Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Military Prison

Upon release from confinement each man received a $10 suit of clothes, $5 dollars in cash, and transportation to his home or elsewhere, providing the cost did not exceed that to the place of his last enlistment. Thus was the rigid routine on Alcatraz laid out. The regulations attempted to impose a fair and impartial administration of an institution that, at best, was not a nice place to be. Despite the army's attempt to cover every eventuality, there were always the sadistic guard and the ambitious convict who could find loopholes in every rule and every regulation.

Despite the fine new prison building, the judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. Enoch H. Crowder, concluded in 1913 that Alcatraz was most objectionable as a prison site: "The buildings on Alcatraz constitute model detention barracks, and the sole objection to continuing it as such is, first the sentimental one that its prominence in the harbor advertises, in a way unfair to the military service, the discipline of the Army, and second, the more substantial objection that there are . . . no facilities for outdoor drill and instruction of prisoners confined therein." He examined carefully the obsolete masonry fort at Fort Point and concluded that it would be a more satisfactory prison than the island.

"It is somewhat difficult to understand," he wrote, "how the War Department came to recommend and Congress to appropriate the large sum of $250,000 for a new prison building on such a site as Alcatraz." The laws of the land restricted indoor prison labor in manufacturing, and Alcatraz provided no space for outdoor employment: "I found that practically all prisoners confined there who were not needed in the domestic administration of the prison were kept on Angel Island in a stockade and employed in the new barrack construction [East Garrison] now going on at that island; also that the custom existed of transporting them back and forth between Alcatraz and other points in the harbor for daily labor as required. The expense involved constitutes an additional objection to Alcatraz as a prison site."

Whether the prison was retained on Alcatraz or somewhere else in the harbor, Crowder found a practice that to him was most objectionable - that of confining together purely military offenders and those guilty of common law and statutory offenses. He recommended that felons on Alcatraz be segregated from misdemeanants and sent to the stockade on Angel Island to work on the construction there. All the misdemeanants would be retained on Alcatraz and employed there and at other posts in the bay. He further recommended that Congress be asked "to amend existing prison legislation so as to change the name 'United States Military Prison' to 'United States Detention Barracks, I and to make other changes . . . necessary to the establishment of the special detention barracks regime for prisoners. . . . This will require the law to be amended in respect of employment of prisoners, prescribing rules for restoration to service for those who may earn the favorable recommendation of the authorities of the detention barracks." This far-reaching change was enacted into law by the Congress on March 4, 1915. The Alcatraz prison then became the Pacific Branch, United States Disciplinary Barracks (PB, USDB) . In August 1916 the prisoners on the island were organized into the Second Disciplinary Battalion, consisting of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth companies and the Second Disciplinary and. Training was undertaken with instruction for privates, privates first class, buglers, mechanics, cooks, and squad leaders.


Maj. Gen. Enoch H. Crowder


Secretary of War
George H. Dern


Homer Cummings


Sanford Bates

In 1915 the adjutant general published Regulations for the Government of the United States Disciplinary Barracks and its Branches. While the regulations remained much the same as the former military prison's, there were some significant changes. The government of the barracks was now vested solely in the adjutant general under the direction of the secretary of war, in effect making lawful what had been the practice anyway. The term "military convict" was dropped, and the inmates were once again referred to as "general prisoners." A officer and a prisoners' mess officer were added to the commandant's staff. Prisoners were now assigned immediately to the first class when admitted to the barracks. Only men of this class were eligible for enrollment in a disciplinary organization where they received certain privileges as announced by the War Department.

They also received a wider variety of food for their meals than prisoners of the lower classes. The disciplinary companies ordinarily worked half of each working day, and received military training and instruction the other half. Prisoners of the lower classes, known as the "numbered prisoners," worked a full day. Prisoners could now write an unlimited number of letters per month--at the discretion of the commandant; these letters were still inspected. Similarly, no limit was placed on the number of visitors, except as for such restrictions as the commandant imposed.

General orders published in 1916 spelled out the differences between prisoners enrolled in disciplinary companies and those not so lucky. General prisoners enrolled in disciplinary companies will be designated by name and not by number; will not be required to work in the same party with general prisoners not enrolled in disciplinary companies; will be quartered in a separate section of the barracks; will be seated at separate tables in the dining room and in a separate section in the chapel; will be permitted the privilege of rendering the prescribed military salute; and when under arms, at work, or at meals, will be permitted to converse with each other under the restrictions that govern enlisted men while similarly engaged.

As for training: The course of military training and instruction for general prisoners enrolled in disciplinary organizations will include: Physical training; personal hygiene, including care of the uniform; the school of the soldier, squad, company, and (when practicable) the battalion; dismounted Cavalry and Field Artillery drill; elementary signaling; care of arms and equipment; and sighting drill; gallery practice, rifle and revolver; saber drill; estimating distances; pitching and striking tents; hasty shelter--use of in-trenching tools; knots and lashings; duties of enlisted men in military bridge construction; and lectures and such other instruction as may be practicable on the duties of enlisted men in the service of security and information--outposts, advance, rear and flank guards, and scouting.

General Crowder's ideas for restoring the better class of general prisoner to full military duty proved highly successful. As of June 30, 1923, no fewer than 1,396 men who had been at Alcatraz had been "returned to the colors as soldiers by restoration or reenlistment after training at this institution." The commandant at that time, Col. William M. Morrow, explained the processes employed on the Rock. Two boards, the Enrollment Board and the Restoration Board, were involved. The membership was the same for both boards: the executive officer, the parole officer, the company commander of the guard company, the psychiatrist, and the chaplain. When a prisoner served one-third of his sentence, he automatically came before the Enrollment Board. He was asked if he wished to enroll in the training with the view to restoration to duty. If the prisoner replied in the affirmative, the board investigated his civil and military records and questioned him on his past. After carefully considering the facts, the board made a recommendation to the commandant, no man being recommended "unless the Board believes that he will be an asset to the Army."

