Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Prisioners-Strikes, Riots, And Escapes

Some Statistics

About 1960, the Bureau of Prisons published a booklet on Alcatraz. Among the tables presented was one showing the population as of June 30 each year, as well as the number of prisoners received and lost. The average prison population between 1935 in 1960 was 263, the highest number (302) came in 1937, and the lowest (222) was recorded for 1947.

To the 38 deaths reflected in the report, at least another three should be added for 1962, when three prisoners escape from the island and were presumed drowned. Seven prisoners were shot and killed by guards while either attempting to escape (four) or in the 1946 riot (three). Two inmates were stabbed to death by fellow prisoners. A total of six prisoners escaped from Alcatraz and all were presumed to have drowned. At least one prisoner was a suicide. The other 25 prisoners either died of natural causes, or if they were violent deaths, they were not specifically mentioned in the various accounts.

The 1960 booklet gave a breakdown of the offenses and the lengthened sentences for the 254 prisoners on Alcatraz at that time. Of the total number of prisoners, 183 were white, 64 were black, and seven were classified as "other." As to the types of commitment, 189 and been committed by federal civil courts, two by state courts, 33 from a municipal court in the District of Columbia, and 30 by the military. Sentences of more than 45 years were counted as 45 years in computing the average sentence.

They Never Give a Guy a Break

It will be recalled that in the beginning of the federal penitentiary, Alcatraz was operated on the basis of severely strict discipline and as little publicity as possible to the prisoners or to the events on the island. As the years passed and use of the harsh discipline leaked out, newspaper accounts and unfavorable to the administration of the prison became more common. Although there never was any fear of Alcatraz becoming a lax institution, Johnston, occasionally prodded by the Bureau of Prisons, modified the daily regimen a little now and then to make life a bit more comfortable.

In 1935, the federal government decided to port all alien convicts, except Canadians and Mexicans. One of these, William Henry Ambrose, a Chicago gangster, was released from Alcatraz for deportation. Before he left the country, he gave the press the brake it had been looking for - first-hand news from behind the walls. The San Francisco Chronicle headlined: "Alcatraz Silence Awful.” "Inmate Tells How Hard-Boiled U.S. Is.” “Al Capone Burning Up at Curb on Talking." Ambrose described the best-known comic of them all: "Capone is burning up at restrictions, but he's not losing his mind and cracking up. He's been in the hole (solitary) three or four times for talking. The "no talk" rule is the hardest thing in Alcatraz life, for him, for every prisoner there." The paper continued: "not a word can be spoken by any of the convicts in line, at the table, at work, or in their cells, he said. On Saturday afternoon this restriction is removed when the convicts are allowed in the yard." Ambrose, who had once tunneled out of Leavenworth, concluded: "It's the toughest pen I've ever seen. The hopelessness of it gets to you. Capone feels it. Everybody does."

As a result of this article and others like it, the director requested the Johnston write a resume of the regulations governing the island, so that a response might be made to the press. Concerning disciplinary policies, privileges, and punishments, Johnson stated that Alcatraz was established in accordance with the principles of maximum-security, limited privileges, and strict experienced routine. The guards were required to report every violation, every omission, and every attempt to cause confusion, disturbance, or breakdown of routine. In some instances prisoners were not punished but were merely advised or reprimanded. For minor offenses yard privileges were forfeited for anywhere from a week to a month. In more serious cases, all privileges were suspended: yard correspondence and visits. The prisoner guilty of insubordination was locked up on a restricted diet. For repetition of offenses, the inmate was locked up, all his privileges forfeited, and he was reduced in grade. Finally, the most serious offenders forfeited their good time.

As for the rules concerning silence, the inmates were not allowed to ramble, loiter, or go from tier to cell tier, cellblock to cellblock, or shop to shop. They were not allowed to talk when standing in line on the cell tiers or from cell to cell when locked up. In the mess hall they could talk only as was necessary for passing through. The only places where they could converse freely were in the recreation yard on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, and in the shops. When playing games, such as baseball and horseshoes, Johnston said, prisoners could talk as much as they wished.

As has been noted, Johnston was supposed to send a list to the Bureau of Prisons, twice a year naming prisoners whom he thought could be transferred to other institutions for parole. July 1935 came and went without the wardens list being forwarded. The Bureau prodded Johnston several times, and finally in October Johnston forwarded his first list of 10 names. All 10 were former Army prisoners would been inherited along with the prison. Johnson recommended they be transferred to McNeil Island, Washington, then onto other prisons, hospitals, or parole, whatever their cases involved. He noted that one of these men any wife living in San Bernardino, Southern California; but he thought it best to stick to policy and transfer him also to McNeil and parole him from there.


Alcatraz Inmate Recreation Yard


William E. Coyler


Harmon Metz Waley


Bureau of Prisons Director James V. Bennett


Alfred M. Loomis


U.S.P. Alcatraz Inmate Library

An unusual morale problem cropped up on Alcatraz in the fall of 1935. Four wives of Alcatraz is prisoners were inmates themselves in the U.S. detention farm in Milan, Michigan. Three of the couples were exchanging correspondence as allowed, but the fourth husband had not heard from his wife. At any rate, Director Bates stepped into the picture and wrote the superintendent of the detention farm that all of the wives were to be subject to the same ruling and, unless they had forfeited their privileges, all of them could write their husbands once every two months. Presumably the woman got to write.

