Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Military Prison

Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles, commanding the Department of California, inspected the prison about that same time. He became so alarmed at the lack of ventilation that he ordered that steps be taken to improve the situation. That fall the secretary of war approved a special requisition for 193 strap iron doors to replace the solid wooden ones on Alcatraz. A photograph taken ten years later showed the iron doors still in place. In 1891 a new bath building containing six partitioned bathtubs was constructed; it stood on the cliff side of the prison complex. At this time, the post quartermaster proposed converting the old baths (the original basement prison room) into a washroom, i. e., sinks for washing face and hands; he would put down a concrete floor and enlarge the musket-slit windows. The Chief of Engineers refused to allow the enlarging of the windows and, presumably, the room was not remodeled. Still later a new privy was built out over the water, and an enclosed gallery joining it to the guardhouse became the washroom.

Another post surgeon penned a comprehensive description of the first prison in 1893. He noted that the roadway ran under all of the buildings. The building nearest the wharf, made of brick and was stories high, rested on brick arches. The main room was entered on the land side on the upper road through a narrow door. This room measured 72 by 25-113 by 13-113 feet. A room 19 feet long had been partitioned off at one end to store stage settings. The main room had five long narrow windows, six panes high and two broad, on the seaward side. The massive brick walls were not furred and were sometimes damp. In the ceiling there was a 2-foot-square shaft that ran up to a small ventilator in the roof. A stove heated the room, the air of which was vile when crowded. The garret floor of the building was divided into a tailor shop, a printing shop, and a room set aside for "detained witnesses," that is, sailors from the merchant marine who were being held at San Francisco pending appearances at trials. The seven small single-sash windows on this floor were inadequate for good ventilation.

He described the cellblock on top of the guardhouse (his Prison 1) as being a 48-foot-long rectangular wooden structure with a ceiling. A 5-l/3-foot-wide hallway ran its full length, from which cells opened on both sides. Two large windows, 10 by 3 feet, stood at each end. All the cells were provided with the new iron-grating doors. He said that owing to drafty cold air, this prison had not been used for a long time. At some unstated time, the "upper end" of this prison had been partitioned off and floored, making a new guardhouse for the garrison with a separate entrance approached by a pair of stairs from the land side. This room measured 22 by 11 by 9 feet, not including eight cells that opened on two sides of it. The surgeon did not say if these cells were for garrison prisoners, i.e., from the island's command, whose housing had long been a problem due to the desirability of keeping them separated from the long-term prisoners.

The so-called "dungeon" was one of the old howitzer casemates, wherein 13 cells in two tiers lined one side of the room, and five musket-slit openings, each 8 feet high and inches wide, stood in the opposite wall supplying air but were arranged so as to exclude light. At the end of the room a circular stair led up to the second tier of cells and nearby was an opening that led to an additional four cells (indicating that it was the landside casemate then being used as the dungeon; it has a small ell that housed these four additional cells). The surgeon said that these four cells were so far away from the ventilation openings as to be "simply villainous." The cells in this dungeon were only about one-quarter the size of the regular cells in the prison. Their dimensions were not given, but since each of them had a volume of only 139 cubic feet, they must have been more like coffins than cells. These cells still had solid wooden doors with cracks at their tops and bottoms (4 inches and inch) to allow air "circulation." No heat was supplied to the room which was described as dry but very dark.


Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles


Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles and Buffalo Bill viewing an Indian camp near Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota.


James M. Robertson

The surgeon's Prison 3 was the wooden cellblock that adjoined Prison 1 and ran at right angles to it. A passageway cut through one of the cells in Prison 1 ran into Prison 3. This prison contained three tiers of 14 cells each on one side only. The remaining space was a corridor, sometimes called the wardroom, measuring 74-1/3 feet by 12-1/3 feet by feet high . Three ventilators with fixed slats on the sides and glass on the tops stood on the flat roof. A large iron grating separated this cellblock from Prison 4, which was similar in construction, arrangement, and design. Prison 4 contained 15 cells on each of its three tiers. The surgeon thought it to be the best of them all, being lighter, better ventilated, and the driest (also the newest). Prison 2, the brick structure, had undergone remodeling and was now a large comfortable guardroom, measuring 49 by by feet. Five large windows and an outside doorway had been cut into the landside wall. Photographs of this building show these improvements. At the northwest end of this structure stood a small frame one-room building for the sergeant of the guard. A bell tower, for sounding fire alarms, surmounted this room.

