For Desperate or Irredeemable Types
United States Federal Penitentiary Alcatraz
Development and Administration, 1934 through 1963
In his first annual report, Warden Johnston stated that 88 employees are required to operate the prison. This included two administrative officers (Warden and Deputy Warden), one religious, welfare, and educational director (chaplain), five lieutenants, 49 guards, 23 in the clerical and maintenance division, and eight general mechanics.
The superintendent of construction supervised the mechanical services. The fire department had been organized. In addition to the launch General McDowell, an Army steamer, General Frank M. Coxe continued to make regular stops in Alcatraz on its runs between Fort Mason and Angel Island. The prisoners operated the laundry which continued to serve the military transports and local army posts. A rubber mat factory (from old tires) have been established for the Navy. Also in operation were a dry cleaning plant, a small tailor shop, a shoe shop, and a wood shop.
The locking devices on the cells fail to function properly, even after the first prisoners arrived. For a time, the inmates had to be moved from one row to another as breakdowns occurred. Johnson withheld final payment from the Stewart Ironworks Company until the controls were repaired. The mortified company rushed his technicians to the island, declaring that it wanted the locks to work properly, payment or not. Another technical failure was not so easily resolved. In October 1934, the Warden reported that the three gun detectors were constantly overheating and had to be turned off to cool. Three months later, despite new coils having been installed, they were of no use at all. The Teletouch Corporation repeatedly try to correct the problems, without success. When it was decided to install a fourth detector in December of 1935, the Bureau of Prisons turned to Federal Laboratories for the equipment. Finally, in 1937, Assistant Director Hammack notified Teletouch this contract was canceled, the payments already must be returned, and Teletouch would have to pay the difference for the three new detectors that Federal Laboratories would supply (over $2000). The new detectors were eventually installed, but the prisoners never believed they were perfect either.
Warden Johnston believed that the weakest spot in the prison security was the old sunken lower road that ran in front of the power plant and the laundry building. This covered way, constructed by Mendell in the 1870s, originally had two brick, arched passageways, in each of which had once been powder magazines and shell rooms. The more northwesterly of these passageways have been reduced to a simple thin arched an Army days – probably when the shops in laundry building were erected in 1910. The arch marked the boundary between the prison work area and the rest of Alcatraz, the Army had erected a gate of some kind closing the arch. Johnston had to get removed any arch filled in completely the concrete. This concrete wall remains in place today. Two years later, in 1936, the Warden had the west end of Alcatraz is only real tunnel sealed with concrete also. In a memo he wrote: “There is a tunnel from the powerhouse to a point between the dry cleaning plant and the model shop building, running through the hill. When we took over the island we blocked the entrance from the west side with a steel door. We have now blocked it completely with cement, using the steel door for reinforcement. We have put twelve 4” x 6" air vents in the door to allow free circulation of air in the tunnel. In case of necessity the tunnel may be entered from the powerhouse which is outside the work area."
Edwin Swope served as Warden on Alcatraz from 1948 to 1955.
Warden Swope seen inspecting a cell along the C-Block Corridor.
The prison staff was housed in the old army officers and noncommissioned officers quarters scattered about the island. Single guards were at first housed in the squad rooms in the barracks. In the fall of 1934, the Warden reported that 41 "houses" were occupied by the employees. By June 1936, the barracks building had been remodeled into 11 new apartments and nine single rooms for bachelors. Also, the old quartermaster building near the wharf, building 28, had been converted into 12 single rooms. Despite these additions, quarters were none too plentiful. A census of the island in 1936, showed no fewer than 52 families living on Alcatraz Island that had a population of 126 women and children. An inspection engineer from the Treasury Department counted 158 adults and 64 children living in 51 sets the family quarters and 36 bachelor apartments in September of 1937. He said that no plans existed for supplying additional quarters on the island. However, he recommended that replacements should be started for some of the older frame buildings, such as the former noncommissioned officers quarters and buildings 12, 13, 14, 15, and 43. However, new residences (including bachelor quarters into substantial apartment houses) were not erected until 1940 at the southeast end of the island.
