The inmates’ day began when they were woken at 6:30 a.m., and they were given twenty-five minutes to tidy their cells and stand to be counted. At 6:55 a.m. individual tiers of cells would be opened one by one, and the inmates would march in single file into the Mess Hall. They would be given only twenty minutes to eat, and then would be marched out to line up for their work assignments. The methodical cycle of the prison routine was unforgiving and utterly relentless. It never varied through the years, and was as precise and reliable as clockwork.
The main corridor of the cellhouse was christened "Broadway" by the inmates, and the cells along this passageway were considered the least desirable in the prison. The cells on the bottom tier were inherently colder because they stood against the long slick run of cement, and they were also the least private, as inmates, guards, and other prison personnel frequented this corridor. The newer “fish” were generally assigned to the second tier of B Block, and were placed in quarantine status for the first three months of their imprisonment on The Rock.
There was a ratio of one guard to every three prisoners on Alcatraz, as compared with other prisons, in which the ratio exceeded one guard to every twelve inmates. With the Gun Galleries at each end of the cellblocks and the frequent inmate counts (twelve per day), the guards were able to keep extremely close track of each and every inmate. Because of the small total number of prisoners at Alcatraz, all of the guards usually knew each inmate by name.
|Warden Swope in 1952 talking with an inmate along the C-Block corridor.|
In the early years at Alcatraz, Warden Johnston maintained a silence policy that many inmates considered to be their most unbearable punishment. There were reports that several inmates were being driven insane by the severe rule of silence on Alcatraz. One inmate, a former gangster and bank robber named Rufe Persful, went so far as to take a hatchet and chop off the fingers of one of his hands while working in one of the shops. This event was later inaccurately depicted in the movie "Escape from Alcatraz" starring Clint Eastwood, which chronicled the 1962 escape attempt by Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin Brothers. The silence policy was later relaxed, but this was one of only a few policy changes that occurred over the prison's history.
The sinister mythology surrounding life on Alcatraz was created primarily out of a lack of reliable information, and because of the negative publicity, Alcatraz became known to the public as "Devil's Island." Warden Johnston had done a good job of keeping the media at a distance, and this resulted in the publication of several misleading stories. The fact that inmates were never directly paroled from Alcatraz only added to the mystique. The media had a difficult time finding men who had lived on the inside, because when they were released from Alcatraz, they were sent on to other prisons to finish out their sentences. When the press would talk with former inmates, the ex-prisoners usually told horrific stories about the brutalities they had experienced while incarcerated there. Most of these depictions were flawed, but the stories of horrid beatings, rigid disciplinary measures, and extreme isolation nevertheless fueled the public's interest.
|A contemporary photo of the cellblock corridor known as C-D Street.|
|Winds of Change|
In 1941, Alcatraz inmate Henry Young went on trial for the murder of Rufus McCain, a fellow prisoner and an accomplice in a failed escape attempt. Young's attorneys claimed that Young was the subject of continual beatings by guards, and extensive periods of extreme isolation. Henry Young's story was recently depicted in a movie staring Kevin Bacon and Christen Slater, entitled "Murder in the First." The movie inaccurately portrayed Young as a teenage orphan who was sentenced to Alcatraz for stealing five dollars from a grocery store in order to feed his starving sister, and who had "never harmed or attempted to harm anyone" before entering Alcatraz.
In fact, the true story is that Young was a bank robber who had brutally taken a hostage on at least one occasion, and had committed murder in 1933 – some three years before being incarcerated at Alcatraz. Young was a difficult inmate who challenged and provoked fights with several of his fellow prisoners. Young and his accomplice Rufus McCain, who would eventually become his murder victim, had both spent nearly twenty-two months in solitary confinement for a failed escape that had resulted in the shooting death of the famous gangster Doc Barker.
After Young and McCain returned to the normal prison population, McCain was assigned to the Tailor Shop and Young was sent to work at the Furniture Shop, which was located directly upstairs. On December 3, 1940, Young waited until just after the ten o'clock count, and then when a guard's attention was diverted elsewhere, Young ran downstairs and plunged a knife into McCain with violent force. McCain rapidly fell into shock, and died five hours later from the stab wound. Young refused to disclose his motive for the murder.
During Henry Young’s trial, his attorneys made the claim that because their client had been held in strict isolation for three years, he could not be held responsible for his violent action, due to the influence of what the attorneys considered “cruel and unusual punishment.” They alleged that because he had been tormented for so many years, his response to hostile situations had turned desperately violent.
Warden Johnston was brought to the trial under subpoena to testify on prison conditions and policies. Several inmates were also subpoenaed to describe the environment at Alcatraz, and many recounted "rumors" they had heard of inmates being locked in dungeons and severely beaten by guards. They also testified that they knew of many inmates who "went crazy" because of such treatment. The jury sympathized with Young, and he was convicted of manslaughter, a charge that would add only a few years to his sentence. He continued to be a difficult inmate following his trial, and was eventually transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri. After serving out his Federal sentence, he was transferred to Washington State Penitentiary in 1954, and was released on parole in 1972 after spending a total of nearly forty years in prison. He finally jumped parole, and it is unknown whether he is still alive today.
Following Young's controversial trial, D Block (better known as the Treatment Unit) was completely refurbished. This block was comprised of forty-two cells that provided varying degrees of security and isolation. The most serious offenders of prison rules could be confined to the “Strip Cell.” This cell was by all accounts the most severe punishment that any prisoner could endure, as it ensured complete sensory deprivation.
|Alcatraz Inmate Rufe Persful amputated four of his left hand fingers with a fire axe during a work detail. It was alleged that this was done to help get him off Alcatraz.|
|Edward Wutke was the first inmate to commit suicide while an inmate at Alcatraz.|
The single Strip Cell, otherwise known as the "Oriental," was a dark steel-encased cell with no toilet or sink. There was only a hole in the floor for the inhabitant to relieve himself, and even the ability to flush the contents was controlled by a guard. Inmates were placed in the cell without clothing, and were put on severely restricted diets. The cell had a standard set of bars with an expanded opening through which to pass food, and a solid steel outer door that remained closed, leaving the inmate in pitch-black darkness. Inmates were usually subjected to this degree of punishment for periods of only one to two days. The cell was cold, and the sleeping mattress was only allowed during the night, and was taken away during the daylight hours. This was considered the most invasive type of punishment for severe violations and misconduct, and it was genuinely feared by the general population inmates.
“The Hole" was the nickname given to a similar cell-type that made up the remaining five dual-door cells on the bottom tier. The "Hole" cells contained a sink and a toilet as well as a low-wattage light bulb. Inmates could spend up to nineteen days in this level of isolation, which was also considered to be a severe form of punishment by general population inmates. The mattresses were taken away during the day, and the inmates were left in a state of constant boredom and severe isolation. Guards would sometimes open the small window in the solid steel outer door, to allow in a little light for inmates who were serving their time in solitary peacefully.
|Alcatraz D-Block, East view.|
|The remaining thirty-six segregation cells were similar in form to the cells of the general prison population. Inmates being held in basic segregation were allowed only one visit to the recreation yard per week, and two showers. The prisoners spent the remaining time in their cells. Even meals were served in the cells, and the inmates’ only means of psychological escape was through reading. The city views from the upper tiers were also considered by prisoners to be a form of torture, because the sounds and sights of freedom were so near, yet so far.|
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