He described the bathhouse as having six tubs in separate rooms and eight "stationary tubs." He said it stood on the rocks between the water's edge and Prison 3, and "though rude in construction it serves its purpose well." The lavatory was the long corridor leading to the privy out over the water. It contained a single iron trough about 15 feet long with six faucets. The privy itself measured 20 by 10-1/3 feet. A wooden shaft led down to the water, presumably blocking off the winds of the earlier privy. Two wooden urinals were also placed in this room. These facilities were reached by an old stone stairway in the ditch that guarded the front of the guardhouse. The prison kitchen was housed in a separate structure by this time. It measured 32 by by feet. The long dining room (113 feet) had a vegetable room partitioned off at one end. The surgeon thought that both of these buildings were far larger than was needed, then or ever. It is hoped he was a better surgeon than prophet.

The Prisoners

Until General Halleck decided upon an expanded departmental prison in 1868, little was recorded about the men who occupied the cells at Alcatraz. Not until 1870 did the commanding officer at Alcatraz begin keeping a "Register of Prisoners at the Military Prison." The probable reason for this vacuum of information was the casual way in which this prison grew; there were no precedents in the United States Army for a permanent institution of this nature. However, that was all changing. In 1873 and 1874, the Congress enacted legislation that established the United States Military Prison at Fort Leavenworth. Its first commandant was none other than Maj. James M. Robertson, who, as commanding officer at Alcatraz, was the person most responsible for developing the departmental prison and its procedures between 1865 and 1872. The adjutant general wrote of him, "Robertson started, and had charge of the Military Prison in San Francisco Harbor and succeeded admirably with it. He is perfectly enthusiastic on the subject, has just and liberal views and a good idea of systematic, firm and humane management of prisoners." The establishment of the Leavenworth prison had no immediate effect on Alcatraz, which continued to confine a motley group of human beings, including both ordinary souls and bizarre characters.

Army recruiting standards after the Civil War were not particularly high. Recruiting officers often overlooked physical and mental defects in order to bring the regiments up to authorized strengths. The results of this laxity were to be found among Alcatraz's prisoners, many of whom were classed as feeble-minded or insane. The majority of the men were incarcerated for having been found guilty of desertion by a court martial. Other crimes involved assault, theft, larceny, and an occasional murder. A random check through the Alcatraz register for the early 1870s shows that the average sentence was 5 years confinement, with the shortest being 1 month and the longest, 20 years. Most prisoners were in their 20s or 30s the youngest being 18 and the oldest 56. Most prisoners had acquired tattoos before coming to Alcatraz. The most popular of these was the dancing girl, closely followed by the goddess of liberty and then by stars. As of 1870, flogging had been outlawed in the army's methods of punishment, and branding the hips of deserters and thieves had been replaced by tattooing the appropriate letter, D or T, on the hip.

The wearing of a 12-pound ball-and chain would soon disappear from Alcatraz, but this form of punishment was still a part of the scene in the early 70s. Prisoners who violated the regulations received additional punishments, ranging from work assignments at the dump (Alcatraz dumped everything into San Francisco Bay) to lockup in the "dungeon" or dark cell. Those who obeyed the rules could hope to have their sentences reduced. Two kinds of prisoners which were to be found on Alcatraz in the 19th century were general prisoners and military convicts. On one hand, general prisoners were those who had sentences to serve but who were still in the army. At the conclusion of their confinement, they would return to their unit to serve out their enlistment. Military convicts, on the other hand, received dishonorable discharges at the time of their courts martial. At the conclusion of their sentences they would be released to the civilian community. More than a few of this latter group would attempt to reenlist in a different regiment, sometimes under an alias. The most notorious of these at Alcatraz was Charles N. Miller who had been imprisoned for deserting from the First Cavalry. An investigation of Miller's background showed that he had already deserted from the 13th Infantry, the Battalion of Engineers, and the U. S. Marine Corps. As might be expected, there were usually many more military convicts than general prisoners on Alcatraz. In 1912 the "Post Returns" began listing all inmates as general prisoners; the term "military convict" apparently had been discarded. The Register of Prisoners for Alcatraz, 1870-1879, contained 557 names and gave a brief history of each. The more colorful of this cast of characters included:

Charles Emhoff, 23d Infantry; desertion five years confinement at hard labor, wearing ball-and-chain. He received extra punishment for giving a former prisoner an order on the post adjutant for $20 when he had no money to his credit with the adjutant; he was employed on the dump, and was a good laboring man, but untrustworthy. Samuel McCullough, First Cavalry; desertion – dishonorably discharged and drununed out. He was marked indelibly with the letter D; sentenced to five years at hard labor, wearing ball-and-chain. Despite the sentence he was employed on

Alcatraz as a baker. Napoleon Labeare, First Cavalry; desertion - five years hard labor, wearing ball-and-chain. He was placed in the dungeon for four days for refusing to work and for using obscene language to a sentinel. He was also a deserter from another enlistment in the First Cavalry under the alias of Thomas Mulligan.

