THE PENITENTIARY OPENS
12. Why did the Bureau of Prisons open Alcatraz as a federal
During the wild decades between the two world wars, the American public was
presented with ample evidence that crime was out of control in America.
Kidnappings, gangster shootouts and major robberies were being splashed across
the front pages of America's newspapers.
Homer S. Cummings, Attorney General under President Roosevelt, was under
pressure to do something about these gangsters who were involved in
well-publicized crime sprees through the heartland of America.
Marauding from state to state--smuggling bootleg liquor, robbing banks and
kidnapping wealthy citizens, then bribing police, judges and elected officials to
turn a blind eye to their criminal empires as they looted America's big
cities--these colorfully-nicknamed hoodlums exploited weaknesses in the
American criminal justice system.
Even when these gangsters were caught, they didn't stay caught. Daring jailbreaks
turned desperadoes such as John Dillinger, Willie Sutton, "Jelly" Nash and "Baby
Face" Nelson into folk heroes as they broke out of jail after jail.
Alcatraz was one element of a federal counterattack on these "Public Enemies".
First, Congress federalized gangster crimes such as bank robbery and kidnapping.
That was a critical move. In 1932, for example, there had been 631 bank heists,
almost all from small town banks and often within a short drive of another state.
Robbers would hit town and case the bank, then strong-arm a bank teller or blow
the safe, grab the loot and scream out of town in a fast sedan. As soon as the gang
crossed the state line, they were home free--the pursuing police had no
jurisdiction in another state.
Federalizing the crime of bank robbery changed all that. Instead of pulling a bank
job in one state, then racing safely across state lines to evade the police, the
gangsters found themselves being pursued across state lines by the newly formed
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)--the "G Men" as they were famously
nicknamed by Machine Gun Kelly. The effectiveness of this federal response can
be measured in bank robberies--from 631 in 1932, before the federal legislation
and before the empowerment of the FBI, to only 26 bank heists in 1943.
But the Department of Justice's success in capturing, convicting and imprisoning
these hoodlums led to major problems in Leavenworth, Atlanta and the other
federal penitentiaries--a series of prison riots and escapes shook public trust in
The final straw, headlined in 1933, was an audacious mid-day prisoner snatch that
resulted in a deadly downtown gunbattle known as the "Kansas City Massacre",
during which federal agents were killed while returning Frank "Jelly" Nash to
Leavenworth after an escape.
The Attorney General felt the heat and responded. The solution was to take the
ringleaders--the relative handful of troublemakers and escape artists from each
federal prison--and transfer them to a high-security location, cut off from their
gangs and out of the public eye. The location chosen for this operation was
Prior to Alcatraz opening in 1934, the Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons
operated five major prisons: Atlanta, Leavenworth, Leavenworth Annex,
Lewisburg and McNeil Island in Washington. It was from these institutions that
nearly all of the Alcatraz inmates would be transferred, ridding these prisons of,
as Warden Johnston called them, the desperadoes "with the longest sentences,
most extensive criminal histories, worst behavior records, and the shrewdest
escape plotters who had shown both ingenuity and violence in breaking out of
steel cells and over high walls".
13. What changes were made when the federal prison took
over the facility from the Army?
Mostly steel. Steel doors, steel screens and coverings put over unused corridors,
steel grating for the outside doors, double plating for inside doors and
tool-resistant steel bars for the windows and cells.
The Bureau of Prisons also installed two elevated, barred "gun galleries" inside
the cellhouse and a series of elevated towers around the island, so armed guards
could monitor the inmates; and fences, topped with barbed wire, were erected
around the perimeter of the island.
14. How did Alcatraz differ from other prisons at the time?
Alcatraz was a federal prison, so the crimes for which the inmates had been
imprisoned were not common burglary, assault or murder. Those crimes are
generally state offenses, unless they take place on federal territory.
The inmates at Alcatraz had violated federal law by committing a federal crime,
such as bank robbery or kidnapping, been convicted of that felony in federal
court, then sentenced to a federal prison. A select few inmates from the federal
prison system--men considered too desperate, notorious or dangerous to be held
securely in a regular institution--were sent to Alcatraz Penitentiary.
Federal prisons in the early 1930's had been filled with bootleggers, post office
stick-up men and low-level hoods. All of a sudden, a few jackrabbits (as
escape-minded inmates were known) and gangster big-shots were poured into
that mix, and prison officials started having problems.
