Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

For Desperate or Irredeemable Types
United States Federal Penitentiary Alcatraz

Several additional contracts were let in 1934. They included an unnamed firm that got a contract for the installation of a firebrick furnace lining in the power plant; the Anchor Post Fence Company of California won the contract for new fencing; and the Enterprise Electric Works got the job of installing an emergency lighting system in the morgue. The new fencing was to be the cyclone type with barbed wire protectors on the top, beginning at the incinerator, passing around back of the shops building, the fog siren station, the carpenter shop, on past the laundry, then crossing the path to join the back of the powerhouse. Where it passed the shops building, which was built on the high scarp wall of the original fortifications a steel walk was provided to get around the building, so that dogs patrolling the area might pass between the fence and the building. This walk is still in place today.

Three representatives from the Marine Hospital in San Francisco inspected the hospital facilities in the prison. They were not impressed with what they saw, saying that it was really just a first aid station without X-ray equipment. The dental office was located in the second floor of the administrative section of the prison. They proposed that this office be moved to the hospital proper. In January 1934, Dr. George Hess, U. S. Public Health Service, was appointed the prison's chief medical officer, and Dr. Edward W. Twitchell became a consultant in psychiatry.

In January 1934, the assistant director for Fiscal and Business Administration, W. T. Hammack, visited Alcatraz to see the facilities for himself. He was impressed with the post exchange and its two "first-class" bowling alleys. He was of the opinion that the building would make an excellent lunchroom. As for the commandant's quarters, it was obviously the first choice for the warden's dwelling: "Today I inspected the house which has been recently vacated by Col. Weeks. It is the best house on the Island and should be used by the Warden. It is enormous; plenty large enough for two sets of quarters. There are five big rooms and a porch around two sides of the house on the first floor. There are five bed rooms on the second floor and two on the third. There are four bath rooms."

The first Bureau of Prisons personnel took up residency on Alcatraz in early February. The key figure among them at this time was L.O. Mills, who had the position of chief clerk. Mills was a personal friend of Hammack's and the correspondence between the two over the next several months ranged from official business to gossipy trivia. Mills informed Hammack that the army had arranged for storage space in the casemates of the barracks, which the army had nicknamed "Chinatown" because of the similarity of the rear corridor to the streets in San Francisco's Chinatown. The Bureau of Prisons installed an elevator from the dock to an entrance through the thick scarp wall of one of the old casemates. Mills also reported that the army had volunteered to transfer the island's library of 9,000 volumes to the bureau.

Progress reports on the new construction began appearing in April 1934. During that month all of the old material was removed from the prison, holes were cut in the concrete to receive the new cell fronts and the window guards, and four carloads of steel from the Stewart Iron Works had been received and most of it transported to the prison. By the end of the month, 269 cell fronts (without doors) had been installed; two of the four new stairways were in place; the 12 doors to the utility corridors were put up; some of the solid steel doors had been set in place; and a part of the grating leading from the tops of the cells to the roof had been installed. Using a compressor to cut concrete the contractor for the emergency lighting system was digging a trench, which ran from the morgue to the commandant's office and the switchboard near the prison entrance, from there to the lighthouse, and then to the commandant's quarters. In the process of this work an electrician had injured himself by dropping a manhole cover on his foot. A small fire on the roof of the prison on April 26 gave the workmen a slight start. But it was quickly brought under control without damage.

Specifications for repairs to the wharf were prepared in May. These called for new fender and cluster piles, iron chock and chafing strips, and creosoted piles. The Duncanson-Harrelson Company completed these repairs in August 1934. By the end of May three guard towers were under construction and the fencing completed around the prison enclosure. On June 1 blueprints were completed for reconditioning seven apartments in the barracks (four on the second floor, three on the third) and two apartments in the school (one on each floor) on top of the original guardhouse. A lengthy progress report prepared in mid-June summarized the work to that time as follows:

Gun gallery, at administrative end of cell room was 85 percent complete; its two floors had been laid. All the solid plate was in place. The grill work done was up to the point where the curved bars attached it to the ceiling (this would playa role in a future desperate uprising). The door to the gallery from the auditorium was in place, as was the stairway from that point up and down to the guard walk levels. The other gun gallery was 80 percent complete. The steel work in the entrance corridor and stairway to the auditorium and across that corridor, shutting off the visitors' room on the one side and the switchboard on the other, was 75 percent complete. The steel doors, shutting off the auditorium from the hallway through which the guard entered the gun gallery; to the library and near the auditorium stage; and to the stairway from the auditorium to the roof; as well as. The grillwork around that stairway, were complete. The bars covering the screen windows fronting from the attic over the auditorium and library were in place. The steel grating at the entrance from the administrative building to the prison and the double plate and grated door from the corridor to the prison were in place. Nearly all of the window guards were installed. Several foriner doorways including two in the commandant's office and two in the basement, had been blocked with concrete.