The daughter of an associate Warden (Jolene Babyak) recalled living on the Rock from 1953 to 1962. Although their house was not close enough to the prison, she could hear the prisoners yelling and banging on their bars on many nights. Still, life was rather good. "Alcatraz was small… And what wasn't rock was cement. There was hardly any grass, and few trees. Families lived in one of four apartment buildings, and cottages, duplexes, houses. Because the island was small, dogs and cats were prohibited. And of course, no kids could have a gun… But life was very normal. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone worked at the same place. Besides the post office, there was a small grocery store and a two lane bowling alley. There was a handball court, and we often had terrific baseball games, even though the entire baseball field was cement (parade ground, concreted in 1934)."
In the process of quarry rock southeast of the industries building, the Army had built a seawall and had placed considerable fill at this part of the island. Several times plans had been considered for extending the seawall westward along the water's edge of the rock cliff toward the industries building. The rock in this area was soft sandstone in ways had washed out several tunnels, including one large one directly under the building (and the old fortifications under it). On January 10, 1935, a severe storm caused a landslide in this area that left the industries building only 2 1/2 feet from the Cliff's edge. The Warden requested $6500 to extend the seawall and to repair the damage. However, the Bureau authorized a much smaller sum of money to place riprap along the shore. This work was completed by the fall of 1935, but the severe tides in the area made it a difficult job.
Shortly after the storm, Director Bates suggested raising the industries building and constructing a new building farther back from the waterfront. This concerns seem not to have been landslides whoever, but the difficulty of guards observing the water sides of the structure and the possibility that prisoners would escape in that direction. Johnston, at first favoring the idea, changed his mind and wanted to retain the building. He said it was the best structure on the island and was very satisfactory for shops and trades. If an additional guard tower was built on its roof, all the territory in the rear that could be seen. Years later Johnston wrote that while this building was in good condition, it was not to his liking at all because of its irregularly shaped floor space.
The building was retained and in 1935 in any old laundry building were made more secure by placing old iron bars, removed from the prison cells, over the doors and windows the elevator penthouses on both buildings, to prevent inmates reaching the roofs. Also, a large been later running from the spray paint room in the model shop to the roof was enclosed in a metal cage; the roof ventilators in the laundry were covered with metal grills embedded in concrete; and several windows were covered with steel grill. By June of 1936, a guard tower had been erected on top of the industries building and a catwalk constructed leading from it to the nearby "Hill Tower." The construction of this tower brought the number on the island to five: near the wharf, Hill Tower, South of the recreation yard, on top of the old North Caponier (now fuel storage), and the model industries building.
In his annual report for fiscal year 1936, the Warden mentioned several other developments Alcatraz. The guards in the general mechanics had been given the status of "junior custodial officers." The chaplain had resigned because of illness. Concrete seats, much like a miniature grandstand, had been built in the prisoners recreation yard. A clothing factory had been added to the prison industries; it made prison uniforms for both Alcatraz and other prisons. The model shop had begun reconditioning furniture discarded by federal agencies. All the buildings on the island were painted inside and out. In a new three ton refrigerator was installed in the prison basement.
The 19th century sources and mules (and cows) had been replaced on the island by a fleet of trucks, their stable being a sick stall garage in the basement of the quartermaster storehouse. An inventory taken in July of 1936, showed a total of seven trucks and one automobile assigned Alcatraz: a 1934 Chevrolet passenger car (that was kept at Fort Mason and used to transport prisoners to court appearances); three 1934 Rio motor three-quarter ton trucks; in 1936 Chevrolet one and half ton truck; in 1934, Diamond T. Howe three ton firetruck; and two trucks that had been purchased from the Army, in 1929 Chevrolet three-quarter ton truck, in a 1932 Ford 1-1/2 ton truck. The 1929 Chevrolet was almost worthless, having been "dropped into the bay" twice by the Army. Johnson decided to move the handball court from its location east of the dock. He said it interfered with the view of the guardhouse in the dock tower. Since the number of officers enjoyed the game the Warden plan to relocate the court at the children's playground on the south side of the island. The director approve this change, but both the court and the children's playground relocated on the West End parade ground. Strangely, the records did not mention the guards and their families continue to use the Army tennis courts located at the north corner of the parade ground.
