Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Military Prison

Civil War and Origins of Prison

Like every other post in the United States, Alcatraz had a guardhouse with accommodations in it for soldiers of its garrison who had violated the army's rules and regulations. The standard facilities of the day usually consisted of a general prison room for compliant prisoners and a few individual cells for who remained in a rebellious mood. Alcatraz had both, but they were in separate buildings. The general prison room was located in the basement of the defensive guardhouse 500 feet up the road from the wharf. The dark, gloomy room measured about 10 by 20 feet. Two narrow musket-slit type windows opened out into the dry moat that lay in front of the guardhouse and two similar openings looked over the bay on the eastern side of the structure. A trap door in the floor of the casemate above provided the only entrance. Three isolation cells, one of them "dark," were located in the basement of the southwest tower of the Citadel on top of the island. The two "light" cells also had slit windows opening into the ditch around that building. Each cell measured about 8 feet by 4 feet 8 inches.

Alcatraz had the usual number of candidates for the guardhouse from its earliest days as a garrisoned post, but when the strength of the command greatly increased early in the Civil War, a corresponding increase occurred in the guardhouse population. In July of 1861, for example, 15 privates out of a command of 268 were locked up. The Presidio and the rapidly growing volunteer camps elsewhere in northern California experienced similar situations. An increase in the number of prisoners required a larger number of guards and caused problems in security, inasmuch as there were always some soldiers who felt duty bound to escape from the wretched conditions of confinement. Enlisted men guilty of minor infractions and who were sentenced to short periods of confinement, (perhaps 10 to 30 days) could be accommodated in the local guardhouse with little trouble. But those who had long sentences (from one to ten years for desertion) caused an administrative strain on the average post's capabilities, especially since there was a rapid turnover of commands during the war. As of the beginning of the Civil War, the army had no system of prisons, nor a well-founded policy for dealing with long-term confinement. Only rarely in the army's history could examples be found of attempts to manage prisoners in any fashion beyond the normal guardhouse routine. In 1874 the adjutant general searched through the records to find only one case where, in 1823, 121 military prisoners were gathered at Fort Monroe, Virginia, to work on the fortifications.


Many central figures of the Civil War helped create the early Alcatraz prison model. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner (center, top step, seen with his staff members in Virginia, 1862.


Gen. Edwin V. Sumner

Alcatraz Island (more accident than design) was destined to become the army's first long-time prison. In the summer of 1861, the commander of the Department of the Pacific, Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, found an expedient solution to the problems of the growing numbers of military prisoners and of improving military security by ordering the transfer of prisoners in the Presidio guardhouse to Alcatraz on August 27. Surely, no one that day envisioned that this was the first step in a 73-year history of military penology on the Rock. By the end of the month, the 13 local prisoners in the guardhouse had been joined by another 13 who had come across the bay from the Presidio.

Despite an intensive . search, no order dated August 27 directing that transfer had been found, but the transfer did take place, and in 1874, on the eve of the establishment of a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the adjutant general wrote: "Since August 27, 1861, Alcatraz Island in the Harbor of San Francisco, has been the point for collecting prisoners on the Pacific Coast." A letter has been located from the department to the commanding officer on telling him about these prisoners. On August 26, 1861, the department adjutant general wrote to the commanding officer at Alcatraz: "Any prisoners sent to your post by Lt. Col. Merchant (commanding officer, the Presidio] ... will be used on the Island for police purposes until a Court is ordered for their trial.

The inception of the prison was truly a casual affair, and correspondence concerning its first years was extremely scarce. The monthly post returns tallied the number of military bodies but completely ignored civilians held there. Almost nothing was recorded concerning punishments, such as the then still-authorized ball-and-chain, nor about the daily routine, other than a comment or two that prisoners policed the post. While the number of military prisoners on the island during the Civil War was never high, the small guardhouse was constantly overtaxed. The tiny general prison room in the basement could not begin to hold the men, even though they slept en masse upon the floor. Consequently, the inland howitzer casemate on the main floor became the general prison; while the guard occupied the other casemate across the sally port on the waterside. Either then or later, the basement was converted into a wash and bathroom for the prisoners and doorways were knocked through its thick walls. These arrangements for the guardhouse frustrated the engineers who were anxious to place the 24-pounder flank howitzers in position to guard the approaches from the wharf. In the fall of 1862, both the fortifications engineer and the commanding officer urged the construction of .a separate prison so that the guardhouse could be armed. Their plea fell on deaf ears. When overcrowding and sanitation problems caused an outbreak of illness in the fall of 1861, the commanding general ordered the prisoners into tents and a "cleansing of the prison room. Sometime between 1861 and 1863 a small frame building measuring 21 by 50 feet was constructed at the rear (northwest) of the guardhouse on the south side of the covered way. It provided additional quarters for the influx of wartime prisoners.

