Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

For Desperate or Irredeemable Types
United States Federal Penitentiary Alcatraz

The new arrivals quickly adjusted to the simple but rigorously enforced routine on the island. Each prisoner received a copy of the Rules and Regulations for the Government and Discipline of the United States Penal and Correctional Institutions. In addition he soon learned the many special rules enforced by the Warden Johnston sent Hammack a copy of the "Daily Routine of Work and Counts" that he had drawn up for the penitentiary. Despite its length, every prisoner and every guard knew by heart every nuance of procedures:

06:30 AM: Morning whistle. Prisoners arise, make beds, place all articles in prescribed order on shelf, clean wash basin and toilet bowl, wipe off bars, sweep cell floor, fold table and seat against the wall, wash themselves and dress.

06:45 AM: Detail guards assigned for mess hall duty; they take their positions so as to watch the prisoners coming out of the cells and prepare to march into the mess hall with them. The guards supervise the serving and the seating of their details; give the signal to start eating, and the signal to rise after eating.

06:50 AM: Second morning whistle; the prisoners stand by the door facing out and remain there until the whistle signal, during which time the lieutenants and the cell house guards of both shifts make the count. When the count is found to be correct, the lieutenant orders the cells unlocked.

06:55 AM: Whistle signal given by Deputy Warden or Lieutenant; all inmates step out of their cells and stand facing the mess hall. Upon the second whistle, all inmates on each tier close up in a single file upon the head man.

07:00 AM: Third whistle signal; lower right tier of block three (C-Block), and lower left ear of block two (B-Block), move forward into the mess hall, each line is followed in turn by the second and third tiers, then by the lower tier on the opposite side of their block, followed by the second third tiers from the same side. The block three line moves into the mess hall, keeping to the left of the center of the mess; block two goes forward at the same time, keeping to the right. Both lines proceed to the serving table; the right line served from the right and occupies the tables on the right; the left line to the left, etc... As each man is served, he will sit direct with his hands at his sides until the whistle is given for the first detail to begin eating. Twenty minutes allowed for eating. When they are finished eating, the prisoners placed their knives, forks, and spoons on their trays; the knife at the left, the fork in the center, and the spoon on the right side of the tray. They then sit with their hands down at their sites. After all of the men have finished eating, a guard walks to each table to see that all utensils are in their proper place. He then returns to his assigned position.

07:20 AM: Upon signal from the Deputy Warden, the first detail in each line stands and proceeds to the rear entrance door of the cell house to the recreation yard. Inside detail, or those not assigned any detail, proceed to their work or cells.

07:25 AM: Guards and their details move out in the following order through the gates:

    ) Laundry
  1. ) Tailor Shop
  2. ) Cobblers Shop
  3. ) Model Shop
  4. ) All other shops
  5. ) Gardening, and labor details

The guards go ahead through the rear gates and stand opposite the rear gate guard. There they count prisoners passing through the gate in single file and clear the count with the rear gate guard. The detail stops at the front of the steps on the lower level road. The guard faces them to the right and proceeds to the shops, keeping himself in the rear of his detail. Upon arrival in the front of the shops, the detail holds and faces the shop entrance.

07:30 AM: Shop foreman counts his detail as the line enters the shop and immediately phones the count to the lieutenant of the watch. He also signs the count slip and turns it over to lieutenant making his first round.

07:30 AM: Rear gate guard drafts detailed count slip, phones it to the lieutenant of the watch, signs it, and proceeds with it to the lieutenant’s office.

09:30 AM: Rest period during which the men are allowed to smoke in places permitted, but are not allowed to crowd together.

09:38 AM: Foreman or the guard gives whistle signal; all of the men on each floor of shops assemble at a given point and are counted, and return immediately to work. This assembly is quickly done, the count is written on a slip of paper, signed by the foreman or guard, and then turned over to the lieutenant making his next round.

11:30 AM: Prisoners stop work and assemble in front of the shops. The count is taken by the foreman or the guard. The foreman phones in the count and signs the count slip, turning it over to the guard, who proceeds with the detail to the rear gate and checks his detail in with the rear gate guard.

11:35 AM: In the recreation yard, the mess hall line is immediately formed in the same order as in the morning. The details proceed in the same lines to the mess hall.

