Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Military Prison

Violence entered the picture in 1892 when a guard shot a prisoner attempting to flee from a work party at the Presidio; he died in the Presidio hospital. In 1900, shortly after the arrival of a large number of prisoners from the Philippines, another prisoner was shot and killed in an escape attempt. A desperate try occurred in 1906, when four prisoners stole a butter vat from the post bakery and attempted to put it to sea. Wind and tide forced them back to the island where they found temporary security in one of Mendell's old powder magazines on the west side of the island, but they were soon found and placed in irons. Less than a year later three men attempting the same in a dough kneeding trough met a similar fate. A lone convict almost made it to San Francisco on a log later in 1907. But he had the misfortune of being hit by a ferry steamer and was hauled aboard, thus ending his voyage.

In November 1912 The San Francisco Call excitedly reported a successful escape by two Alcatraz prisoners who were said to be among the most desperate of any on the island. Both prisoners had been transferred from Fort Leavenworth where they had also tried to escape. One of them had 13 courts martial to his credit as well as having been tried 134 times by the executive officers of the prison; the other, equally notorious, had 5 court martials and had been tried 200 times by executive officers. The two prisoners (who were thought to have escaped on a raft) were considered dangerous; but if they successfully reached the mainland, they were not heard of again. Two prisoners on a scavenger gang on the Rock slipped away from the sentinel during a heavy fog in 1916. They each took a log from the flotsam along the shore and took to the water. Strong currents grabbed them as they tried to swim towards Little Alcatraz Rock off the northwest end of the island. One man made it to the rock where his for help were eventually heard on the island. The other prisoner drowned. A most unusual departure from the island was undertaken by two prisoner sin 1918. They managed to steal officers I uniforms (possibly from theprison laundry) and casually boarded the ferry, mingling cooly with the other officers. When the ferry landed at the Presidio wharf, the two "officers" debarked. Two days later a sheriff arrested them at Modesto, California.

In 1927 two escaping prisoners encountered modern technology when planes from Crissy Field joined the search; however, a ferry captain captured the two who were paddling a plank to Sausalito and won himself a $100 reward. This couple had come to Alcatraz from Hawaii, as did two men who tried to reach Berkeley by clinging to a ladder in 1929. Tides prevented them from getting more than a few hundred yards from the island, but they did get an extra year each added to their sentences. Three convicts got out of the prison by prying a bar loose in the barbershop window in 1930. They had hidden three large planks on the shore and the three men set sail for Berkeley. Before they got very far they changed their minds and yelled for help. The searchlight on Alcatraz picked them up and they were rescued, one of them in serious condition from exhaustion and cold. The last recorded escapee from the military prison scorned all aids; planks, ladders, or butter vats. He stripped naked, greased his body, and plunged into the bay. He has not been heard from since that June night in 1930. Should he read this he can identify himself by the following: Narne , Jack or Jasper Allen; hair, black; eyes, gray; weight, 134 pounds; height, 5 feet inches. 24The soldier convicts -had another avenue by which to leave Alcatraz--release through clemency. Many tried and a few succeeded. At times so many requests for release reached the adjutant general's office that it must have seemed as if the world was filled with "guardhouse lawyers." The prisoners themselves(or their fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, or even mayors and congressmen) wrote letters appealing for mercy and justice. An unusual case involved August Magnusson, a Swedish immigrant who had enlisted in Boston and deserted at Fort Lapwai, Idaho Territory. The Swedish Society of San Francisco became interested in him and forwarded a petition for his release, saying that at the time of his enlistment Magnusson could neither speak nor understand English and had probably been tricked into signing up. The adjutant general investigated, then wrote Count Carl Lewenhaupt, who was envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of his Majesty, the king of Sweden and Norway, that the request was denied. However, Magnusson's sentence would be shortened by his continuing good behavior.