It's like the "80/20" adage, where 80 percent of prison problems were caused by
20 percent of the inmates.
So the Bureau of Prisons transferred the worst of these troublemakers--the
"agitators, disturbers, plotters and hell raisers" as Warden Johnston called
them--to The Rock. That way, federal inmates who could be reformed were
separated from the recidivist gangster element, and the threat of Alcatraz helped
to control the rest of the inmates.
Sanford Bates, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, and his assistant, James
Bennett (who later succeeded Sanford Bates as Director), were part of a new
breed in prison work--criticized by some as soft-hearted reformers--who believed
in classification and segregation of different types of convicts in different types of
penal institutions. Convicts sentenced to terms in federal prison were evaluated,
based on factors such as criminal history, type of crime committed, escape risk
and susceptibility to rehabilitation, then placed in the appropriate type of
correctional facility, ranging from unlocked honor farms through the ultimate in
Inmates who could be saved from continuing in a life of crime would be sent to
institutions that offered rehabilitation. Alcatraz was not one of those institutions.
The inmates sent to Alcatraz weren't sent there for rehabilitation to live again in
society; they were sent to Alcatraz for punishment, so that they could adjust their
behavior, then be moved back into a regular federal prison.
The custodial system established for inmates at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was
described as "maximum custody--minimum privilege". The Alcatraz inmates were
guaranteed four rights: food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Beyond
those basic entitlements, anything else was deemed a privilege, earned through
If a new inmate at Alcatraz obeyed the rules, he could earn the privilege of getting
out of his cell to go to work each day. Then the inmate could earn the privilege of
going out to the recreation yard on weekends, the privilege of receiving mail and
writing letters home, ordering approved magazines, reading books from the
library and, eventually, even having a visit from a family member.
If the new inmate did not follow the rules, or if he got into trouble subsequently
at Alcatraz, those privileges could be denied or revoked, and the inmate could
spend close to 23 hours a day locked up in his cell, coming out only for meals,
showers and visits to the infirmary.
15. What had the Alcatraz inmates done to merit transfer to
Alcatraz was set up for career criminals. One third of the early Alcatraz inmates
had accumulated five or more felony arrests.
Alcatraz was for serious custodial problems--men who escaped, rioted or led
strikes, as well as men who assaulted or killed inmates or staff in their old
prisons. Authorities also claimed that a third of the earliest inmates at Alcatraz
had achieved at least one successful jail break.
The Bureau of Prisons said Alcatraz was intended for "habitual, intractable"
offenders. Warden Johnston referred to the inmates being transferred to Alcatraz
as "incorrigibles, gangsters whose associations should be disrupted, men with
long criminal records, men with long prison records, men wanted by other
jurisdictions for additional crimes, and escape artists who showed ingenuity in
securing weapons and instigating violence in escapes from other institutions".
16. How did the inmates get to Alcatraz?
The first Alcatraz inmates were already there; 32 military prisoners remained
behind when the Army left. They were joined on August 11th, 1934, by 14 cons
from McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington--men referred to by their McNeil
Island warden as "surly", "desperate" and "slippery".
Shipments of inmates from the other federal prisons followed. These inmates
would be pulled out of their cells, put in handcuffs and leg shackles, linked
together in a "chain" with connecting waist irons, then loaded onto a special train,
described as a "rolling prison", and transported across the country. The train cars
were uncoupled at secluded docks on San Francisco Bay, in Richmond and
Tiburon, then pushed onto a barge and tugged over to Alcatraz. The inmates
would step off the train right onto The Rock.
After these initial shipments, replacement inmates came to Alcatraz individually
or in small groups, following more conventional prisoner transit procedures. The
final point of departure for these inmates was Fort Mason, right next to Muni Pier
in San Francisco. There they boarded the prison launch for their short ride to a
long stay at Alcatraz.
17. What happened when the inmates arrived at Alcatraz?
The first groups of inmates were marched, still shackled, around Alcatraz Island
and up the recreation yard stairs to the cellhouse, where they were met by
Warden Johnston and other officials. In later years, a vehicle brought new
inmates from the dock to the cellhouse.
The inmates were mustered out by the escort officers who had accompanied them
from their old prison, then given an introductory lecture by Warden Johnston.
The new Alcatraz inmates continued to the shower room, got rid of their old
prison duds and took a nice hot shower.
Finally, each inmate was inspected, disinfected, issued an Alcatraz inmate
uniform and given a copy of the Alcatraz rules--then sent upstairs to his new cell.