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U.S.P. Alcatraz
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The New Warden

The Bureau of Prisons selected James A. Johnston as the new Warden of Alcatraz. Johnston was an ideal choice, with his strict ideals and humanistic approach to reform. He came to the position with a broad-based background in business, and more than twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections. James Johnston had been appointed as the Warden of San Quentin Prison in 1913, and had also served a brief appointment at Folsom Prison. He had become well known for the programs he implemented in the interest of prisoner reform. He didn't believe in chain gangs, but instead thought that inmates should report to a job where they were respected and rewarded for their efforts.

Nicknamed the "Golden Rule Warden" at San Quentin, Johnston was praised in newspapers for improvements made in California highways, many of which were graded by prisoners in his road camps. Although inmates were not compensated for their work monetarily, they were rewarded with sentence reductions. Johnston also established several educational programs at San Quentin that proved successful with a good number of inmates. But despite his humane approach to reform, he also carried a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. His rules of conduct were among the most rigid in the correctional system, and harsh punishments were meted out to inmates who defied prison regulations. During his tenure at "Q," Warden Johnston oversaw the executions by hanging of several inmates, and he was not unfamiliar with the challenges of managing the most vicious rogues of society.
Alcatraz opened as a United States Federal Penitentiary in 1934.
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As Warden of Alcatraz, Johnston was given the authority to hand pick his correctional officers from the entire Federal prison system. Working together with Federal Prisons Director Sanford Bates, the new Warden devised new guiding principles under which the prison would operate. To begin with, it was established that prisoners would have to “earn” their transfer to Alcatraz from other prisons, and no one would be directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Inmates who sought an attorney to represent them while incarcerated at Alcatraz would have to do so by direct request to the Attorney General. All privileges would be limited, and no single inmate, regardless of his public stature, would be allotted special rights or freedoms.

Visitation rights would have to be earned by the inmates, and no visits would be allowed for the first three months of residence at Alcatraz. All visits would have to be approved directly by the Warden, and their number would be limited to only one per month. Inmates would be given restricted access to the Prison Library, but no newspapers, radios, or other non-approved reading materials would be allowed. Receiving and sending mail would be considered a privilege, and all letters both in-coming and out-going were to be screened and type-written after being censored by prison officials. Work was also seen as a privilege and not a right, and consideration for work assignments would be based on an inmate's conduct record.
Alcatraz Island depicted in a 1934 illustration.
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James A. Johnston served as Warden of Alcatraz from 1934 to 1948.
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Each prisoner would be assigned their own cell, and only the basic minimum life necessities would be allotted, such as food, water, clothing, and medical and dental care. The prisoners’ contact with the outside world was completely severed. Convicted spy Morton Sobell would later state that this policy was so rigidly enforced that the inmates were never even allowed to explore the cellhouse. They would be marched from one location to another, always in a unified formation. The prison routine was rigid and unrelenting, day after day, year after year. As quickly as a given privilege could be earned for good behavior, it could be taken away for the slightest infraction of the rules.

Wardens from the various Federal penitentiaries were polled, and they were permitted to send their most incorrigible inmates into secure confinement on The Rock. The prison population at Alcatraz was thus made up of inmates who had histories of unmanageable behavior or escape attempts, and high-profile inmates who had been receiving special privileges because of their public status and notoriety. In July of 1934, there were only thirty-two military prisoners who had been left to serve out their sentences on Alcatraz. By August of the same year, Alcatraz had begun to receive inmates from McNeil Island in Washington State (eleven inmates), the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta (fifty-three inmates), and Leavenworth in Kansas (one hundred and two inmates). Among the first to be sent to Alcatraz were Al Capone, Doc Barker (the last surviving son from the famous Ma Barker Gang), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud, Floyd Hamilton (a gang member and driver for Bonnie and Clyde), and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.
Alcatraz main cellblock corridor known as "Broadway."
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Please see the section on “Famous Inmates” for more information about these and other notorious prisoners.
Alvin Karpis would serve the longest continuous term on Alcatraz. He would serve nearly 26-years on the Rock.
Inmates arriving at Alcatraz were driven in a small transfer van to the top of the hill. They were processed in the basement area, and were then provided with all of their basic amenities and allowed a brief shower. When Al Capone arrived on the island, he quickly attempted to flaunt the power he had enjoyed at the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Capone had taken advantage of many of the leniencies allowed in the other prison. In fact, he had constantly solicited guards to work for him, belittling their low wages and attempting to get their help in running his rackets from inside the prison. Capone, however, was unlike most of the other new inmates who had come to Alcatraz with long criminal records, as veterans of the penal system. Capone had only spent a short time in prison, and his stay had generally been much different from that of the other convicts. Capone had enjoyed the ability to control his environment by getting Wardens to arrange unlimited visits from family and friends, and he was even believed to have had booze smuggled into his cell, along with special uncensored reading materials.

Warden Johnston had a custom of meeting the new "fish" when they first arrived at Alcatraz, and he usually participated in their brief orientation. Johnston wrote in a later memoir that he had little trouble recognizing Capone as he stood in the lineup. Capone was grinning, and was making quiet smug comments from the side of his mouth to other inmates. When his turn came to approach Warden Johnston, it appeared that he wanted to show off to the others by asking questions on their behalf, affecting a leadership role. Johnston quickly gave him his AZ prison number, and made him get back in line with the other convicts. During Capone's time at Alcatraz he made several attempts to con Johnston into allowing him special privileges, but all were denied. Johnston maintained that Capone would not be given any special rights, and would have to follow the rules like any other inmate.
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Al Capone arrived at Alcatraz with one of the first groups of prisoners in August, 1934. (See Famous Inmates Section for a special biography on Capone)
Capone eventually conceded defeat, and one day he would comment to Johnston, "It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked." Capone spent four and a half years on Alcatraz, and during this time he held a variety of jobs. Capone's term at Alcatraz was not “easy time,” and he had to cope with his share of trouble as well. For example, he once got into a fight with another inmate in the recreation yard, and was placed in isolation for eight days. Then while Capone was working in the prison basement, an inmate who was standing in line waiting for a haircut exchanged words with him, and stabbed him with a pair of shears. Capone was admitted to the prison hospital with a minor wound, and was released a few days later. He eventually became symptomatic from syphilis, a disease he had evidently been carrying for years. In 1938 he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

George "Machine Gun" Kelly was also in the first group of inmates to arrive at Alcatraz in August of 1934. Kelly's time on The Rock would be far less eventful than Capone’s, and he was said to be a model prisoner. Kelly worked in the Industries, lived on the second tier of B Block, and quietly transferred back to Leavenworth in 1951 after spending seventeen years on The Rock. Alcatraz would continue to be a magnet for many famous gangsters throughout its tenure as a Federal penitentiary. Most followed the stringent routines with little or no defiance, and their public identity on the outside was completely erased once they arrived on The Rock.
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