11:40 AM: Dinner routine is the same as for breakfast, except at the completion of dinner, when the details immediately proceed to cells.

12:00 PM: Noon lock-up cell count; the detail guards remain in front of cells until the prisoners are locked up in the count made.

12:20 PM: Unlock and proceed the same as before going to breakfast. Except that the prisoners marched in a single file into the yard, number three (C) cellblock first. Shop details again form in front of their guards.

12:25 PM: Details are checked out of the rear gate the same as in the morning.

12:30 PM: Details enter the shops and are counted by the foreman and the guard. Procedures are the same as 07:30 AM.

02:30 PM: Rest period; the procedure and count are the same as in the morning.

04:15 PM: Work stopped; the procedure and count are the same as 11:30 AM.

04:20 PM: Prisoners into the gate, with count.

04:25 PM: Prisoners marched into the mess hall, with count.

04:45 PM: Prisoners returned to their cells.

04:50 PM: Final lockup.

05:00 PM: Standing count in the cells by both shifts of the lieutenants and the cell house guards.

08:00 PM: Count in the cells.

09:30 PM: lights out count.

12:01 AM: count by lieutenants and the cell house men of both shifts.

03:00 AM: count in the cells.

05:00 AM: count in the cells.

A total of 13 official counts are made each 24 hours. In addition, shop foreman make six verification counts. Sunday and holiday routines require their own schedules, with time reserved for haircuts, showers, clothing changes, and recreation. As for shaving, the prisoners were required to remove their whiskers three times a week.


Night photo of Broadway


An Alcatraz cell with artwork and oil paintings created by an inmate.


Each prisoner had his own shaving mug, brush, and soap. The guard passed out razors and blades to 50 prisoners at a time. 15 min. were allowed for shaving. The guard then collected the razors, changed blades, disinfected the razors, and issued them to the next 50 prisoners. Another regulation important to most inmates was that governing mail privileges. Prisoners could correspond only with immediate relatives, one's mother, father, sister, brother, wife and children. Those in the first grade could write one letter a week, and those in the second grade, two per month. Special letters, such as the lawyers, were permitted, but approval of the Deputy Warden had to be secured. These letters counted in the allowance that could be sent. The cell house officer issued three sheets of lined paper for each letter. The prisoner was allowed to write on one side only and he had to sign with his full name and number. If he referred to someone by name in the letter, the full name had to be used, no nicknames were allowed. The letters were to be handed in unfolded and without envelopes.

The one bright spot in the drab routine of the prison was the library. If Johnston rightfully earned the reputation as a harsh illustrator during the early years of his regimen, he also deserved credit for stocking the library with hundreds of books and periodicals. Even before the prisoners arrived, invitations to bids were put out for almost a thousand books. Established writers were not overlooked. Jack London, Lewis Sinclair, Washington Irving, Zane Grey, Hamilton Garland, Alexandre Dumas, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad, Cervantes, all were represented in the purchase lists. A department librarian, Miriam Marshall, send Johnston a suggested list of 23 magazines for the library. This list included everything from Adventure to Time, from Better Homes and Garden to Library Digest. Perhaps typical of the annual request for library books was the one for fiscal year 1937, wherein Johnston asked for $60 for magazine subscriptions, $300 per book purchases, and $75 for a library typewriter.

Undoubtedly, more important than the library was the quality of food served in the mess hall. Alcatraz received well-earned reputation for high quality and variety of its foodstuffs. All prisoners resented the early day discipline imposed meals; there was rarely a complaint about the menu. The food requisition for July through September 1934 illustrated the wide range of foodstuffs. Meet alone included: beef, bologna, frankfurters, bacon, liver, lamb, veal, pork sausage, luncheon meat, pork, pork loins, ham, dried beef, beef hearts, liver sausage, salt pork, and corned beef.

Johnson said the prisoners had full freedom of choice at the serving table; they could take as much or as little as they chose. However, no waste was permitted and no food could be left on trays. Prisoners who wasted food reported and admonished often by being deprived of their next meal. The prisoners’ biggest complaint about the mess hall was not the food, but the wardens attempt to enforce complete silence during the meals. Eventually, reports of the mess hall silence slipped out of prison, and Johnston found himself explaining that they were exaggerated. He said the men could speak if it were necessary regarding the food or having the food passed. He admitted, though, that the prisoners were not allowed to speak from table to table nor to indulge in any loud talking.