The annual report for fiscal year 1937 noted several improvements around the island. Changes in the prison included the placing of new tool-proof grills on the ventilators located on the roof of the cell house. Each grill was fastened with six bolts inserted into the concrete roof. Two-inch thick bulletproof glass was installed in the front of the armory and in the vision panel of the gun port over the main gate. The power plant was completely overhauled and two new boilers installed. A new pump and sump for drawing salt water from the bay (cell house sanitation) were set up. Guardrails were built on various stairways around the island, and several points concrete retaining walls were constructed. The seawall was given added protection with riprap and concrete blocks. The alarm siren was installed on the roof of the ministration unit of the prison. The various shops continued their output, and the laundry processed over 1,000,000 pounds of clothing, etcetera. Once again a resident chaplain had been employed. Other personnel changes were the transfer of Deputy Warden Cecil J. Shuttleworth to Leavenworth and the promotion of Lieutenant E. J. Miller to succeed him. The most unusual event of the year was the stern wheeler Delta King's crashing into the southeast tip of the island. She was quickly towed off another vessel or island suffered extensively.
In 1937, an extensive survey of all the structures on Alcatraz was carried out. The report noted that there was a small amount of space between laundry and industries building that had been considered as a site for industrial expansion. It also pointed out that at the old stone quarry there was a good level site, partly filled in ground, that would be suitable for future industrial expansion. The annual report of Alcatraz for fiscal year 1938 recorded the escape of two men from the industries building. Warden Johnston had long been concerned about the structures location on the waterfront and the impossibility of keeping the water sides of the building under constant observation. He now urge the construction of a new industries building located far enough back the water’s edge to allow a guard tower on that side. His wishes would be granted, for the Public Works administration had made possible sufficient funds for the modernization of the Alcatraz penitentiary. Meanwhile a few improvements had already taken place. A new and sixth guard tower had been erected on the roof at the north corner of the cell house, and a walkway was built around the roof of the building. Three steel storage tanks for diesel fuel replaced in the quartermaster storehouse, building 79. These tanks, were walled in and a filling placed around them. They were connected to the dock with pipes, any feed pipe was laid from the tanks to the power plant. Among the personnel changes during the year were the retirements of chief engineers William J Elliott and Charles Marshall, replaced by Emmett J. Connell and John P. Oberto, respectively. Dr. George Hess transferred to terminal Island in Southern California and was replaced as chief medical officer by Dr. Romney M. Ritchey. Also a consulting dentist and a consulting psychiatrist were added to the medical staff.
Warden Johnston's hopes for a new industrial building were momentarily threatened in 1939, when the new U.S. Attorney General, Frank Murphy, announces Alcatraz was a place of horror and the prisoners should be removed elsewhere: "The whole institution is conductive to psychology that builds up a sinister ambitious attitude among prisoners." Both the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle immediately suggested that Alcatraz should be the site of a statue similar to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The Chronicle nominated San Francisco sculptor Beniamino Bufano’s “St. Francis” as a suitable work, or "Pacifica" which was the Golden Gate International Exposition’s theme statue. Murphy, however, realize that it would not be possible to close out treads immediately. Meanwhile Lewis C. Dunn of San Francisco won a contract to build a new industries building on Alcatraz. The two-story, 306 long building, designed to contain shops, laundry, dying facilities, and a dry cleaning plant, would cost $186,000. The ground floor was contained clothing factory, dry cleaning plant, furniture plant, brush factory, and an office. The laundry would occupy the entire second floor.
The entire modernization program, of which the new industries building was only part, came to a total cost of $1,100,000. The other construction undertaken in 1939 through 1940 included another "complete" renovation of the powerhouse, a water tower, the apartment houses for officers, a concrete dock and landing slip, and the remodeling of old D block into maximum-security and isolation cells. The powerhouse received a new steam turbine, a diesel engine, a seawater pump, and new fire and sanitary pumps. New freshwater and saltwater distribution lines were installed, as were a new fire service line, steam heating lines, and fuel oil lines. Old quarters 15 and 43 were demolished, and repairs made other existing quarters. New stainless steel trays, bowls, and cups and a menu bulletin board required for the prison dining hall. The first floor of the administration unit got new windows and doors throughout.