The British ambassador involved himself in the case of Henry Stephens, deserter, Alcatraz Island, and in this instance, successfully. Stephens' mother, living in Burlon-on-Trent, England, was able to prove that he had been a minor both at the time of his enlistment and when he deserted. The secretary of war promptly ordered his release from confinement and so informed the ambassador. Congressman W. H. Cole, Baltimore, Maryland, took up the case of deserter Peter Scott on behalf of his mother. But the hard-hearted army refused to let him go, telling the congress man that the secretary of war "deeply sympathizes with the aged mother of the prisoner in her affliction and regrets that the interests of the public service will not admit of an interference with the execution of the [two-year] sentence." Stevens could earn an abatement of five days per month for good behavior. Military' prisoner Robert E. Hunter wrote his senator two letters requesting help in getting clemency. The secretary of war investigated but decided that Hunter's crime was so grave (an attempt to poison a fellow soldier) that the request could not be granted. Hunter should not have been surprised at the decision; no matter how ingenious the appeals nor how plausible mitigating reasons were made to appear, few men won their release in this manner. Alcatraz was a difficult place to get out of--by either writing or swimming.

When a prisoner completed his sentence at the U. S. Military Prison, Fort Leavenworth, and was released to civilian life, he received a "donation" of five dollars, a suit of clothes, and transportation to his place of enlistment. When the prisoners on Alcatraz learned of these "benefits," they petitioned that they receive similar treatment. At that time (mid-1880s) freed men on the Rock got only the donation, which came from the rather shaky profits in the prison shops. The adjutant general replied that the issuing of transportation tickets at Leavenworth had been stopped because many former prisoners were selling them as soon as they got out of the stockade. As for clothing he could find no funds that would allow for their distribution at Alcatraz (Congress appropriated special funds for Fort Leavenworth). In 1886, however, a solution was found wherein the Leavenworth prison forwarded material to Alcatraz, where the prisoners manufactured coats, pants, and vests. Upon discharge they would also be issued a quartermaster navy blue woolen shirt, unless Alcatraz could manufacture shirts at a lower price. In 1888 the adjutant general impressed upon the Military Committee in the House of Representatives, the rightfulness of transportation for former prisoners, even though they had been dishonorably discharged. By 1892, Alcatraz's freed men were enjoying this benefit too. At that time the army attempted to economize by placing eastern convicts in the Leavenworth prison and men who had enlisted in the western states at Alcatraz Island, in order to have lower transportation charges at the time of release.

Earlier this study noted the incarceration of civilians and navy men on Alcatraz during the Civil War. In the years following, many other diverse individuals found themselves among the soldier prisoners on the Rock. The best remembered of these varied groups are the Indians. The first Indian known to be brought to San Francisco for detention was "Old John", a Rogue River Indian from Oregon Territory. Old John had been dissatisfied with life on the reservation, was disgusted with the government's failure to keep its promises, and had refused to be a "good and quiet" Indian. In April 1858 he was arrested (for the third time) and sent to San Francisco by sea. It is commonly stated that Old John was incarcerated on Alcatraz Island, but that was an impossibility in 1858.There was still no garrison on the Rock; its only inhabitants at that time were the civilian employees of the Engineer Department who were building the fortifications. It is known that Old John spent part of his time, and perhaps all of it, at the Presidio of San Francisco. And when he was freed to return to Oregon in May of1862, it was the commanding officer of the Presidio who was instructed to let him go.

The first Indian known to have been placed in the military prison was "Paiute Tom" who was sent to Alcatraz from Camp McDermit, Nebraska. The army did not have much to say about Tom, who arrived on the Rock on June 5, 1873, and was mortally shot by a guard on June 7. In October 1873 two Modoc Indians, Barncho and Sloluck, were imprisoned on Alcatraz for their roles in an attack on peace commissioners during the Modoc War in northern California. Four others, including Captain Jack, who had taken part in the same incident had been hanged at Fort Klamath, Oregon; but these two had received a presidential commutation to life imprisonment at the last minute. Again, their names were rarely to be found in Alcatraz's records during their confinement. However the Register of Prisoners did contain a form for each man. Barncho died of scrofula in the prison on May 28, 1875, and was buried on Angel Island. Sloluck was released from confinement in February 1878 and sent to Fort Leavenworth, en route to join his exiled people in Indian Territory. His stay on Alcatraz was the longest of any 27.

