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United States Federal Penitentiary Alcatraz


Transition to Maximum Security

The citizens of San Francisco were not at all overjoyed to have a federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. Throughout October 1933, the San Francisco Chronicle listed group after group who opposed the scheme. Chief of Police William J. Quinn, the Police Commission, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors spoke out against a federal prison for gangsters on the island. An editorial in the Chronicle argued that Alcatraz was too close to the city to be a summer resort for bad men. Professional gangsters, it said, would have outside friends who would help them escape. It recounted that over the years 17 military prisoners had successfully escaped by swimming or by stealing boats and another six had gotten away by one ruse or another. The Federation of Women's Clubs joined the uproar of protests. Two young women, Doris McLeod and Gloria Scigliano, made separate and successful swims out to the island to demonstrate how easily it could be done by an escaping prisoner. In January 1934 the Chronicle proposed that a statue of peace be erected on Alcatraz instead of a prison. But the protests fell on deaf ears; the Justice Department continued its planning.

In October 1933 the Justice Department prepared a statement saying that it had completed arrangements for taking over the military prison. Stressing the security of the island, the statement pointed out that Alcatraz had long been known as one of the best disciplined and most secure penal institutions in the country. It would serve well for the present campaign against racketeers and confirmed criminals. In the initial negotiations, the War Department planned to evacuate the island promptly. But a hitch developed that caused the army to remain on Alcatraz until June 1934. In the permit to the Justice Department, the secretary of war required the penitentiary to continue the laundry services to certain army posts in the Bay Area and to the army transports that docked at Fort Mason. It was readily apparent that the Bureau of Prisons required time to remodel the prison before the first federal prisoners could be brought there. Thus the military prisoners continued to operate the laundry, while the Bureau of Prisons revamped the prison facilities. The records indicate that the two agencies cooperated amazingly well during the transition period. The army permit contained several other conditions and agreements besides the laundry services. The military turned over motor launch General McDowell to the Justice Department (this was General McDowell II and not the grand old steamer). The army water boat was to continue to furnish water to Alcatraz on its regular harbor runs with the Justice Department paying its share of the cost. No buildings were to be erected on the island without the approval of the War Department. The army reserved the submarine telephone and telegraph cables, 338, 465, and 703 for itself, and civilian employees on the island were be transferred to the Justice Department, perhaps the most important of these being J.H. McFadden, the island's superintendent of construction.

Sanford Bates, director of the Bureau of Prisons, recognized early that some repairs and improvements would have to be undertaken to make Alcatraz a place of maximum security. One important major change would be that of replacing the open-hearth steel window bars with tool-proof steel. Bates also considered the installation of gas and gun (metal) detectors. He wrote the Prison Equipment Bureau in Cincinnati, Ohio, asking if it would send an expert to Alcatraz to determine what had to be done. Robert C. Bunge, consulting engineer, completed his report for the Prison Equipment Research Bureau in November 1933. In addition to its importance in describing the changes to be made, Bunge's report also disclosed some modifications that had been made to the prison since Colonel Turner drew his plans of the building in 1910.

In contrast to the army regime, prisoners were now to be restricted to only the area containing the prison, the utility building at the northwest end of the island, and the laundry shops building adjacent to the power plant. The entire eastern side of the island from the powerhouse to and including the southeastern end of the island would be off-limits to convicts. It was necessary, said Bunge, to seal off the old communication tunnel (from fortification days) that ran across the island, its western end being in the prison work area: "The tunnel that runs from the power house across to buildings no 84 [dry cleaning plant] must be made escape proof as it forms a direct connection from within the walled area to the outside part of the island. This can be done by installing a tool-proof grated door in either or both ends of the tunnel." Grated doors were installed at both ends of the tunnel. Later the west end was sealed off with concrete also. Bunge's report also made the following recommendations: Guard barracks (building 64)--Bunge thought it should be used as quarters for guard personnel; however, its entire interior should be gutted as it was wooden and a dangerous firetrap.

Disciplinary barracks (building 68)--Shower room in basement, put tool-proof window guards on all windows and a new steel plate door with observation panel in it between shower room and hall. Rest of basement; put tool-proof window guards on all windows. Replace all doorways with new plate or grating doors and frames. In the northwest corner is a tunnel carrying the steampipes, electric lines, waterlines, etc. At present it is possible to lift an iron cover over this tunnel entrance and get out of the building. Enclose this area with a tool-proof grating having a door.

First floor: Put in a cutoff plate and door leading from the outer to the inner hall; the door to have an observation and speaking panel. Put new double plate and grating doors with speaking panel in the entrance between the inner hall and the cell room proper; the door to have observation and speaking panel. Put new plate door with speaking and observation panel between the inner hall and the squad room. This will be a temporary means for visitors to communicate with prisoners. Put new window guard in the lavatory in the inner hall. Enclose with a tool-proof grating the stair area for the stairs that go from the inner hall to the second floor. Remove the soft steel grating and wood that forms the entrance between the commandant's room and the cellblock, and concrete up this opening.