Exact figures on the number of prisoners during this period are impossible to determine. No record whatever has been found concerning the number of civilians in confinement. The post returns showed the average number of military prisoners to have been 15 between 1861 and 1863. In 1864 the average number climbed to 24, and by the end of the war it reached 49. The available records indicate that the turnover was constant, if not great in volume. In January 1862 the first prisoners from army units in Southern California reached Alcatraz by ship. A month later, the navy sent two of its officers and two sailors to Alcatraz for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the Union. It is not known if special accommodations were made for the officers; but both soon took the oath and were released from arrest by early March. In 1862 the Department of the Pacific issued instructions that Alcatraz was to hold in confinement any persons sent there by the U. S. Marshal. Publicity was given to the fact that President Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus and that his orders "directing the arrest of all persons guilty of disloyal practices will be rigidly enforced. Those of them who are leading secessionists will be confined at Alcatraz." A number of "secessionists" and/or Democrats found themselves on Alcatraz before the war was over. Among them were C. L. Weller, chairman of the Democratic State Committee and former governor, arrested for a speech he made in the presidential campaign of 1864; E. J. C. Kewen, newly elected to the state assembly; Ben Walker, who organized a group to go to Texas to fight for the Confederacy; and a man named Rudd, who was arrested in Mariposa County in January 1865.

The largest group of southern sympathizers to occupy the guardhouse was the crew and passengers of the schooner J. M. Chapman. Federal and city authorities seized the schooner on March 15, 1863, as she was about to leave the harbor to become a privateer for the Confederacy. The temporary imprisonment of these men on Alcatraz has been previously noted in this report. An excited and profuse account of the seizure of the vessel appeared in the Daily Alta California on the day following the event. The editor gave a list of those arrested:

“Ridgeley Greathouse, ostensible owner; A. Ruberey, a young Englishman, apparently a passenger, but well known to the Revenue officers as having for a long time been enlisted in a projected scheme of piracy under cover of letters of marque from Jeff. Davis; Libbie, first officer of the schooner, a man who is suspected of having been engaged in a similar capacity on the Atlantic waters; Aubrey Harpending, a native of Kentucky, and one of the main ringleaders of the expedition; Thomas Poole, a native of Kentucky; Alfred Armond, a native of Ottawa, Canada West; Henry C. Boyd, of Newcastle, Delaware; Joseph W. Smith, alias Snyden, of Brandenburg, Ky.; R. H. Duval, a native of Florida, together with the following, whose places of nativity will be known to the officers to-day: W. D. Moore, J. W. McFadden, Wm. W. Mason, John E. Kent, Albion T. Crow, D. W. Brown, John Fletcher , James Smith, George W. Davis, M. H. Marshal, and five sailors, cook, steward, etc.”

Early in 1865, the Engineer Department queried its officers in the field as to the feasibility of employing military prisoners on the construction of fortifications. Lt. George Elliot, on Alcatraz, allowed that he could use about ten prisoners in breaking rock and so forth, "where they would not be in the way of hired laborers." Thus began the practice of Alcatraz's prisoners contributing, in no little way in later years, to the construction of the Rock's postwar batteries. At Fort Point, Colonel De Russy was wholly against the employment of prisoners. He argued that there would be "the risk of constant desertion . . . both by land and water." He said, "the only locality in this Harbor suitable for such a purpose is Alcatraces Island, where the guard house and prison are of a good size and well guarded by sentinels, added to that, the difficulty of escape from the Island is rendered extremely difficult on account of its size as well as the formation of the high banks or bluffs which surround it."