During the four months of training the prisoner was called a "disciple." At the end of the course he appeared before the Restoration Board for consideration. This board based its recommendation on four things: a physical and mental examination, any new data concerning his civil record, any new data concerning his military record, and the prisoner's record during the training. Colonel Morrow believed that this system worked most satisfactorily inasmuch as 70 percent of those restored to duty "made good.

It will be recalled that Alcatraz's prison population jumped to 441 in April of 1900 when the first large contingent from the Philippines reached the island. By June of 1900 the number had climbed to 475; and again in March of 1901 the population peaked at 477. Yearly averages from 1901 to 1916 as compiled from the post returns were as follows:

1901 -- 384
1902 -- 394
1903 -- 256
1904 -- 233
1905 -- 262
1906 -- 229
1907 -- 287
1908 -- 321
1909 -- 333
1910 -- 466
1911 -- 506
1912 -- 469
1913 -- 369
1914 -- 359
1915 -- 409
1916 – 438

During these 16 years the lowest monthly figure was 196 in August 1906, and the highest was 553 in February 1912; the month the new prison was first occupied. The only known reason for the increase in the number of prisoners from 1910 to 1912 was the army's decision to concentrate as many prisoners as possible at Alcatraz because of the large amount of construction then being undertaken on both it and Angel Island, where a new recruit and casual depot was under construction.

An unusual prisoner, temporarily held on Alcatraz, was the German consul general in San Francisco, Franz Bopp. During World War I, Bopp was indicted for wartime offenses and, during two lengthy trials in 1916-1918; he was kept under military guard on the island. A large increase in the number of prisoners occurred in 1929, when 130 men were transferred from the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth. The army was, for the second time, turning Leavenworth over to the Department of Justice as a federal

Despite becoming a disciplinary barracks and the army's limited efforts to rehabilitate the prisoners, the legends surrounding it continued to grow. An escape from the island in 1923 led John L. Considine to describe it as "Uncle Sam's Devil's Island." He called it the best-guarded prison in the world. Like many writers before him, he described non-existing tunnels and compared the island to Gibraltar: "One of the approaches to the headquarters was through an underground tunnel [the sally port?].

The February 1912 figure was the largest number of prisoners on Alcatraz from its establishment as a prison down to at least 1916. An opportunity has not yet presented itself to study prisoner returns from 1916 to 1934, and visitors who had been to Gibraltar declared that this was not the only point of resemblance common to the two strongholds." The newspapers enjoyed playing up the story of tunnels and dungeons. Perhaps the ultimate development of this theme appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1933, when the old kitchen basement of the Citadel, then used as "dark and dreary" cells under the prison building, was described as being a relic of a prison built by the Spaniards. Lieutenant McPherson, who supervised the excavation for the Citadel in 1858, would have been surprised.

Twice in the 20th century the army had seriously considered abandoning the Alcatraz prison. In 1906-1907 the army gave consideration to moving it to Angel Island and placing a recruit depot on Alcatraz. In 1913-1914, the army was willing to transfer jurisdiction of Alcatraz to the Bureau of Immigration, and would have done so had Congress provided the necessary appropriations. The third time counted. In May 1933 the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Sen. Hiram Johnson as saying that the War Department was contemplating abandoning the U. S. Disciplinary Barracks at Alcatraz as an economy measure, and that the prisoners would be moved to the Atlantic Branch at Fort Jay, New York Harbor. In June, Secretary of War George H. Dern wrote Attorney General H. S. Cummings to that same effect, asking if the Justice Department was interested in taking over Alcatraz on a five-year license similar to the arrangement then existing for the prison at Fort Leavenworth.

The director of the Bureau of Prisons, Sanford Bates, informed the attorney general that Alcatraz would not be suitable as a federal institution. It was too small, in an isolated location, and had no freshwater. Furthermore, it was 500 miles from the Mexican border, which was the source of most commitments in Southern California. Then within three weeks Bates completely reversed his opinion. He now believed that Alcatraz would make an ideal place of confinement for about 200 of the most desperate or irredeemable types then in the federal penitentiaries at Leavenworth and Atlanta. On receiving this opinion from Sanford, the attorney general notified the secretary of war that he was indeed interested in acquiring Alcatraz. Secretary of War Dern signed the permit on October 13, 1933.

At that time, 221 general prisoners occupied the cells at Alcatraz. In order to keep the laundry in operation, a good portion of these men were kept on the island until the time of actual transfer was near. Then, in June 1934, about 40 military prisoners sailed for Fort Jay, New York Harbor, and a number of others were either released or given parole. Thirty-two prisoners remained on Alcatraz and were turned over to the Justice Department. These men had the dubious honor of being assigned prisoner numbers 1 through 32 under the new regime. Most of them were in their 20s and their sentences ranged from three years to life. They were undoubtedly an unsavory lot, their crimes including sodomy (prisoner 1), robbery, assault, forgery, manslaughter, and rape.

Before leaving the island, the army prepared a list of the structures that it would turn over to the Justice Department. How much different it was from the first list of structures prepared by Lieutenant Tower in 1854.

(See PDF version for structure list and detailed source notes)