Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Military Prison

Inmates and Regulations

Before 1900 few studies or analyses of Alcatraz's prisoners were ever made. Post surgeons noted individual characters and incidents in their record books. Some statistics could be compiled from the monthly Post Returns. Local rules, regulations, and traditions grew steadily but were rarely published for future reference. But once convicts began arriving in large numbers from the Philippines and elsewhere, increasing attention was paid to them and their general behavior and to the regulations that governed them. This attention was caused by several factors: whether or not to retain the prison on Alcatraz, the construction of a permanent prison, the development of professional guard companies, the change from a departmental prison to a branch of the military prison, and more subtle factors such as a slow evolution in penology in the United States.


Kansas State Penitentiary

Even with more thorough reports at hand, the historian cannot construct the complete history of a penal institution. The records were created by those in control; there is no known account of his imprisonment written by a military prisoner. The regulations spelled out what was to be done; no guard ever wrote down what he actually did. It takes the novelist's pen to describe the potential horrors of imprisonment, such as James Jones in From Here to Eternity, wherein depicted the brutality of an army stockade in Hawaii. But from a scattering of documents written in the early 1900s, a general picture of life at Alcatraz may be drawn. Maj. Gen. Robert P. Hughes, commanding the Department of California in 1902, attempted to project the future population of Alcatraz in order to estimate the number of cells that would have to be provided. At that time 461 prisoners were the island. "The great body of these prisoners," he said, "was received from the Philippines, when our situation was such that it was necessary to send them out of the way; the records indicate that 297 of those now here were sent here from Manila." Among these men were three who had been sentenced to spend the rest of their natural lives on the Rock; another inmate still had 21 years behind bars. But the majority of the prisoners (306) had sentences of two years or less.

A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle described one prisoner who came from Manila, George Bender, who had the habit of setting fire to Filipinos houses. He had set a fire at Alcatraz and, when the reporter saw him, was carrying a ball-and-chain. On the ceiling of his cell he had burned "Bender, the Firebug, will burn this jail tonight." But the jail survived, perhaps because the pyromaniac was sent to Kansas State Penitentiary "in an iron cage.”

An important description of the prisoners was prepared in 1905 by the judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. George B. Davis, who visited the military prison at Alcatraz as well as the one at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. On the Rock he found 271 prisoners employed as follows:

105 in Quartermaster Department, working on the new barracks, getting out rock on Angel Island, etc. 32 on police work at different posts around the harbor 54 constructing the new departmental rifle range at Point Bonita (Fort Barry) 36 in the prison--cooks, waiters, room orderlies, barbers, tailors, etc. 15 sick (8 in hospital, 1 in quarters, and 6 on light duty), 1 waiting release 6 third class prisoners not at work (third order was the lowest class of prisoners; these six .were possibly kept in their cells) 6 awaiting trial

Davis mentioned that the inmates were divided into three classes, based upon their conduct in confinement. Of the 271 men, 110 belonged to the first class (the best), 99 were in the second class, and 7 had been reduced to the third class. Fifty-five men were not then classified, either being new arrivals or employed at other posts in the harbor and not under the control of the prison commandant. Concerning the prisoners in general, Davis wrote: The prison rules are strict; obedience is rigidly enforced; no partiality is shown and the prisoners are taught that their future largely depends upon a faithful and conscientious observance of the prison rules. There are a few "trusties" employed, but all are engaged upon public work; none are allowed to be used as servants by officers, or others, or to work in or about the officer’s quarters. Most violations of prison rules are met by reductions in grade, or by deductions from good conduct time. No solitary confinement on bread and water diet has been imposed for a year or more; and as that form of punishment has been found unsatisfactory and not productive of good the dungeons [in the guardhouse] in which this was executed has been abandoned. To replace these an iron cage has been constructed in one of the rooms on the second floor of the [lower?] prison; but this has been used but once in eight months....

The moral condition of the prisoners is better than was to be expected, when it is considered that it is impossible to establish schools among them, to teach trades, or to apply any of the reformatory agencies which are relied upon, in modern prison administration… Obscene practices are of rare occurrence and are severely punished. But two prisoners are known to be addicted to the use of opium; one being a pronounced case.