After De Russy's death, when Elliot had taken charge of the works at Fort Point, prisoner work-parties were employed there. In September of 1867, for example, all of Alcatraz's prisoners were temporarily transferred to Fort Point where a makeshift prison was installed in the casemates. But De Russy was right; prisoners could and did escape. They were returned to Alcatraz early in 1868 when the fort at Fort Point was temporarily abandoned.

The First Departmental Prison, 1865-1900

The Prison

Following the close of the Civil War, regular army garrisons slowly reoccupied the small army posts on the Pacific Coast. The wartime use of Alcatraz serving as a place of confinement for a variety of prisoners declined. The average prison strength on the island for the three years (l865-1868) amounted to only 20, and most of these men came from posts around the bay. Nonetheless, the concept of a prison at Alcatraz remained alive. This was demonstrated in 1867 by tearing down the wartime wooden building behind the guardhouse and replacing it with a 50- by 30-foot brick cellblock, with two tiers of cells on each side. (The extensive brick foundations of this building still stand, now covered by a frame structure.)

In 1868 the department commander, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, renewed the idea of Alcatraz serving as the place of confinement for all long-time military prisoners in the department, which at that time included California, Nevada, Oregon, and the territories of Arizona, Washington, and Idaho. Once again, no specific orders for this development have yet been unearthed. It is known that the adjutant general of the army, Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, was interested at that time in establishing military prisons and companies of discipline around the country. A letter by Engineer Mendell to the commanding officer of Alcatraz in June 1868, indicates that Mendell had been approached about the feasibility of erecting a wooden prison on top of the guardhouse. Mendell had no objection to its construction inasmuch as it would not interfere with the fire of any guns and it could easily be removed in time of war. Presumably this block of cells, the first of three wooden ones, was built that summer.

A large contingent of prisoners arrived on Alcatraz in August 1868, increasing the prison population from 34 to 93. By January 1869, the number had climbed to 127. The chief of engineers, General Humphreys, took a dim view of this development at a place of permanent fortifications:

It is now proposed to add to the establishment a mess room and kitchen for the use of the prisoners confined in the building and as a measure of security to protect the garrison and works from a danger of a rising of the prisoners. While there is not the same degree of objection to a general prison on Alcatraz Island that applies to the case of an enclosed fort (as the Fort at Fort Point) it must still be urged that a permanent Fort for the defense of the seaboard is a most unsuitable place for the establishment for a general or Departmental Military prison. Guard duty for the prisoners always exacts large details from the garrison, while the works are not adapted to accommodate any troops beyond those necessary for the service of the guns. Hence, in case of emergency, the garrison will probably be found insufficient for its special duty: while the danger is at all times threatening. . . of a rising of the prisoners. While Humphreys had the support of both the adjutant general and the secretary of war, he lost the argument; the prison would stay and, in fact, outlive the fortifications.

In September of 1870 the commanding officer at Alcatraz reported that he had four more prisoners than he had cells for and that 25 more prisoners were on their way from the Department of the Columbia, "as Department Commanders had been ordered to send all prisoners, who had been sentenced to be dishonorably discharged, to this Post to serve out their sentence." The "Post Return" for October, reflecting the increase, showed 153 prisoners on the island. Despite the Engineer Department's concern about the prison, additional facilities now became imperative. Plans were prepared for a wooden cellblock that would adjoin the guardhouse on its northwest side, paralleling and adjacent to the brick cellblock. It would not interfere with passage through the sally port; the height of the lower line of floor joists was to be feet above the crown of the sally port arch. The solid floor was to be laid with 2-inch plank, then a layer of sheet iron IIl6-inch thick, and that overlaid with I-II4-inch flooring. There would be three tiers of wooden cells, their partitions being two courses of I-II4-inch lumber at right angles. The solid wooden doors would- be similarly designed. The fronts of the cells were to consist of one course of 2-inch plank and one of 3-inch plank, both vertical. The exterior sheathing was to consist of two courses of I-II4-inch lumber at right angles, covered with clapboard. The only ventilation provided (at first) was a 4-inch span over each cell door and a 2-inch span below. As built, this cellblock was a potential firetrap possessing wholly inadequate ventilation.

A complaint from Engineer Mendell disclosed how some of the prisoners were housed before this new cellblock was constructed. He was in the process of remodeling the North Caponier by removing its gun room and covering the magazine with an earthen traverse. He had to stop the work when an unspecified number of prisoners were herded into it for sleeping quarters: "There could scarcely be found a place more unsuitable for quarters. The room is comparatively without ventilation, and the health of them confined therein must suffer.