The two Modocs were joined briefly by a Paiute Indian in early 1874, when Natchez, brother of Sarah Winnemucca, was placed in the prison for two weeks. Two other Paiutes followed Natchez: Little Captain, or Richard Dick, who served his sentence from July 1881 to May 1882; and Pete who was on the island for only a month, April 1882. The "Post Returns" did not show when the next two Indians came to Alcatraz, but in June 1884, the adjutant general ordered the release from confinement of two Indian privates, from Company A, Indian Scouts, Department of California. These two scouts had been involved in a "mutiny" at Cibicu Creek, Arizona Territory on August 30, 1881, wherein Capt. E. C. Hentig and six privates of the Sixth Cavalry had been killed. In July 1884 Brig. Gen. George Crook, involved in his Arizona campaign to subdue the Chiricahua Apaches, arrested the young chief, Kaetena, and had him sent to Alcatraz where he remained until March 1886. When Kaetena returned to Arizona, Crook wrote to General Sheridan: "Ka-e-te-na... who less than two years ago was the worst Chiricahua of the whole lot, is now perfectly subdued. He is thoroughly reconstructed, has rendered me valuable assistance, and will be of great service in helping me to control these Indians in the future. His stay at Alcatraz has worked a complete reformation in his character." Another Indian from Arizona, Skolaskin, arrived at Alcatraz in November 1889 "for safekeeping. " He had escaped from Fort Huachuca earlier that year. Skolaskin was not released until July 1892. 28 It is not known why Skolaskin had been imprisoned at Fort Huachuca; he was a Sanpoil Indian from the Pacific Northwest. In 1887, five more Indian Scouts were received on Alcatraz for having mutinied at San Carlos. The length of their stay is unknown.

The largest contingent of Indian prisoners at Alcatraz did not arrive there until January 1895, when 19 Hopi Indians from Arizona were placed in the cells. The Indian agent at the Navajo Agency had requested that the U. S. Army arrest these "unfriendly" Indians and hold them at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. This location did not satisfy the Commissioner of Indian Affairs who recommended to the secretary of the interior that they be "held in confinement, at hard labor, until . . . they shall show . . . they fully realize the error of their evil ways," adding that Fort Wingate was "not remote enough from the scene of trouble." The adjutant general of the army agreed to accept the Hopi Indians at Alcatraz where they were to be confined at hard labor "until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards, and will make proper promises of good behavior in the future."

The three men considered to be ringleaders, Hebima, Ukioma, and Putofa, were to be separated from the rest and not allowed to communicate with them. The other 16 were to be permitted to visit San Francisco from time to time, under guard, and especially to see the public schools. When the prisoners arrived at Alcatraz, the commanding officer was shocked at the condition of their clothing. He promptly got approval to issue them army clothing, as well as towels, combs (coarse and fine) , needles and thread, and smoking tobacco. The post surgeon was concerned about their lack of understanding of the importance of keeping their cells ventilated and asked that the sergeant of the guard pay special attention to this matter. No notices of the Hopis' stay on Alcatraz have been found; but in August 1895 word arrived from Washington that they could return to their reservation and that "a promise of good behavior . . . be extracted from each one. The Indians departed for Fort Defiance, Arizona, on September 23.

Following the Spanish-American War, San Francisco became one of the army's most important ports of embarkation. Army transports carrying troops and supplies steamed out of the harbor on a regular schedule enroute to Hawaii and Philippines. Transports to and from the Philippines stopped at the port of Nagasaki, Japan, to take on coal. Stowaways somehow managed to board the steamers at Nagasaki and were not discovered until after the ships set sail. For a time, in.1903-1904, these stowaways were detained on Alcatraz when the transports reached San Francisco. In August 1903, five Japanese were removed from USA Transport Logan and taken to Alcatraz for safekeeping. II A month later seven Japanese and one Russian arrived on the island. In October four Japanese were brought to the island from one transport then shipped back to Japan on another. A Chinese stowaway along with four more Japanese spent time on the Rock. Another Russian visited in January 1904. The last stowaway recorded in the Post Returns, March 1904, had an English-sounding name. Presumably there were additional stowaways arriving in San Francisco in future years; but Alcatraz was not their place of containment.

An unusual influx in the number of prisoners at Alcatraz occurred immediately after the great earthquake in April 1906. All the prisoners in the Broadway Street jail were marched to Fort Mason then ferried to Alcatraz. How long they remained on the island is unknown. Army reports concerning the earthquake were endless, but none of them seem to have concerned themselves about this event. Alcatraz's own records, including the Post Returns, were silent on the matter.