This account was one of the rare instances in which prison homosexuality was referred to, even if obliquely. From today's freer discussions on this once-taboo subject, it would seem that the military prison was no different than any other. Not even a judge advocate general learned everything in a short visit. Fifteen years earlier, the post surgeon on Alcatraz recommended that a convict be discharged because he was a sodomist. And in 1934, when the Department of Justice took over Alcatraz, 8 of the 32 military convicts remaining on the island had been convicted of sodomy. Davis went on to say that the officer in charge of prisoners, Lt. Lawrence Halstead, "has arranged and filed the prison records, which were in considerable confusion, and has installed a very complete and well-considered method of identification by thumb and finger marks, in which the experience of the French police authorities and those of Scotland Yard in London has been fully utilized."(Practical fingerprinting as a means of identification had been in use since only 1891.) The general was so impressed by the prisoners' skill in manufacturing hollow concrete blocks for the new garrison barracks, that he recommended that these blocks be used to rebuild the prison and for future construction at the Presidio. Despite all his favorable impressions, Davis left Alcatraz with the feeling that it was not a good place for a prison and that escape from the island was not at all difficult.

Lieutenant McElroy's 1906 treatise on a "New Military Prison in the Pacific Division" has been previously cited in this study. One subject that McElroy addressed was that of a permanent guard in place of the ever-transferring line companies:"With regular organizations guarding general prisoners we have the recruit thrown in daily contact with the prisoner." In his opinion, "no worse condition could exist and the recruit will eventually look upon him, not as a man serving a just sentence, but simply an unfortunate, a man misjudged, and he, the young recruit, may sometime be a fellow sufferer . . . A guard," McElroy said, "should be as far removed from [the prisoner] as possible. He should be the guard and the prisoner the prisoner at all times and under all conditions. There should be no community of interest between them, no fellow feeling." Moreover, he felt that guards should receive special training and the noncommissioned officers should have at least four months instruction to become competent in the duties of an overseer. He noted three ways by which a permanent guard could be organized: a civilian guard, an especially enlisteds ervice corps, and, least preferred, by details from organizations. A year later the regular garrison at Alcatraz was replaced bypermanent guard companies, which were organized by McElroy's least preferred method.

McElroy raised the interesting point of segregation in the prison. Apparently he did not much favor the practice but said that it could be carried out if found desirable. It is known that black military prisoners served their sentences at Alcatraz, but the records do not mention segregation or the lack of it. McElroy believed that he could get prisoners interested in their work. All they needed, he said, was a little encouragement. If they were given this encouragement, a lot of disciplinary problems would disappear. Whether or not McElroy was overly optimistic remains unknown, but his thesis disclosed one of the more perceptive and thoughtful young officers ever to serve on Alcatraz. The dynamic first commandant of the Pacific Branch, u. S. Military Prison, Lt. Col. Reuben B. Turner prepared a lengthy analysis of the prisoners in his annual report for fiscal year 1909. In addition to its thoroughness, the report had the distinction of being printed in booklet form on the "Prison Press," Alcatraz, California.

At the beginning of the year, on July I, 1908, there were 330 prisoners in confinement. A total of 526 prisoners were received during the year, but the losses amounted to 520, leaving 336 men in the prison as of June 30, 1909. These military convicts came from the following areas:

Department of California • 168
Department of the Columbia 106
Department of Texas 24
Department of Luzon 126
Department of Mindanao 59
Department of Visayas 42
Philippines Division 1

Total 526

Losses broke down to show: Expiration of confinement, 490; pardoned, 23; escaped, 1; deaths, 1; and transferred, 5. A total of 525 civilian suits had been issued to discharged prisoners at the cost of $5,250.

Prisoners were confined for the usual crimes; larceny, perjury, assault, and burglary. A few desertions had taken on a new twist in the Philippines, "desertion to the enemy." Turner gave a minute breakdown of the terms of confinement, almost month by month. This long listing may be summarized as follows:

Less than one year 133
One year 249
From one to two years 194
Two years 114
From two to five years 111
five to ten years 9
Twelve years 1
Fifteen years 1
Life 1

During the year, the prisoners submitted 117 applications for clemency, of which the War Department granted 19 pardons and 13 remissions of sentences ranging from three months to two years. Of the 336 prisoners present at the end of the year, 309 were native born and 27 of foreign birth. Prisoner-mail received and inspected during the year totaled 4, 100 letters and 3,200 papers, periodicals, magazines, and packages. Meanwhile, the prisoners sent out 3,650 letters. The prison library contained only 228 books, magazines, and periodicals. A prison school had been established that contained 26 volunteer students. They studied reading, writing, spelling, and geography. Classes were held five days a week, from 6: 30 to 7: 30 p.m. By 1909, no army chaplain was assigned to Alcatraz; volunteer clergymen from San Francisco held religious services on Sunday afternoons.

The average daily work force numbered 302, of whom 30 worked the stone quarries on Angel Island. The rest were employed as plumbers, plumber helpers, printer and a police party.

