available. Most inmates read an
average of seven or eight books a month.
The Alcatraz library utilized a closed-stack paging sys-tem, meaning inmates
requested books from a catalogue, and the books were delivered by a library
For most of the penitentiary years, the library was run by the chaplain, who
selected the books for the library, so the selection was sure to be wholesome
Alcatraz also had a variety of basic legal reference books available to inmates. In
later years, a separate law library, of sorts, was created in A Block for inmates to
53. What about newspapers and magazines?
No newspapers for most of the years, but inmates could subscribe to approved
magazines that were censored to remove references to sex, violence and crime.
In the early 1960's, the Alcatraz censor reportedly missed a few articles that
provided design and production tips that helped inmates build a crude flotation
device out of raincoats. The raincoat raft was used, with questionable success, in
the Morris-Anglin escape in 1962.
Inmates could keep twelve books and six magazines in their cells, and they could
route their magazines to other inmates to read when they were finished with
54. What kind of jobs did the inmates have?
Warden Johnston noted that "men are not selected and sent to prison because
they have the skill required for particular jobs, but frequently for very opposite
reasons", so matching tasks and workers was not easily done.
While some inmates worked in the cellhouse--mostly cooking and cleaning--and
others worked on the dock or on maintenance crews, the bulk of work, involving
more than half of the Alcatraz prisoners, was in "Prison Industries", work which
took place in factories outside of the cellhouse, on the northwestern end of the
In addition to laundry and dry-cleaning facilities that kept military personnel in
the area in clean uniforms, inmates also worked making shoes, gloves, rubber
mats, brooms, brushes, and furniture, in addition to raincoats and other items of
apparel for inmates and soldiers.
During World War II, the mat factory was adapted to make cargo nets for the
Merchant Marine and Navy. Inmates also repaired and maintained the buoys used
to anchor anti-submarine nets beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
One interesting facet of employment for the Alcatraz inmates was the
weather--when the island was really socked in by fog, the trek from cellhouse to
Industries was so difficult to monitor for the guards, that factory work was
canceled and the inmates "laid in"--sat around all day in their cells.
55. What about religious services?
On Sundays, chaplains would come over and conduct services, alternating
between Protestant and Catholic clergy from week to week. On Jewish religious
holidays, a Rabbi would come over to conduct services for Jewish inmates. The
religious services were more popular with the inmates when they were the only
alternative to sitting in your cell. In later years, religious services had to compete
with the increased yard time, and attendance at chapel reportedly decreased.
56. Could people visit the inmates at Alcatraz?
If Alcatraz inmates were in good standing and had earned the privilege of
visitation, they could receive one visit each month from an immediate family
member--16 years of age or older, with no criminal record. For some inmates, this
"family member with a clean record" qualification ruled out all potential visitors.
Many of the men at Alcatraz had no visitors during their stay on The Rock. For
one thing, many of the inmates came from impoverished backgrounds in distant
parts of the country; Alcatraz was an expensive journey for an hour-long visit
conducted over a telephone while separated by glass.
If relatives were coming a long way, arrangements could be made to schedule
back-to-back visits--the last day of one month, plus the following day, which was
the first day of another month. Still, it was just too lengthy and expensive a
journey for most relatives of Alcatraz inmates.
Attorneys for inmates with legal proceedings pending could consult with their
clients face-to-face, with no glass or telephone separating them, at first in the
regular visitor area, in later years in a special cell in A Block.
57. What was the Recreation Yard like?
Some of the Alcatraz inmates could always be found playing baseball or handball,
but most inmates either walked around the yard with pals, stood in small groups
talking, or sat around playing bridge.
Occasionally, Alcatraz staff would add equipment for sports and activities such as
basketball, tetherball or shuffleboard. For its final few years, the Alcatraz
Recreation Yard even sported weightlifting apparatus. But with the lack of space
in that relatively small area, and the chaotic activities of more than 200 men,
most convicts preferred to just talk quietly.
Over the years, rules also changed for recreation, mostly in the amount of time
the inmates were allowed out into the Recreation Yard--the time increased from
most of Saturday and a few hours on Sunday, to all day Saturday and all day
58. What kind of rehabilitation programs were offered at
Warden Johnston instituted a successful education program featuring
correspondence courses, but there was really nothing you could call a
rehabilitation program for Alcatraz inmates. Alcatraz was set up for custody and
punishment, and only when they left Alcatraz and returned to their original
prisons, could inmates participate in prison-sponsored on-site rehabilitation