Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Military Prison

Despite the vigorous report writing, nothing further was done about conditions on Alcatraz until late 1903. In November the Department of California asked the Engineer Department if it had any objections to enlarging the upper prison on the parade ground. The engineers replied that while six 6-inch rapid-fire guns were still contemplated for Alcatraz, they had no objections to temporary structures, "it being understood that when the necessity arises . . . these shall be removed or modified. . . ." As for Mendell's batteries of the 1870s at the southeast end of the island, they were obsolete and abandoned, and could be removed. The quartermaster's plans called for a doubling of the amount of space to be occupied by the prison. The existing stockade would remain, and a new stockade would be built around the addition, which would contain a mess hall, kitchen, shops, and a latrine. A new guardhouse would be located outside the stockade, while the old guardhouse would become the prison library. In January of 1904, the secretary of war authorized slightly over $9,000 for the work, of which $3,000 was to be used to concrete the stockade. The post quartermaster described the new structures as follows:

Stockade - This building was 12 feet high, 705 feet long, (length of old stockade-660 feet), with a sentry walk 54 inches wide; the entire stockade was to be whitewashed; and the entire space within the stockade, including floors for kitchen, mess hall, and shops, were to have 6 inches of cement. Kitchen and dining room - This was a single story building, the dining room was 160 by 40 feet, and the kitchen was 60 by 40 feet ... The outside was to be painted and the inside to be whitewashed.

Shops - These were single story buildings, 25 by 20 feet with an ell 20 by 20 feet, and were to contain a shoe shop, tailor shop, printing shop, and barbershop. The exterior was to be painted, and the interior was to be whitewashed. Guardhouse - This building consisted of two stories 40 by 30 feet with an ell 30 by 20 feet. The exterior and interior were to be painted; the ground floor was to contain a prison office, clerk's office, overseer's room, assistant overseer's room, clothing storeroom, and a toilet; and the second floor was to contain guardroom, sergeant's room, office, and six cells for garrison prisoners.

Construction was completed sometime in the summer of 1904. All facilities were transferred to the upper prison and the old prison entirely abandoned. The upper prison now had a capacity of 307 inmates, more than enough for the average number of prisoners then on Alcatraz. Although the Alcatraz quartermaster submitted a request in July 1905 to demolish the three wooden cell buildings of the old prison, the various units of the complex continued to function for several more years. A 1909 map of the island showed the brick library/chapel then being used as a gymnasium (main floor) and ordnance storehouse (attic). The 1867 brick cell building, lately the guardroom, was now a plumber's shop. The two wooden cell buildings northwest of the old defensive guardhouse served as a carpenter's shop. The defensive guardhouse itself now functioned as the saltwater pump-house - which formerly had been on the wharf. The long, narrow mess hall had become the prison laundry, a long-needed facility at Alcatraz. And the prison kitchen had been remodeled into civilian employees quarters. The wooden cellblock on top of the guardhouse was not accounted for on the map. Another map, prepared three years later, showed these same functions for the various structures.

Despite the improvements of the upper prison, discussion continued concerning a permanent institution. Lt. Gilbert McElroy, the young quartermaster at Alcatraz, prepared a lengthy, germinal study on the subject, “New Military Prison in the Pacific Division," in 1906. As to sites, McElroy's first choice was the Depot of Recruits and Casuals on Angel Island (East Garrison), second was the Presidio, and third and last, Alcatraz. About the same time, the department commander, Brig . Gen. Frederick Funston, also concluded that the recruit depot and the prison should exchange islands. For a time, the chief of staff, Brig. Gen. James F. Bell, went along with Funston's ideas, but in April 1907 the War Department decided definitely to construct a permanent prison on Alcatraz at a cost of $250,000 and to replace the regular garrison with a prison guard.

A Permanent Prison

Maj. Reuben B. Turner, Eighth Infantry, became the first commandant of the Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, Alcatraz Island, in July 1907. In addition to commanding the prison, Turner held the title of construction quartermaster. During the next four years it would be his responsibility to erect the new prison, an electrical power plant, and shops. The four companies of the 22d Infantry that had formed the garrison left the island, and the newly formed Third and Fourth Companies, U.S. Military Guard, took charge of the 285 prisoners then in confinement. Turner, whom the War Department regarded highly for his construction abilities, undertook his tasks with enthusiasm and, by September, turned out his first set of drawings for the administrative section of the prison.

Although Turner did not complete his first set of plans until 1908, he wasted no time in beginning preliminary work. In August 1907 he notified the adjutant general that he required an elevated railroad to move construction material from the wharf to the building site. He had examined a cliff-side conveyor at Fort Barry and believed that a similar one would suit his needs. He said that the engine necessary to haul cars up the incline could also operate the concrete mixing machine and raise the concrete to the site. By the end of October, a new steel dock was completed at the wharf area, providing ample space for unloading supplies and for the storage of steamer and domestic coal. By the end of 1908, Turner was ready to begin demolition of the 50-year-old Citadel. Possessing a sense of history, or a streak of sentimentality, the commandant planned to incorporate some of the old building's features in the new prison. One run of the Citadel's iron stairs, he decided, could be used to lead from the hallway between the cellblock and the mess room down to the lavatory. The lavatory drainage system could be connected to the existing 24-inch brick sewer under the basement floor of the Citadel--this sewer drained toward the southeast end of the island, at the right flank of old Battery McClellan. Turner recommended that the cistern complex, the• storerooms, and the old privy on the outside of the Citadel's ditch be sealed off and abandoned, inasmuch as new cisterns would be constructed on top of the prison. The Secretary of War was to establish branches for the U. S. Military Prison, Fort Leavenworth. The second branch, at Fort Jay, New York, was not designated as such until 1914. Alcatraz was designated as the Pacific Branch by General Order No. 58, War Dept., March 21, 1907. Turner's preliminary plans for the prison underwent considerable changes in succeeding months. From this time on Turner and his successors corresponded directly with the adjutant general, Washington, D.C., the prison being completely outside the jurisdiction of the commanding general of the Pacific Division.