An additional 90 men were employed on new construction on the island, including work on the new prison, preparation of site for the power plant, and demolition of the Citadel. In addition to Turner's excellent report, a number of photographs taken at that time illustrated the construction work going on. Nearly all of them show the prisoners working at their assigned tasks. Although Alcatraz became the Pacific Branch, U. S. Military Prison, in 1907, not until two years later did the Government Printing Office publish the regulations governing the prison at Leavenworth and its branches. The government of the prison was vested in the Board of Commissioners of the United States Soldiers Home, which consisted of the surgeon-general, the commissary general, the adjutant general, the quartermaster general, the chief of engineers, the judge advocate general, and the governor of the soldiers home. All correspondence concerning the prison went through the Office of the Adjutant General, who, in reality, administered the day-to-day operation. The Department of California lay outside this command structure and its commanding general now had no authority over Alcatraz despite its location in San Francisco Harbor.

The officers of the prison consisted of the commandant, the adjutant (books and records), the quartermaster (supplies, equipment, and construction), the commissary (food), the surgeon (hospital), the chaplain (chapel, library, and school), the executive officer (direct charge of prisoners and cells), the exchange officer, and the ordnance and signal officer (weapons, communications, etc.) . Most of these officers were also officers of the guard or prison companies and some of them had other assigned duties as well, such as athletic officer or mess officer. Alcatraz operated a prison laundry, a bakery, a school, and a library. The commandant approved all books, magazines, and periodicals. All prisoners, except those undergoing punishment, had ready access to the library and could take reading material to their cells.

All prisoners were designated as "military convicts," the term "general prisoner" dropping temporarily from the scene. The regulations spelled out the treatment for convicts in considerable detail (many of these regulations had long been observed at Alcatraz):

On admission the convict was minutely searched and deprived of all his possessions except clothing. He then took a bath and was issued prison dress. His hair was cut short and he had to shave off any beard or mustache; however, during his last month of confinement he was allowed to grow a beard again, if he wished. A number was assigned to him, by which he was known during his prison term. The prisoner could draw from any money he may have for the benefit of his family. Upon his release, he received in full any balance due him. All convicts were divided into three classes: first, second, and third. Each man wore a badge that indicated his class. On admission he was placed in the second class, and his conduct determined whether he was promoted or demoted. Convicts of the first class who had less than three months to serve, could be "paroled” for quartermaster work, such as teamsters, mechanics, and laborers.

For good conduct, a convict could earn an abatement of five days for each month of his first year of sentence and ten days per month for time over that. Earned abatement could be forfeited by misconduct. Prisoners received a wholesome and sufficient ration. Those in solitary confinement received 18 ounces of bread a day and as much water as they desired. Clothing consisted of cast-off or obsolete quartermaster uniforms that had been dyed a non-regulation color. A convict could not wear military buttons or other official insignia. His number was stamped on his clothing. Convicts were kept at hard labor six days a week and were allowed time off on seven national holidays. The commandant could suspend labor during unusual weather to protect the health of the prisoners. They engaged in every kind of police, maintenance, and construction activity, as well as clothing manufacture and rock breaking, not only on Alcatraz but at other posts around San Francisco Bay.

Prisoners could make complaints either in person or in writing, provided they went through the proper channels, but frivolous or untruthful complaints could bring punishment. Mass petitions or protests were not allowed. Every cell was inspected daily for cleanliness, contraband articles, or escape attempts. Weekly inspections of the convicts and the prison were also held. Prisoners who violated the rules and regulations were tried by court martial and disciplined by the following ascending order of punishments:

Deprivation of a meal
Deprivation of tobacco privilege
Deprivation of letter privilege
Reduction in class
Solitary confinement on restricted diet
Solitary confinement on restricted diet and handcuffed to door
Loss of part of good-conduct time
Loss of all good-conduct time

Solitary confinement was limited to 14 days at a time, and there was an interval of 14 days between successive periods of confinement. If a convict attempted escape, he automatically lost all earned good-conduct time, and could be court-martialed in addition. On one hand, each man was allowed to send one letter a month to his family or friends. He had to submit it for inspection; however. On the other hand, letters coming in could not be examined without the convict's consent. But they could be held unopened until the prisoner was released. Convicts could receive visitors once a month on the written order of the commandant. They could apply for clemency at the prison, but succeeding applications had to have a six-month time lapse between them.

On July 4 and Thanksgiving Day each year the commandant was required to notify the War Department of those convicts who had served at least 18 months and who had the best record of good conduct.