Murder in the First and the U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz
NOTE: Reprinted with Permission by the Bureau of Prisons
The Warner Brothers film Murder in the First claims to be “inspired” by the true story of Alcatraz inmate Henry Young (his first name is also written “Henri”; this was apparently an alias). Although Henry Young was indeed an inmate at Alcatraz who was convicted in 1941 of involuntary manslaughter in the stabbing death of fellow inmate Rufus McCain, the events depicted in the motion picture are almost wholly fictional. In particular, the premise of the movie — that Young was a nonviolent inmate who was tortured on Alcatraz and was thereby driven to kill someone — is completely false.
Murder in the First claims that Young was a teenage orphan who was sentenced to Alcatraz for stealing 5 from a grocery store in order to feed his starving sister, and that he "never harmed or attempted to harm anyone" before entering Alcatraz. The true story is that he was a bank robber who had taken and brutalized a hostage on at least one occasion and committed murder in 1933--some 3 years before being incarcerated at Alcatraz. He had served time in State prisons in Montana and Washington before entering Federal prison for the first time in 1935 at the U.S. Penitentiary on McNeil Island, Washington (which is now a State prison).
Although Young did participate in a January 1939 escape attempt, he was not kept naked in a dark dungeon for 3 years as punishment, as the movie indicates. Instead, he was held in the disciplinary segregation unit in the main cellhouse as punishment for the escape attempt. He was confined to a normal cell--not a dungeon--with plumbing, an electric light, a cot, and other appropriate cell furnishings. Various events in the movie set in a dungeon--such as scenes where the associate warden slashes Young's Achilles tendon to prevent future escapes--are fabrications.
The events surrounding Young's fatal attack on Rufus McCain are also portrayed inaccurately. In the movie, Young becomes a madman after 3 years in the dungeon, is then taken directly from the dungeon to the dining hall, and, moments later, stabs McCain to death with a spoon handle. The implication is that Young's homicidal behavior was a direct result of his inhumane confinement and that he had no control over his actions.
In reality, Young was released from his cell in segregation after only a few months. He was returned to the general population no later than autumn 1939. More than a year after that--in December 1940--he killed McCain in the industries building.
The movie also implies that Young died on Alcatraz in 1942, evidently committing suicide after scrawling the word "victory" on the wall or floor of his cell. This is not true, either. Young remained at Alcatraz until 1948, when he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri. When his Federal sentence expired in 1954, he was turned over to the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla to begin a life sentence for an earlier murder conviction. In 1972, he was released from Washington State Penitentiary, but he jumped parole and, according to Washington State authorities, his whereabouts are unknown. Far from committing suicide 53 years ago, therefore, Young might still be alive.
Many of the depictions of Alcatraz and its staff are completely inaccurate. Murder in the First portrays the warden as managing three prisons simultaneously: USP Alcatraz, and the California State prisons at Folsom and San Quentin. The movie further states that the warden visited Alcatraz only 24 times over a 3-year period. In fact, no one has been warden of a Federal prison and a State prison simultaneously.
James A. Johnston, the actual warden at Alcatraz and one of the most respected prison administrators of his generation, was warden at Folsom in 1912 and San Quentin from 1913 to 1924; he did not become warden at Alcatraz until 1934, and served in that position full-time. He lived right on the island, in a house just a few yards from the front door of the cellhouse.
Nor is there any validity to claims that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover selected Johnston to be warden at Alcatraz, that Hoover and the Alcatraz management intimidated prospective witnesses in Young's trial, that inmates were being driven insane at Alcatraz, and that 32 were removed from the island in straitjackets during a period of only a few years leading up to Young's trial. Equally groundless and unfair is the depiction of officers at Alcatraz as sadistic brutes. The evil prison officer is one of the oldest and least imaginative movie cliches, and one of the most misleading.
Statement of James V. Bennett
Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons
May 1, 1941
Henri Theodore Young
Trial evidence photo of Young's Alcatraz A-Block Upper-Tier Isolation Cell, circa 1941.
Trial evidence photo showing location of Young's closed-front cell in A-Block.
Note: This statement was made in response to a request for an investigation of the U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz, made by the jury that tried Henry (or Henri) Young for the murder of a fellow prisoner.
I am firmly convinced that the jury which tried Henri Young for murder of another inmate in the Alcatraz Penitentiary has been misled about conditions at the prison. It has been impressed by tactics which sought to free Young through disparaging and attacking a public institution performing humanely and intelligently a most difficult task of protecting the public from hardened and unregenerate criminals. Young has been described by former United States Attorney Simpson and Federal Judge Stanley Webster of Spokane, Washington, as "the worst and most dangerous criminal with whom they ever dealt" and as "one who would not hesitate to kill anybody who crossed his path." He has been permitted to go virtually unpunished on the basis of inferences and innuendoes made by inmates whose criminal records and life histories show them to be wholly unreliable and who were able to commit deliberate perjury with impunity since they could not be reached by any effective legal process. From such information as I have about the trial, it is apparent that the Jury had before it no first-hand information or reliable evidence as to the policies or methods followed in the management of the most difficult and desperate group of prisoners ever assembled.
Alcatraz is now and always has been open to inspection and investigation by any qualified or properly commissioned person or groups. It has been inspected by Judges, Congressmen, penologists and qualified private citizens and has been approved as a modern and intelligent method of protecting the public from those desperate criminals who have proved themselves to be wholly intractable.
The institution, for instance, was recently inspected by experts of the Osborne Association of New York, a private philanthropic organization devoted primarily to the investigation of prisons, and was pronounced by them as well managed and operated and as using no improper system of discipline. Members of the Appropriations Committee of Congress in the course of their examination of our estimates also recently inspected the institution and made no criticism of its methods or operations.
I have visited Alcatraz frequently as have various members of our staff and know personally most of the inmates, including Young. As a matter of fact, I have on several occasions personally interviewed Young and done everything possible to obtain his cooperation. I have never found or had called to my attention any authentic case of brutality or inhumanity at Alcatraz.
Corporal punishment is prohibited in all the Federal penal institutions including Alcatraz. We stand on our record as the most modern and humane penal system in the world. I have every confidence in Warden Johnston. He is a just, humane, and intelligent prison warden capably performing the most difficult job any warden was ever asked to assume. The entire institutional staff has consistently displayed their courage, patience, and devotion to the public service. They deserve the support of every fair-minded citizen whose homes and safety they have helped to protect.
The statements made by the prisoners so far called to my attention have already been carefully investigated by the Department [of Justice] and found to be wholly unfounded. When, however, a transcript of the testimony has been received, it will be carefully gone over as in every other case, and if any evidence or facts are found showing brutal or inhuman treatment, vigorous corrective measures will be taken.