Alcatraz Island, c1911, with the new prison structure visible on the anterior level, and the older upper prison still visible on the parade ground section.


Alcatraz as it looked in the mid 1920s


Brig . Gen. Frederick Funston


Images of the U.S. Military Prison at Fort Leavenworth


San Quentin Prison as depicted in the 1800s.


The most visible pieces of salvage were the two original granite entrances to the Citadel: "The main entrance to the hall at the front and the entrance to the cell room at the N. E. corner are contemplated to be constructed from the material used in the entrances to the old citadel, which is a fine granular gray colored granite, finely cut and moulded. It is on heavy block work in jambs with solid piece pilasters at the sides and neat moulded entablature across the top. There are but two of these entrances in the citadel which it is deemed suitable to use." Both entrances were incorporated, one at the corner of the cellblock, but the other as a private entrance to the commandant's office, rather than at the front of the prison. Turner also planned to use the six 24-inch, 50-foot-Iong I-beams, in the roof of the Citadel as cross girders in the second floor of the prison, probably in the administrative unit; similarly the floor beams of the Citadel would form the smaller cross beam. Finally, the bricks from the old building would be saved for general construction on Alcatraz.

The basement and ditch of the Citadel were to be preserved under the prison and used as punishment cells, "ventilated artificially by means of a fan and proper ducts." By May 1909, Turner reported that demolition of the Citadel was well underway, but that it was a rough task: "The most difficult part of the work has been wrecking of 'Citadel' and the necessary forming over basement walls and the 'moat' to carry cell room floor and utility corridors, and also forming over freshwater cisterns so as the rough concrete floor is in place." The six water tanks on top of the Citadel had been removed and four of them had been set on temporary platforms in front of the lighthouse. Electrical hardware for lighting the old basement had been installed, and two concrete stairways from the cellblock to the basement had been built. At this time, Turner considered the prison to be 25 percent complete. Turner's final plans, dated May 1910, showed a layout of space that differs in many aspects with the building as it stands today.

Administrative unit, ground floor - Consists of a colonnaded porch along most of the front (southeast end), separate offices for the commandant, the adjutant, and the sergeant major, two vaults off of the sergeant major's office, a lavatory for commandant, a general lavatory, a guardroom, the sergeant's room, a general prison for garrison prisoners, a hall, and stairs. Administrations unit, second floor - Consists of a library, record room, printing office, telegraph office, noncommissioned officers' room, clerks' office, lavatory, and hall. (This floor later became the library and an assembly hall.). Cellblock - Consists of six blocks of in four rows, each three tiers high, for a total of 600 cells. Rear unit, basement - Consists of prison lavatory (under cellblock proper), a hall, receiving room, barbershop, clothing room, flour room, bread room, light workshop, lavatory, bakery, fuel room, and storeroom. Rear unit, main floor - Consists of a hall, mess room, overseers' mess, pantry, kitchen, and storeroom. Rear unit, second floor - Consists of a hall, lavatory, surgeon's office, dispensary, locker room, living room, hospital attendant's dormitory, sick ward, and isolation ward. Roof - Contains four water tanks, two at each end of the complex, for both freshwater and saltwater. The complete construction history of the new prison is not available today; but from the reports and letters that have survived, a general concept of the work may be pieced together. It has been stated in recent times that saltwater from the bay was used in mixing the concrete. While the records are silent on this subject, it seems that freshwater was used. Ample freshwater was available, it was brought to the island daily even before the inauguration of the water boat El Aquador in 1910. Reinforcing iron and iron girders were incorporated within the concrete. Only the best portland cement was used. And the Quartermaster Department urged, as early as February 1908, that a waterproof compound be mixed with the cement.

In September 1909 Turner reported that construction of the prison was 40 percent complete. He said that the forms for enclosing the walls of the hospital floor and the roof of the rear wing had been completed and ready for concrete; the forms for the water tanks over the kitchen storeroom were then in progress; the concrete walls and floors of 168 cells were in place and the forms for others were being built; structural steel for the administrative unit was being erected; metal window frames were being set; and the rough plumbing was in. He forwarded six photographs showing the prisoners at work and the progress they had made. An inspecting quartermaster from the War Department wrote a month later: "A great deal of work has been done on the prison building. The Western half, containing dining room, kitchen etc., is under roof; the cells in the East end are partly finished, and the forms for walls are in place. The concrete work is splendid, and a very satisfactory exterior finish has been obtained by the use of a cement wash, composed of one part cement to two parts sand, mixed thin and applied with a brush.

Turner prepared blueprints showing details of the cell fronts and the locking device in June 1910. He said that he had studied similar work at other prisons, particularly the system "now being installed in the California State Penitentary [sic], at San Quentin." The quartermaster general noted that while Turner's system was somewhat different from that employed at Fort Leavenworth, it did appear to be practical. However, Turner was sent blueprints and specifications for the cell fronts and locking devices prepared by the Pauly Jail Building Company, St. Louis, for his inspection. (The records do not show which system Turner finally selected. ) Later, the quartermaster general urged that the cells at Alcatraz be furnished with flushometer-type toilet bowls. This type did away with individual tanks and the bowl was operated by a press button. This made it "impossible" to damage the apparatus from inside the cell; moreover, it was cheaper. The flushometers were eventually installed.