William Grant, First Cavalry; desertion and theft – sentenced to dishonorable discharge and five years. He was placed in solitary confinement for three days on bread and water for assaulting a fellow prisoner in the mess hall. Martin Williams, 23d Infantry; desertion - sentenced to three years. He was employed in police of parade ground and made the matting on the stairs of the Citadel. An excellent man, he was made a member of the crew on the quartermaster schooner Emily Howard, but was discharged for a lack of cleanliness. Edward Sheridan, 23d Infantry; desertion - sentenced to three years. Shortly after his release he was killed in a brawl at Truckee, California.

Martin Burke, First Cavalry; desertion and theft – sentenced to three years. He was a very good workman, but was drunk on two or three occasions from alcohol procured from the paint shop. Charles Camp, 21st Infantry; desertion - placed in cell on bread and water for refusing to work. When released he was placed on the rock-breaking party and again refused to work. He was placed in the dungeon for seven days. Having been reported for filthiness of person, he was first scrubbed; then on two other occasions he was washed with a hose for two and-a-half and four minutes respectively. John Sharkey; desertion - attempted to escape but was captured on the north shore of the island. He was heavily "ironed" until he promised to behave David Allen, 23d Infantry; desertion - a rascal. Swindled the Catholic Priest out of $75 after his discharge." Walter Rogers, Second Artillery; desertion - "A first class rascal. “He was reported as a "shirk" several times and placed in the dungeon twice. Dennis J. Daly, Jr., First Cavalry; desertion - "A perfectly worthless character. An excellent penman. “Michael Dougherty, First Cavalry; desertion - escaped in 1876. He surrendered in 1878, escaped again from work detail at Point San Jose and was still at large in 1879. John Long, 12th Infantry; - stationed on Angel Island after ,serving a one-year term at Alcatraz. He deserted from there while acting as a mail courier, taking several hundred dollars entrusted to him by officers and men. He was recaptured several months later in San Francisco and sent to Alcatraz to await trial. While awaiting trial, he hanged himself in his cell. He had no friends or relatives. James Wright, Fourth Artillery; desertion - sentenced to two years. He escaped from a work party at Point San Jose, and scandalized Benicia by taking a 15-year-old-girl to a hotel bed. He was arrested by the San Francisco provost guard and taken to the Presidio, from where he again escaped. He was still at large in 1879. John M. O'Brien, First Cavalry; desertion - sentenced to five years. He escaped in 1876 and was recaptured the same day. He escaped from Fort Canby, Washington Territory in 1877 and recaptured on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, Idaho Territory; was brought to Alcatraz and escaped from a work detail at Point San Jose in 1878. He was still at large in 1879. Michael C. Brown, 21st Infantry; for reasons not stated: "To be kept in confinement on bread & water for three periods of 14 days each, with intervals of 14 days between each period. When not in confinement to be kept at hard labor." Prisoners were classified in other ways besides general prisoners and military convicts. According to their behavior, they were placed in three groups: first, second, and third classes. At one time, at least, prisoners with a record of good behavior wore a badge of some sort. The "Register of Prisoners" contains mention of a prisoner having this badge taken from him for some misdeed. At another time, in the 1880s, prisoners of the third class wore a yellow band to distinguish them from the others. It is possible that those of the other classes also wore bands of different colors.

A 1904 photograph of the prisoners shows a white letter lip" painted on the sides of their hats and on the backs of their jackets, while a newspaper article in 1885 said that the prisoners had numbers painted on the backs of their jackets. By 1906, if not earlier, prisoners had a letter "P" on the seats of their trousers and were reported to be wearing a number on their hats. 21 Military prisoners did not wear the traditional striped garb associated with jails; instead they dressed in odds and ends of obsolete or condemned military uniforms--trousers, shirts, suspenders, campaign hats, and a motley array of jackets. At best their appearance was shabby. In 1875 the secretary of war directed that, at Fort Leavenworth, all yellow tape trimming and brass buttons be removed from prisoners' clothing and a common horn button be substituted. But not until 1889 did he order the prisoners at Alcatraz to "be clothed in the same kind of outer garments as are issued to the prisoners at Ft. Leavenworth." Despite the letter L", the uniforms of the prisoners looked a lot like those of the regular garrison, so much so that a sergeant wrote in 1887:

"Seeing them going about in this way, or lounging around the wharf, a visitor naturally takes them for soldiers and is surprised when he is told that they are convicts. The harsh, almost brutal, treatment of its inmates for which Alcatraz became infamous in its later history as a federal penitentiary did not characterize its years as a military prison. While the early cells were uncomfortable and the island was a lonely place for prisoner and soldier alike, an almost casual air governed the daily routine."