Although not many of the inmates felt the desire to attend chapel services, this part of their life on the Rock was not ignored. When a prison evangelist, Dr. Charles Curtis McIntyre, proposed holding services on the island, Johnston, who did not want him there, described the existing services which he considered quite adequate. Protestant services were conducted on the first and third Sundays of the month, by the pastor of the Calvary Presbyterian Church of San Francisco; Catholic masses were said on the second and fourth Sundays by a priest from St. Anne's Church in San Francisco. In 1935, seven Jewish inmates observe Passover week. They had a separate table in the mess hall complete with unleavened bread supplied by a local rabbi. The Rabbi conducted services for them on the Sabbath. In the fall of 1936, the average attendance for Catholic services was 47 people, all the Protestants numbered only 12. By 1936, the Protestant chaplain had also been added to the penitentiary staff.

Prisoners who violated the rules were swiftly punished. Punishment could range from being shut up in solitary (apparently in Cellblocks A and D, the as yet unimproved cells on the north and south sides of the prison), or placed in the old citadel basement, which was still called the dungeon. Johnston wrote that he did not like dungeons, but he used them on occasion in the first few years of his administration. He described them by saying that the Army and set up a mechanics shop in the cross corridor of the basement and had located the cells in the corners nearest the underground cisterns (on the east side), the brick walls of which were damp. He said the cells were badly located, poorly constructed, and unsafe because they were easy to dig out of. In the few instances they were used, the prisoners were chained to keep them from breaking out and running amuck. When a new disciplinary unit was constructed in 1940 in cell block D, Johnston had these basement cells torn out and the space converted to storage. He was glad to see them go: "I did not like the cells, in fact I was ashamed of them and used [them] only under necessity."

More than one of the new arrivals had seen Alcatraz before. The check of the records in February 1935, the Warden discovered that six of the new prisoners had former terms on the island under the Army. The number of prisoners continued to increase throughout the rest of 1934 and into 1935, arriving individually or in small groups from Leavenworth, Atlanta, or other institutions. By the end of the first year of operation, June 30, 1935, the U.S. Penitentiary had a population of 242 prisoners.

Alcatraz had also begun to lose a few men. Their departure created a new problem for the Bureau of Prisons, which still attempted to maintain complete secrecy concerning life on the island. In the spring of 1935, Verrill Rapp was paroled from Alcatraz so that he could stand trial on another charge. En route to his new destination he managed to talk to newspaper reporters. He told them about the "inhuman treatment" the prisoners endured, adding that three men had already gone insane and a fourth man was on the verge of doing so. The San Francisco Chronicle and other papers publish the story and one headline reading "Paroled Felon Raps Alcatraz." Warden Johnston replied to the charge by calling it ridiculous; but he and the Bureau of prisons continue to refuse publicity to either the prison or its inmates.

Director Bates himself began thinking about parolees. I'll Alcatraz was reserved for the more difficult prisoners, he said, it was not necessarily intended that these men should stay there forever. However, he did not think that a man should be paroled directly from Alcatraz. Just as the prisoners were not committed directly to Alcatraz from a court, but were transferred there from other penitentiaries, so should they be transferred from the island and paroled from another institution. He ordered the Board of Parole to visit Alcatraz periodically to hold hearings. If they judged inmates as deserving parole date to inform the director's that he could arrange the transfers. Also, Warden Johnston was to forward a list twice a year containing the names of the prisoners whose conduct had improve sufficiently for them to be transferred to another penitentiary. For the first time a ray of hope appeared for those men who found Alcatraz to be the hellhole it was intended to be.

Alcatraz completed its first year as a federal penitentiary for recidivists on June 30, 1935. The Bureau of Prisons considered the experiment a success: "The establishment of this institution not only provided a secure place for the detention of the more difficult type of criminal but has had a good effect upon discipline in our other penitentiaries also. No serious disturbance of any kind has been reported during the year.