Johnston was delighted remodeling of the block, happy at last to have the “dungeon" demolished. Six cells on the ground tier, each 6 feet 3 1/2 inches I 12 feet 9.25" x 7' 7 1/2 inches high, were fitted out as dark or solitary cells. Each cell had two doors. The inner door was tool proof steel bars, like all the rest. The outer door was solid steel, but the upper half was a pull down glass panel (NOTE: the pull down glass panels in the doors of the solitary cells, as described by Johnston, are not present today. Instead, the outside doors now have full plates of steel over openings covered with thick wire mesh.). These cells could be made completely dark. Five of them were supplied with beds, toilets, and wash basins. The sixth was bare of comforts. Warden Johnston called it "Oriental or Strip Cell," reserved for inmates who destroyed plumbing fixtures. It was probably at this time that a room was harsh and off at the east end of the block to become a new library. The old auditorium on the second floor of the ministry unit was still used by the prisoners, and the Warden hoped that there would be funds to renovate it to providing more suitable background for religious services. All construction was completed by July 1941, including the demolition of the old laundry and conversion of the model industries building into a storehouse.
Pearl Harbor affected Alcatraz just as it did the rest of the nation. After an initial scare the Japanese airplanes might bomb the prison, the island settled down to help the war effort. The U.S. Navy informed the Bureau of Prisons, that it needed no more rubber mats, but it could use all the cargo nets the prison could turn out. Johnston promptly had the mat shop converted to the manufacture of nets. By June of 1945, the federal penitentiaries had turned out over 60,000 cargo nets for use in amphibious landings in the Pacific. Rear Adm. W. J. Carter, the chief of the Naval Bureau of supplies and accounts, congratulated Warden Johnston's prisoners for their contribution to this effort. The islands clothing factory switch to the manufacture of Army clothing, including field jackets and thousands of pairs of trousers, both fatigue and khaki. The prisoners also repaired large buoys that held the anti-summary net in place across the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, the repair area being played out on the side of the old laundry. The war created no heroes on Alcatraz, but under these peculiar circumstances, the prisoners did take part in the war effort.
In his annual report for fiscal year 1952, Director James V. Bennett said that Alcatraz should be replaced with an institution that was more centrally located and less difficult to operate administratively. But the wheels of government move slowly; Alcatraz would continue to be considered "the extreme at one end of the spectrum of institutions" for another decade. In 1958 through 1959 extensive repairs were carried out in the main buildings. However, an engineering survey of Alcatraz was undertaken in 1961. It disclosed that the buildings were dangerously deteriorated and that $5 million would be required to repair and rebuild them. Also, Alcatraz was by far the most expensive federal penitentiary in the system. That same year, Atty. Gen. Robert F Kennedy announced plans for a new maximum-security institution at Marion Illinois.
In its annual report for 1963, the Bureau of prisons reflected on the 29 years of Alcatraz's history as a federal prison. It recalled that when Alcatraz opened in 1934, a wave of gangsterism and violence was sweeping the country. The worst of these gangsters were sent to the Rock to serve their sentences. Over the years about 1,500 men, including Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, Machine Gun Kelly, Basil “The Owl” Banghart, and Mickey Cohen, worked out their days on the lonely Island. The fear of being sent Alcatraz no deterrent to bank robbers, as the Bureau had once hoped. Yet, Alcatraz was important in another way as quoted in a Bureau report:
“The institution served an important purpose in taking the strain off the older and greatly overcrowded institutions in Atlanta, Leavenworth and McNeil Island since it enabled us to move to the smaller, closely guarded institution the escape artists, the big-time racketeers, the inveterate connivers and those who needed protection from other groups.” Alcatraz had fulfilled its purpose well. The U.S. penitentiary ceased operations on March 21, 1963.