In 1887 Sgt . John Lowder of the garrison gave a detailed account of prison life on the Rock:

Alcatraz is not a prison in the sense of a penitentiary. In the army the island ranks only as a military post, and is not a recognized prison, it being only an unusually large guardhouse, where men are kept for longer periods than at ordinary guardhouses. It has been largely built by convict labor at a trifling 'cost to the Government. The convicts are allowed the regular army ratios, and are clothed in condemned army clothing. The officer of the day at the post attends to daily inspection, under the officer in command, who has general supervision. Guard duty is performed by the regular post guard, mounted each morning at 9 o'clock, and composed of men with whom many of the prisoners have served, side by side, for years… The guard, consisting of a sergeant, corporal and eight men, is changed each morning, the sentries being on post two hours at a time only. One sentry paces to and fro on the top of the citadel, from which point he can see any small boat that may approach the island....

No craft can land anywhere at Alcatraz without the sergeant of the guard or a sentinel being on hand when the landing is effected. Even the Government steamer General McPherson cannot stop at the little wharf without the officer of the day and the guard being there to receive all who land. A second sentinel paces the wharf, while the third guards the way up the hill. The fourth guard's beat is along the top of the library and over a bridge connecting with the top of the cellhouse. This vigilance prevents all escapes and guards against either the soldiers or outside parties smuggling liquor in for the convicts....

The cells are used only for sleeping purposes, and no convict is allowed to remain in his cell under any circumstances during the day. These wardrooms [corridors in the cellblocks] are the common assembly places indoors, where the prisoners have unrestricted social intercourse.... There is no wall or fence around the prison buildings and when not at work the convicts are allowed to go at will anywhere about the prison-grounds or island except into the soldiers' quarters on the upper levels. . . .

The daily life on Alcatraz for soldiers and convicts begins with first call for reveille at 5 o'clock in the morning. At the next call, fifteen minutes later, all turn out for the officer of the day. The prisoners do not return to their cells again until night, but file into the mess room for breakfast . When that is over, the small detachment that is now sent under guard to the Presidio to work on those grounds prepare to take the boat. Those who have work on the island go to do it, followed by a sentry who acts more in the capacity of a foreman than a guard. The unemployed pass the morning in the yard, wardrooms or library, which is open to them until 9 o'clock at night. Dinner is at 12 noon, and at 4 o'clock the General McPherson returns to the Island with the batch taken tothe Presidio in the morning. Supper is over by 5o'clock, and the time until retreat is passed as the menchoose. Generally they collect in groups about the out sideor congregate in the library. At 6 o'clock all turnout for retreat, when the officer of the day again comes round. Dismissed from retreat the first and second classmen are locked in the library and the yellow bands arelocked in their wardroom. At tattoo the officer of the day again goes round, and every prisoner, standing toattention at his cell door, is counted. He is then locked in for the night.

As a military prison Alcatraz Island could not be considered a place of maximum security. Inmates attempted escape with regularity and often succeeded. a few fled directly from the Rock itself, most escapees made their dash for freedom when on working parties to posts on the mainland, including the Presidio, Fort Point, and Point San Jose. The "Post Returns" failed to note all escapes, but they recorded enough to indicate that many prisoners made the attempt. The year 1877 was particularly bad in this respect when no fewer than nine members of working parties at Point San Jose made successful flights to freedom and one prisoner escaped from the post hospital on Angel Island. In May of 1878 two prisoners managed to get away from Alcatraz in a small boat which they successfully commandeered. That same year a small force of prisoners was transferred temporarily to Fort Point and in one month, five of them made a successful break from there. Again, in 1884,an unspecified number of prisoners stole a boat belonging to the Engineer Department. Italian farmers found the boat at the head of Richardson's Bay, the engineers paid $8.30 to get it back and the prisoners disappeared. Apparently the army did not learn a lesson from this, for in 1890 the Alta carried the following story: Two more military prisoners escaped from Alcatraz yesterday morning. The men chose their time wisely. After making a hearty breakfast at 5:30, they went down to the slip, appropriated Engineer Thomas' boat, and pulled out toward Lime Point. The sentry could have shot them had he been so minded, but as the steamer Sonoma was expected every second, it was thought she could overhaul and recapture the fugitives before the shore was reached. The Sonoma did appear and did give chase, but the men had a long start and succeeded in reaching Lime Point. They jumped ashore, and, clambering up the bank, were soon lost to sight. The Sonoma took the boat back to Alcatraz.