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United States Federal Penitentiary Alcatraz

The Warden and the Guards

In November 1933 the attorney general selected James A. Johnston of San Francisco to be the first warden of Alcatraz. Johnston, by reputation a tough disciplinarian, had already made a name for himself by carrying out reform of the state institutions at Folsom and San Quentin. He accepted the new assignment with enthusiasm and, as time would prove, with the determination to make the Rock a place of rigid discipline and cold impartiality. Johnston took office as warden on January 2, 1934, at first maintaining his office in San Francisco. On April 5 he moved into the commandant's quarters on the island, three months before the official establishment of the penitentiary.

Director Bates prepared a memorandum for the attorney general in December of 1933 listing the principles and general regulations under which the prison would be maintained. This memorandum established the character of Alcatraz, a grim character that Johnston would fully enforce to make the island a place of maximum security with emphasis on discipline:

Alcatraz was to be operated on the principle of very limited privileges to inmates. The privilege of having visitors was to be earned; no visitors were to be allowed during convict's first three months, and then only one visit per month. Regular meetings of a parole board were not to be scheduled, and no parole officer was to be appointed. No welfare work was to be undertaken. There would be no direct commitments from the courts to Alcatraz. Prisoners were to come only by transfer from other institutions. Inmates could obtain lawyers only after the written permission of the attorney general.

The usual institutional library would be provided, along with limited educational facilities. Mail privileges were to be limited. No original letters were to be delivered to prisoners, only a typed copy of letters received. Newspapers, magazines, radios, and other forms of entertainment were all prohibited.

Johnston carefully picked his staff, all of whom were men experienced in the federal prison system. C. J. Shuttleworth, St. Paul, Minnesota, became the deputy warden. The four lieutenants chosen were E. J. Miller, Leavenworth Annex; Paul J. Madigan, Leavenworth; Edward O. Starling, Atlanta, Georgia; and Richard C. Culver, Petersburg, Virginia. Soon after he took office, Johnston prepared a list of the guard stations he would need on the island. Allowing for extra positions to fill in for annual and sick leave, he determined that 38 guards would be required. It was soon recognized that this number was far too low and an undated memorandum called for 49 guards.

By August, just before the first federal prisoners arrived, Alcatraz had 52 guards on the payroll. 20 Johnston's original list of guard stations gives an excellent description of the organization of the penitentiary. He organized the guards into three shifts, assigning each an identifying color in a manner similar to the watches of some navies: day period, 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. ten hours, yellow; night period, 5:00 p.m. to 12:00 p.m., seven hours, red; and morning period, 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. seven hours, green. Some stations were manned all three shifts, each guard on each shift having an individual number, while other stations were manned only one or two shifts.

Guards 1-3. Guardhouse on Dock; dock was fenced off to allow for a receiving station at which all persons going or coming were identified; this was a 24-hour station.

Guard 4. Transfer Guard; day period only . The guard met all boats and conducted visitors to and from the dock. It was his duty to see that visitors went only to the places authorized.

Guards 5-7. Entrance to Administrative Building; a 24-hour position. The guard controlled the entrance to the cellblock, the visitors' corridor, and the stairway to the auditorium (chapel) and library.

Guards 8-9. East Gun Gallery; was manned during the night and morning shifts, when the-men were locked in their cells, when they were released for meals, when they left their cells in the morning, and when they returned in the evening.

Guards 10-1l. Cell House Guards; their duties were to count the men in their cells, lock and unlock the doors, maintain discipline in the cells, supervise the movement of prisoners to and from the cell house, handle bathing details and barber arrangements, superintend all work assignments in the cell house, and they were responsible for keeping the place clean and orderly. (Johnston did not specify which two shifts were involved. )


The original caption for this opening photograph of Alcatraz read: The scene where Attorney General Homer Cummings (Left) and new Prison Warden James A. Johnson inspected the prison guards of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Harbor, called the Nation's most escape proof prison.


Standard Alcatraz 5x9 foot Cell


Guards 13-15. Kitchen and Mess Hall Guards; these guards were responsible for policing the mess hall, kitchen, and basement, including the bakery, the ice plant, the print shop, the inside workshops, and the vegetable preparation room.

Guards 16-18. Patrol Guard on West Station; the guard was in a tower. It was his duty to observe prisoners in work areas, stop them from wandering, and prevent any watercraft from coming within the 300-yard dead line. He was armed. When the prisoners were locked in their cells, this guard left the tower and patrolled a section of the island.

Guards 19-21. 16-18 above.
Guards 22-24. 16-18 above.
Guards 25-27. 16-18 above.

Patrol Guard on East Station; the same as for Patrol Guard on North Station; the same as for Patrol Guard on South Station; the same as for Guards 28-30. Armory Guard; one guard was in constant attendance in the armory. All firearms, ammunition, gas equipment, and supplies were kept in a concrete vault, protected by a steel safe door equipped with a combination lock. This armory was also the office for lieutenants and the place where all central control of the custodial force was maintained. It was also the center of communications. No prisoner was allowed within this portion of the building.

Guards 31-32. West Gun Gallery; the same as for 8-9 above.

Guards 33-37. Relief Guards; it was customary to require prison employees to absorb the Saturday half-holiday as a part of the Sunday off-duty. On this basis, five extra guard positions were needed for relief.

Guard 38. one extra guard was required to insure against sickness.

Guards 39-40.

(See PDF Version for charts and source notes)

Warden Johnston drew up careful, detailed procedures for taking official counts and unlocking and locking cells in the morning, at noon, and at the end of the day:

1. The deputy warden is in command and gives the signals. He takes a position at the east end of the cell house, between blocks Band C.

2. The lieutenant of the watch takes a position at the west end of the cell house, between blocks Band C; there he receives reports of count from the guards.

3. The guards take their assigned positions, ready to take the count when the signal is given. On signal, the count is started on the south side of block B and the north side of block C.

4. As each guard completes his count he goes to the west end of the cellblock and reports to the lieutenant. The count must be accurate and the report must be made as soon as it is ready.

5. After his report of count, each guard returns quickly to his position. Upon the whistle signal, guards open the cells in the same order of movement as when taking count. Example: Guard in position I, block B, lower east end, opens the cells controlled by Box 10, then proceeds quickly to opening the cells controlled by Box 7.

6. After the prisoners have stepped out of their cells, the deputy warden and the lieutenant give hand signals for locking the cells. The second whistle is the signal to start prisoners moving in an orderly manner to the dining hall or yard. In the beginning, Director Bates wanted only five guards to be armed. The two gun-gallery guards were to be armed with Thompson machine guns, shotguns, pistols, and gas equipment. The guards in the three (later, six) watchtowers were to have Browning machine guns, pistols, shotguns, and gas equipment. Warden Johnston wanted one other weapon; that was the army's old salute gun which was then in storage on the island. The army agreed to turn over the gun, but not until it had been made totally unfit for saluting purposes. A list of the ordnance and equipment required to arm the guards was prepared at Alcatraz.

On the waterside of the model industries building at the northwest end of the island had a sign, 30 by 7 feet, with black letters on a yellow background:

Johnston did not say who painted "ALCATRAZ" on both slopes of the roof of the quartermaster storehouse. It appears in a 1934 photograph, but may have been painted earlier by the Army in association with air activities at nearby Chrissy Field.