During World War I a national hysteria against suspected spies, citizens with German-sounding names, conscientious objectors, and anyone who criticized the war, swept America. In 1918, Congress passed the Sabotage Act and the Sedition Act which allowed for the imprisonment of anyone for almost any criticism of the American system of government. Conscientious objectors were herded into the prison at Leavenworth . Then in 1919, after the war, a "red scare" swept the nation, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, that continued the trampling of civil liberties. In 1919 a motley group of prisoners, including conscientious objectors, convicted soldiers from France, and ordinary military convicts went on a strike at Leavenworth, a strike that the newspapers preferred to call a mutiny. The army decided to send the "worst" of the lot to Alcatraz where they could be more easily controlled. The first group of 32 arrived on the Rock in June 1919.

Chronicle said that they were all conscientious objectors and that most of them arrived in handcuffs and shackles. A reporter noting their civilian attire inquired as to who they were and was told they were a group of Germans. Another 68 arrived in July and by August the total number of prisoners had reached over 200. Ringleaders of the Leavenworth trouble were placed in solitary confinement on bread and water.

In August friends and relatives of the conscientious objectors began a campaign of complaint for the treatment that these people had received at Alcatraz. These indignant citizens included David Starr Jordan, president-emeritus of Stanford University, and Upton Sinclair, the writer. An army investigation followed, but the conclusion was that the prisoners had purposely misstated the facts. Students at the Berkeley campus of the University of California then came to the support of the prisoners. It was a custom at that time for prisoners to receive visitors on Sundays. On Sunday, November 21, 1919, a group of Berkeley "radicals" visited the prison and passed out "Bolshevik literature" urging a prison strike, as well as small stickers for pasting on walls demanding the release of political prisoners. As soon as the visitors left, guards searched the prisoners and confiscated the "red propaganda." The army announced that those particular visitors would not be allowed on Alcatraz again. Gradually the affair disappeared from the newspapers and Alcatraz went back to the business of being a military prison--or disciplinary barracks as it was then called.

The number of prisoners on Alcatraz fluctuated widely between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. This study noted earlier that between late 1865 and 1868, the average population of the prison was only 20. When the concept of a departmental prison was fully implemented in the fall of 1868, the number of prisoners increased dramatically. From 1869 to 1875 the monthly count averaged out at 127, with the highest number of 177 being recorded in March 1872. For the next 16 years, 1876-1891, the yearly average came to 104 prisoners, the highest being 166 in 1884 and the lowest being 64 in 1888. The 1890s brought considerable improvements in the lives of enlisted men. With the Indian campaigns mostly over, many small army posts were closed and the troops concentrated at fewer and larger posts having more permanent facilities. Training replaced the• arduous marches across plain and mountain in pursuit of an elusive enemy. These changes were reflected in the prison population at Alcatraz. From 1892 to 1899, the number of prisoners averaged only 35. The Spanish-American War changed everything. In April 1900 there were 441 prisoners on Alcatraz!

Permanent Prison and Professionalism

Upper and Lower Prisons

The Spanish-American War brought an influx of volunteer and regular army troops through the port of San Francisco. Insurrection in the Philippines followed and troop movements increased. By November 1899 over 150 prisoners were confined on Alcatraz, a dramatic increase in just a few months. Then in January 1900 the commanding general at San Francisco, Maj. Gen. William "Pecos Bill" Shafter, learned by cablegram that 135 convicts were en route to Alcatraz from Manila. An alarmed Shafter telegrammed the War Department that the prison could hold only 100 men comfortably and there were already 137 prisoners in confinement. He said that he had already ordered his chief quartermaster to construct a new 100-man prison building at a cost of $8,500. The War Department could do little else but approve the expenditure. Additional funding became available in February. And by March two buildings containing cells, a guardhouse, and a stockade had been erected on the parade ground that Engineer Mendell had carved out 30 years earlier. Shafter recommended a third cellblock, which, by putting two men in those cells then occupied by one, would give a total capacity of 480 prisoners in both the old (lower) and new (upper) prisons. Again, the War Department approved. When the transport carrying the prisoners arrived from Manila in April of 1900, bringing the prison strength up to 441, cells were ready to receive them.

