Alcatraz - Quick Facts
How big was the average cell?
Each cell in B & C block was 5 feet by 9 feet. Cells at Alcatraz had a small sink with cold running water, small sleeping cot, and a toilet. Most men could extend their arms and touch each wall within their cell. The cells in D Block (segregation) were more spacious, but still the least popular. In D-Block, inmates were confined to their cells 24-hours per days, with the exception of one visit per week to the recreation yard, and these visits were alone.
How many cells were there?
There were 336 cells in B & C Block. NPS states that there were originally 348, but 12 were removed when stairways were installed at the end of each cellblock. There were 36 segregation cells, and 6 solitary confinement cells (actually known as confinement chambers by many inmates) in D-Block. Two cells on the end of C-Block were used as restrooms for the guard staff. The cells in A-Block were only used a few times for (rare) short term lock-up periods when an inmate did not require full solitary confinement seclusion, but needed to be fully isolated from other inmates. Records indicate that Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson were all imprisoned in A-Block (separated by multiple cell lengths) following the 1946 Riots and while standing trial for the deaths of two Alcatraz Guards from the 1946 Escape Attempt. Otherwise, A-Block was used for materials storage.
Were Alcatraz inmates allowed visitors?
Yes. Inmates were granted one visit per month and each visitation had to be approved directly by the Warden. No physical contact was allowed and rules dictated that inmates were not allowed to discuss current events, or any matters concerning prison life. Inmates talked with visitors via intercom and a correctional officer monitored the conversations during each the majority of the time (Alcatraz Captain Phil Bergen stated that they didn't always have time to monitor the conversations, but the vast majority were). Inappropriate conduct during visits would result in a loss of visiting and/or other privileges.
Where did the families of the guard staff live?
At any given time, there were about 300 civilians living on Alcatraz that included both women and children. The primary living areas for families were Building #64, three apartment buildings, one large duplex, and four large wooden houses for senior officers. Families enjoyed their own bowling alley, small convenience store, and soda fountain shop for the younger island residents. Families did most of their shopping on the mainland since the prison boat made twelve scheduled runs to the Van Ness Street Pier each day. The Warden lived in a large house adjacent to the cell house and actually used inmates with good conduct records for cleaning and cooking.
Do the inmates who were imprisoned at Alcatraz have anything good to say about the prison?
Actually, yes. Willie Radkay (he shared a cell next to Machine Gun Kelly), indicated that having your own cell was a great advantage over other federal prisons. By having your own cell, it reduced the chances of being sexually violated and the privacy aspect was also a cherished benefit. He also stated that the staff (the majority of the time) treated the inmates respectfully though they rarely spoke to one another. Furthermore, the food was the best within the entire prison system and considered his time at Alcatraz to be better than at any other penitentiary.
What did inmates dislike most about Alcatraz?
The common theme expressed by most inmates was the rule of silence which was discontinued in the late 1930's. In the earlier years of Alcatraz, inmates were not allowed to talk to one another except during meals and recreation periods. Some inmates commonly emptied out the water from their toilets and created a primitive communications system through the sewage piping. This rule was considered harsh and inmates were disciplined for even minor violations of this code. Inmates also state that the island was always cold. Most agree that cells on their higher tiers with window views were more popular since they tended to be warmer than the ground level cells.
Were executions performed at Alcatraz?
No. Alcatraz had no facilities for Capital Punishment and this process was usually left to State institutions. For Alcatraz, inmates who had been served a death sentence were transferred to San Quentin State Penitentiary for execution in the Gas Chamber.
How many people died while at Alcatraz?
There were eight people murdered by inmates on Alcatraz. Five men committed suicide, and fifteen died from natural illnesses. The Island also boasted it's own morgue but no autopsies were performed there. All deceased inmates were brought back to the mainland and released to the San Francisco County Coroner.
How many prisoners did Alcatraz have at any given time?
The highest number ever recorded was 302, and the lowest number 222. The average number of inmates during the 29 years of service was around 260. There were approximately 1545 total men imprisoned there and the NPS indicated that while 1,576 number were issued, over thirty convicts were returned to Alcatraz with different numbers issued.
What was the average stay?
On average, the time of residence was about eight years. Men were never directly sentenced to Alcatraz and usually had to earn their way. There were only two men ever paroled directly from Alcatraz to the free world.
How many people escaped?
See the escape info link on this site that provides brief descriptions of each attempt. The NPS records indicate that 36 prisoners were involved in various attempts. Two inmates actually successfully made it off the island but were quickly captured. Seven inmates were shot and killed trying to escape. Two drowned and 5 inmates have been unaccounted for presumed drowned. The most famous escape was that of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers. All three were successful in swimming off Alcatraz, but all three are believed to have drowned. See the escapes links and also the Alcatraz short history narrative for more detailed information. The book ALCATRAZ - A Definitive History available for purchase on this web site has one of the most detailed accounts of this attempt ever written.
Why did Alcatraz close?
Primarily because of rising costs and deteriorating facilities. Operationally, Alcatraz was the most expensive prison of any state or federal institution. It was determined that other institutions could serve the same purpose for less cost.
How many birds did Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud keep while on Alcatraz?
None. Stroud had bred and studied birds at the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Stroud was imprisoned at Alcatraz from 1942 until 1959. It was determined that Stroud was abusing his research privileges and sent to Alcatraz. Stroud was widely disliked by many fellow inmates and correctional officers. See other links for more detailed information. See his short biography in the Famous Inmates section here on AlcatrazHistory.com.
Who were the most famous inmates to reside on Alcatraz?
See Famous Inmates page.
Was it true that inmates were locked in dungeons for punishment?
The cellhouse had been built on top of a 19th century fortress that was used by the military to protect the Bay. Below A-Block was a set of cells that were know as the Spanish Dungeon. These cells had been used primarily during the military prison era. In the late 1930's it is alleged that the dungeon cells were occasionally used for unmanageable inmates. Many correctional officers have agreed they had heard, or were aware that some extremely unmanageable inmates were handcuffed to bars in the dungeons for short periods of time. A-Block was used frequently as the segregation unit before D Block had undergone the transformation into a lock-down unit.
The C-Block corridor known as "Park Ave" by Alcatraz Inmates
Pages from an Alcatraz Officer's personal journal noting his work assignments.
In 1962, inmates Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin would take part in one of the most famous and spectacular escape attempts in American history. Using life-like decoys to fool guards during headcounts, the inmates slipped into the fog ridden waters of the San Francisco Bay and were never seen again. Several decades later it still debated whether their escape was a success.
Roy Gardner, was once America's most infamous escape artist and the most celebrated outlaw and escaped convict his era. Known as one of the last train robbing bandits, he wrote prolifically about his criminal escapades and time served on Alcatraz. His book entitled "Hellcatraz" claimed the conditions were so horrific that he coined it as a "tomb of the living dead."
Roy Gardner published his autobiography, "Hellcatraz", a sensational book that contains not only descriptions of his interesting life but also such familiar names as Al Capone. A 1939 movie called "I Stole A Billion" was based on his life. The movie bombed, and in 1940, police found the one-time "Most Wanted" gangster and Western badman, Roy Gardner, dead at age fifty-six by suicide from cyanide fumes and tear gas. Out of all the gangsters of his era, Roy Gardner was a touchstone of his time, the last of the great Western train robbers, he belonged to no era of men. Roy Gardner described himself as the "last of the daring Robin Hood type of outlaw, a bloodless desperado."
Frank Weatherman, Alcatraz Inmate #1576, was the last inmate sent to the Rock.