Put tool-proof window guards on all windows of the cell room proper. Put new double plate and grating doors between the cell room and the outside stairway on the northeast corner of the cell room (one of the old granite entrances from the former Citadel) . This is the doorway that eventually will be used as an entrance to the industrial area from the cellblock proper. Put new grating door between cell room and mess hall, to be the sliding slam-door type. Put new double plate and grating doors from cell room to the outside stairs on the northwest corner of the building which is another entrance to the industrial area (through the stockade). Put new double grating and plate doors between cell room and the sentry's walk on the wall around the enclosed recreation area (stockade). All plate doors to have observation panels.


The Alcatraz Cellblock in 1933, with steel style catwalks leading to the prison auditorium. These were removed with the refurbished cellblocks in 1934.


The top tier cells of Alcatraz's A-Block that escaped the tool-proof bar retrofits in 1934.


Modern photo of the tool-proof bars installed on Alcatraz in 1934.


Warden Johnston on August 18, 1934, leading a tour for dignitaries. Pictured from left to right are San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi; Attorney General Homer Cummings, one of the conceptual founders of the prison; Warden Johnston; and San Francisco Police Chief William Quinn.



The department has decided to use the two main cellblocks in this room (army nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5; bureau of letters Band C). These two blocks are three tiers high, having fifty-eight cells on a tier, making a total of 174 to each block, for a total of 348 cells. Remove all present steel cell fronts and locking devices and replace with modern cell fronts and locking devices made of tool-proof steel. Remove the four sets of spiral stairs and construct a new stair in the open space where the cellblocks are divided. Enclose the area of these cellblocks between the top of the upper cell tier to the underside of the roof slab with tool-proof steel grating. Since the two smaller outside cell blocks (army nos. I and 6, bureau letters A and D) are not to be used, the area occupied by them are to be enclosed with a wire mesh grating having doors. Replace the grated doors to the utility passages on both ends of the cellblock and at each tier level. In the center of the cellblock which is to become the stairwell, the openings from this area to the utility corridor have no enclosures around them (eight of them). These should be enclosed with tool-proof steel grating.

There is a fresh-air intake, five inches by four feet, under each radiator. This opening should be enclosed with tool-proof grating. In each cell at present there is an electric light outlet in the ceiling that is unprotected. A prisoner could blow all the fuses in the cellblock. A wall light box should be placed on the back wall of each cell, so fastened that it cannot be tampered with from the cell side but from the utility passage side. Some type of guard enclosures should be built in the mess hall and guard stations at each tier at each end of the cell room. In the cell room are two open entrances to the basement, in which the storage room and fresh, softened water tanks are (the basement of the old Citadel). Since these are in areas not to be used and which will be enclosed with wire grating, they do not need consideration. On the northwest wall of the cell room is a stair that goes to the shower room. It is now protected by soft-steel grating. This is satisfactory, because a prisoner could escape only to the shower room, Mess Hall, Kitchen, and here, the engineer recommended:

Put tool-proof window guards on all windows. Put in cutoff grating with a sliding door and a slam lock on it, cutting off the mess hall from the kitchen. Put new cutoff grating and doors enclosing the identification room (?) and the stair entrance to the hospital on the second floor. Put in a new cutoff grating and a door enclosing the stair hall leading from the mess hall to the basement. Put in new grating door enclosing the stairway from the kitchen to the basement. Second Floor: Since the department has decided not to use the assembly hall (it later did) or any rooms on this floor, recommend that the present three wooden bridges connecting the second floor to the floor of the second tier of cells be removed and the openings to the assembly hall be dosed with concrete. The stairway from the south corner of the cell room to the chaplain's office has been removed. The door to the chaplain's office should be closed with concrete. (The library on this second floor was also retained for a time.) All hospital windows should be protected with tool-proof window guards. The entrance door from the outside stairs in the north corner of the hospital should be enclosed with a tool-proof plate and grating door having an observation and speaking panel. In the stair hall there should be a cutoff grating with a door so that prisoner-patients may use the toilets.

There is a special hinged steel window guard in the room marked "Stores." This is for receiving supplies in the hospital from the basement level outside the building. Recommend that this window be closed solid with a tool-proof window guard and that supplies for the hospital be brought up the stairs. The dumb waiter now on the outside of the building should be removed. In the stair hall there is a trap door to the- roof; it should have a steel grating with frame and with a prison lock.

In response to Bates's interest in tear gas and gun detectors, Federal Industries forwarded a series of recommendations to him for improving security on the island. Because of the number of employees and their families who would be living on Alcatraz, the firm considered it impossible to surround the island with "electro-static or micro-wave" protection. Instead it recommended the use of two police dogs to accompany day and night patrols, especially on the northeast side of the island; that each outside guard be equipped with a Thompson submachine gun (U. S. Navy model); that only gas guns be used about the prison proper and that wall guards be armed with gas riot guns and hand grenades; as well as installation of five federal gas guns in the main entranceway to the prison building, connected to a turret that would be so located as to operate both the entrance doors and the gas ($3,775); installation of an electro-magnetic gun protection in the entranceway; installation of 20 federal tear gas guns in the ceiling girders of the mess hall and kitchen, these to be operated from a turret in the corner of the mess hall ($9,050); and 8 tear gas guns in the ceiling of the assembly hall, with turret ($5,050).

Thomas F. Butterworth, the bureau's chief inspector, visited Alcatraz in January 1934. His inspection report described the various service systems on the island:

(See PDF version for charts and source notes)