The new cell buildings were frame and had skylights in the roofs, somewhat similar to the old prison. There was a wooden walk around the top of the stockade walls where sentries paced between sentry boxes. A chute for a sanitation wagon was built from the prison to the water's edge, and a tramway had been built from the wharf to the parade ground for hoisting lumber and building materials. In 1901 the War Department approved an 8-inch above-ground sewer main leading from the upper prison latrines to the bay. Later that year, approval was given for a new bath/latrine building in the center of the upper prison compound. It replaced two shacks in the same area; the one which had been the latrine had facilities for only 12 men at a time. The post quartermaster .pointed out that since over 300 men used the building, "it is found that prisoners cannot be sent out to work at the proper hours, as men have been unable to answer natures calls, clean themselves, etc.

The 30-year-old lower prison had always been regarded as a potential firetrap. Inspectors general had condemned the complex more than once. But, because of the increase in prisoners, 125 men were still confined to the old cells. Many years earlier, a primitive system of simultaneously locking and unlocking the cell doors had been installed as a way to let out the prisoners quickly in case of fire. A lever at the end of each tier theoretically would open all the doors on that particular level. By 1902, however, this imperfect system had become quite rickety. Shortly after midnight , January 6, 1902, the fear of fire became a reality. One of the quartermaster lamps in Prison 2 had melted the soldered connection that held it to the wall, and it fell to the floor of the corridor 20 feet below, scattering burning oil. Catastrophe was averted only because a sentry, "a cool, quick witted man," was by chance standing nearby. He cried "fire," seized buckets of water standing close by and succeeded in putting out the fire. The terror among the prisoners was extreme. Writing a few weeks later, the post quartermaster said: "The prisoners are crazed with fear every time any unusual outside noise is made at night, fearing fire and that they will be burned to death. When, a few nights ago, the guard fired upon two escapes [sic], the prisoners in these prisons, believing it to be the fire alarm, shook their cell doors shrieking to be let out and not allowed to perish. "

Everyone who was concerned agreed that a new permanent prison should be constructed. The department quartermaster argued that the prison should be moved to Angel Island, since he understood that Alcatraz was to be strongly fortified with modern batteries. However, both the department commander, Maj. Gen. S. B. M. Young, and the commander of the army, Lt. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, thought the new prison should be on Alcatraz and that it should he constructed "as soon as possible." In the succeeding months reams of paper were consumed as staff officers investigated the prison conditions, attempted projections on the size of future prison population, and made recommendations. The post quartermaster, Capt. A. M. Fuller, described the old prison as "rotten and unsafe; the sanitary condition very dangerous to health. They are dark and damp, and are fire traps of the most approved kind." The mess hall, he said, was "an absolute apology." Its roof leaked; the mess was too narrow, damp, and badly lighted; its seating capacity was 200, and the 450 prisoners had to eat in two and one-half shifts; and the sinks and baths were but little shacks and woefully inadequate. In his opinion the upper prison was also a firetrap and much too far from the mess hall: "Here are confined life, 40, 20, 15 year and lesser term men. All must be taken, three times a day and marched 1/4 mile, through the post, to meals, requiring 16 sentinels. This is a dangerous method, especially in winter, when darkness comes early and daylight comes late. Prisoners have escaped from these marching columns." He submitted 19 photographs of both prisons and a preliminary plan for a permanent prison on top of Mendell's old batteries at the northwest end of the island.

A civil engineer in the department quartermaster's office also investigated the prisons. He repeated many of Fuller's findings and also mentioned that since the lamp incident, the prisoners were nervous and liable to panic at the least accident. The chief army engineer in San Francisco, Lt. Col. Thomas H. Handburg, investigated the feasibility of moving the prison to Angel Island. After weighing the pros and cons, he decided that Alcatraz was ideal for a permanent prison because it could be easily guarded and escape was difficult. A prison could be so located as not to interfere with the proposed 6-inch rapid-fire gun batteries. Furthermore, he said, "this island does not now play so important a part in the defense of San Francisco Harbor and the approaches to Mare Island as it did in the earlier projects. Modern long-range guns on armored warships from which the city of San Francisco may be destroyed at distances out to sea have relegated the interior defensive positions of the harbor . . . to less important duties.