In the spring of 1871 plans were prepared for a prison mess hall and kitchen. This wooden structure, to be located outside the defensive wall northwest of the guardhouse (its inside wall being the brick scarp), was to be a narrow building only 16 feet wide but 120 feet long. This mess hall could hold 200 men. No windows were provided and four ventilators in the roof provided the only light. The existing mess hall was "an old rotten place built for and formerly used as a water tank," and the food was then being prepared in the garrison kitchen. Presumably, the cellblock and the mess hall were constructed in 1871 or 1872.

The earliest thorough description of the prison complex did not appear until 1881, when the post quartermaster prepared his annual report on the inspection of public buildings:

The Military prison is situated on the north eastern part of the Island. It is a collection of buildings the center of which is an old caponiere [guardhouse] which is considered useless at the present time for the defence of the post. It contains in the basement [originally the prison room], a washroom and bathroom for the prisoners, on the first floor the Guard room and on the opposite side 10 single cells and four dungeons [dark cells?]. This part of the prison is now only used for temporary confinement of refractory prisoners. On the top of the caponiere [actually to the northwest] a strong frame building has been erected resting on the south side on a parallel building of brick. The brick building contains 45 single cells in three tiers [an 1879 description said it had two rows of cells, with two tiers in each row], a room for the non-commissioned officer of the guard, and the printing office [Alcatraz Prison Press]: the frame building contains 42 double cells in three tiers.

A third building at right angles with the two former [and resting directly on top of the guardhouse] built of stout plank contains 48 single and four double cells in two tiers. Galleries run along the tiers and connect the buildings. The average size of the cells is 8-1/2 x 6 x 3-1/2 [sic] feet thus giving to each an air space of 161 cubic feet. They are ventilated by air tubes in the walls and by open spaces in the top and bottom of the door of each cell [a drawing of the vertical ventilator pipes (air tubes) has been located].

The report then went on to describe the prison library and reading room. This structure, built between 1869 and 1879, was located where a brick wing stands today, in front of the guardhouse. From the quartermaster's description, it seems likely that the 1881 structure was today's brick building; however another post quartermaster, in 1883, described it as being frame. Certainly, by 1887 today's brick wing was standing on the site:

It is a large building the attic of which is in part used as a room for Courts Martial, in part for the prison tailor shop and book binder's shop. The prison shoe shop is a separate frame building 33 x 9 feet resting on a basement of brick, which latter is used as a storeroom. West of the prison is the prison mess-house. It is a frame building resting on the outer side of the parapet connected with the prison by a gallery, and contains a kitchen 16 x 24 feet dining room 16 x 84 feet and a storeroom 16 x 16 feet.

The wing in front of the guardhouse had several other functions over the years in addition to those given above. The library on the main floor was regularly used as a prison chapel and was often referred to by the latter name. When the post hospital burned in 1874, patients were moved temporarily into the attic, which had just previously been set up as a ward for sick prisoners. It is probable that the Prison Dramatic Association held its performances in this structure, since there was no other suitable building on the island. The court martial room in the attic was abandoned in 1882, when that function was moved to the Citadel. After the first prison was abandoned, the library became a gymnasium for the post garrison. Still later, in federal penitentiary days, this room became a pistol range.

By 1887, the fourth, and last, cellblock had been constructed for this first prison. It was a frame structure added on to the similar building on the northwest side, or rear, of the guardhouse. The completion of this block brought the number of cells to 185.

A post surgeon inspected the prison in 1890, and like others before and after him, he found the sanitation of the complex deplorable. The cells, with their solid wooden doors, had insufficient ventilation. Compounding the problem, each prisoner kept a "night vessel" in his cell during the hours of confinement. The surgeon reported that the heating, bathing, washing, and laundry facilities all were inadequate. As for the privy, located out over the water: "A fruitful source of colds due to exposure to strong currents of wind which blow up through the one large unguarded opening." On one occasion an intoxicated civilian witness fell through the hole into the bay. The surgeon concluded that from the standpoint of modern penology the prison was "totally unequal to fulfill its legitimate purpose.”