Broadway, c1934


Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes


Inside the East Gun Gallery


The Alcatraz Snitch Box


The armory work was 50 percent complete. The first three guard towers (being built by one Fred J. Early) were under construction, the one on the hill overlooking the shop buildings had its roof on and the catwalk to it completed. Work was underway on the walk that the guards would use leaving the armory and going around the outside of the prison to get to the guard towers. The emergency lighting plant in the morgue was ready for testing. The turbine in the power plant was complete. The Enterprise Electric Works had finished work on the big switchboard. The telephone system contract was progressing well; and the U. S. Coast Guard was installing radio equipment. The Dalton Manufacturing Company completed the new bake oven; and the Dohrman Hotel Supply Company had connected the new steam table in the mess hall.

A series of sawing tests were made on the steel tool-proof bars. A round bar in one of the cells was attacked with three hacksaws. The first minute of sawing seemed easy and no difficulty was experienced going through the soft exterior. However, as soon as the saw hit the hard interior no deeper impression was made, although the sawing continued for 20 minutes. Other bars were selected for testing, with the same results. Later, a guard spent a full hour sawing in each of the same grooves, but all he accomplished was the widening of the grooves. In another experiment, a tool-proof bar was placed in a vice and worked on with a piece of piano wire, grease, and emery dust . The wire cut through the bar, but wore out before the cut was completed. Despite this partial success at cutting, the steel bars were accepted as satisfactory.

After an initial hesitancy, Warden Johnston agreed that built-in tear gas should be installed in the mess hall and in the corridor between the administrative unit and the cell room. "It is impossible to predict what will happen or when or where but experience has shown that the mess hall is generally the place where agitators focus mass action." However, he did not favor gas in the cell room; it could easily be gassed by throwing in gas grenades from the outside. The army had tested gas grenades in 1933. Ten grenades were thrown into the cell area and the test was so successful that the prisoners could not eat dinner that day. The gas guns were installed by August 14. The ten guns in the mess hall were arranged in three batteries and operated by remote control. The discharge switches were located on the wall outside the mess hall and were under control of the guard stationed on a catwalk near the mess hall windows. The two guns mounted in the entrance corridor were individual discharges and were controlled by the armorer, who could see the entrance gates through a vision panel set in the wall. In June of 1934 the Teletouch Corporation of New York was awarded a contract for the installation of an "electro-magnetic gun or metal detecting system" at Alcatraz. Eventually three detectors were installed: on the wharf, at the front entrance leading to the cellblock, and at the rear entrance gate through which prisoners passed going from the shops to the prison. It will be seen in this report that these metal detectors did not work well at all when first installed.

The cost of all this remodeling was born by the Public Works Administration, then under the direction of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Two of Ickes' special agents, D. C. Burdick and A. S. Baker, inspected the new steel work and reported quite negatively on the quality of the Stewart Iron Work's performance and on the competency of Construction Engineer McFadden, who had transferred to the prison staff from the army. When he read these allegations, Assistant Director Hammack put a quick stop to them by suggesting that the agents were not too bright, and that he had complete faith in both the Stewart people and McFadden. That ended the matter; Ickes' men did not trouble the prison again.

Stewart Iron Works completed its work by the end of July and on July 30, 1934, instructed the guards on the operation of the locking devices. On the same day the Coast Guard and the San Francisco Police Department tested the radio equipment and instructed the prison staff on sending messages, and the painters finished their work on August 1. Hammack inspected the completed prison on August II, the day that the first small group of prisoners arrived on the island. He did not like everything he saw; he disapproved of the library having remained in the administrative unit, where no inmates should ever be. The cell cots were supported by chains that could easily be removed and used as weapons. The exit from the cellblock to the exercise yard (formerly, the stockade) adjoined a wide ledge that gave access to the gas gallery on the exterior of the building. There was too much glass in the guard towers; the single guards were poorly housed in the old enlisted men's barracks, where they had no facilities, no privacy, no storage space, no janitor service; and there were not enough quarters for married guards. But ready or not, the U. S. penitentiary, Alcatraz Island, was open for business.