Unquestionably, the newspapers paid more attention to our Capone than any other prisoner Alcatraz. Capone had not been shipped from Atlanta for any specific misconduct - he was much too clever for that - but for apparently bribing both his fellow inmates and guards for special favors. The warden at Atlanta wrote the director that there was evidence the Capone connived with one guard, entertained a trusted lieutenant in his cell, and had flooded other inmates with money to curry favors. In the fall of 1935, newspapers began carrying stories that Capone was continuing his habits in Alcatraz and was receiving special privileges. The U.S. Attorney General issued a statement categorically and emphatically denying the truth of the stories. He added that Capone wore the same clothing as every other inmate, he did not receive packages from outside, and he did not wear silk underwear.

Years later warden Johnston recalled Capone stay on the Rock. Capone had been imprisoned in Atlanta in 1932, and had given a 10 year sentence and a fine for violating the income tax law. We can't out contrast 1934, he was suffering from syphilis but steadfastly refused any treatment from medical officers. He attempted to obtain favors while on the Rock, but Johnston sternly denied them. Capone's first job was in the laundry; then he became a cleanup man in the showers. It was there he got in a fight with Jimmy Lucas, a bank robber. Lucas stabbed him with a pair of shears, inflicting a slight wound. On another occasion, Capone had a fight with an inmate, William E. Coyler, that cost Alphonse eight days in isolation. Other jobs assigned to him or library delivery boy and recreation yard sweeper. By 1938 the syphilis had caused paresis and Capone was a sick and confused man. He was admitted to the prison hospital where he stayed until January 1939. At that time he was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, near Los Angeles, to serve one year for a misdemeanor related to felony trials. When that sentence was about to expire, Capone was taken to Lewisburg Pennsylvania, for final release. His relatives took him first to a hospital in Baltimore, then to Florida, where he died on January 25, 1947, at age 48.

Johnston worriedly wrote Bates in February 1936 that there was a news leak somewhere in the prison. He thought that the leak might be in the hospital but he could not discover the culprit. Johnston complained newspaper people were trying to identify as many of the inmates as possible for immediate and future use. Just six days later, as if on cue, the Chronicle printed an interview with the released prisoner, Alfred M. Loomis, which was laced with gossip concerning individual prisoners. Loomis, a counterfeiter from Southern California who had been sentenced to seven years, correctly gave the reporters Capone's prison number, adding that Scarface had become a "neat cabinet maker and a pretty fair banjo player." He said that he prison orchestra had been formed, and that they rehearsed in the barbershop during the week and recreation period. Other members of the band included Harmon Whaley, 1935 kidnapper of George Weyerhaeuser in Tacoma Washington, now played the saxophone; and Welton Sparks, former Dillinger associate, on the Coronet. The band members had to purchase their own instruments. Others in the prison were not doing so well. "Machine Gun” Kelly and Harvey Bailey, the two Oklahoma kidnappers, had fallen into the deepest gloom. Tom Holden, train and bank robber and murderer, had broken under the strain. "Life gets so monotonous,” said Loomis, “You feel like bucking the rules to break the monotony. That's it - the monotony. It's driving the men screwy.” The prisoners were not allowed to hang pictures on their cell walls and they would go to the “hole” if they tried. He complained about the "silent solitude" of the cells from supper time to lights out at 9:30 PM. According to him, there were fleas everywhere. Loomis concluded his bitter story with: "They never give the guy a break."

Loomis ignored one small improvement that was instituted Alcatraz in 1935. The University of California extension division made available a selected list of correspondence courses. 81 inmates signed up the first year. By June of 1936 they had completed 42 courses, but the enrollment was then down to 53. Prisoners can select from 19 courses, varying from Poultry Husbandry to Elementary English literature or from Beginning of Civilization to Beginning Algebra.

Recreation indulged in by the more active prisoners included baseball, handball, and horseshoes. In the fall of 1930 6A softball league involving 60 inmates was in full sway. The where he could sit on the new steps in the yard and play chess, checkers, and dominoes. As Loomis had reported, a "regular" orchestra was formed in 1936, consisting of 12 members and two alternates. The group anticipated having its first concert in November. Moreover, the chaplain was busily organizing a string orchestra - mandolins, banjos, and other strings. The chaplain reported in April 1937, that the regular orchestra had produced three Sunday afternoon concerts by then.

In addition to the correspondences in the orchestra, the chaplain also administered the prison library, a most popular institution. He said that each prisoner drew an average of seven books and three magazines per month. The number of volumes in the stacks grew steadily from the 9,000 titles inherited from the Army to 15,000 in 1960. Prisoners did not visit the library in person, rather they selected from a printed catalog, and a designated inmate (Capone was one) brought the books to the cells. The chaplain also served the needs of the prison staff. He organized a Sunday school for the island’s children, wives volunteering to do the teaching. He also held biweekly services for the residents, of whom some 50 to 60 attended. These services were held in the apartment building established by the Army on the roof of the old guard house. Prison wardens were often faced with the problem of guards becoming friendly with prisoners, such as in Capone's case in Atlanta. However in the records studied for Alcatraz, only one incident of this nature was discovered. One day in May of 1936, Fred Hill, the assistant engineer at the powerhouse, was eating his breakfast and the officers mess when he noticed a hospital guard, August Fenneman, pass something to a prisoner who was waiting on tables. Phil reported the matter. When questioned about it, Fenneman denied having given anything to the prisoner; but the latter said he got some medicine from the guard. The medical officer had already warned Fenneman several times about the undo familiarity with prisoners, and now advised him to resign. Fenneman did. Later, when Hill was eating a sandwich in the mess, he discovered a small piece of glass in his sandwich.

The San Francisco News managed to interview a parolee, A.W. Davis (two years for violation of the Drug Act), in June 1937. In contrast to Loomis, Davis gave a calm description of his life on the Rock. He told about his arrival on Alcatraz and the assignment of his number (311) and cell number (355). This clothing issue consisted of "long barreled drawers, gray coveralls, a blue flannel, comfortable tan brogan shoes, a blue coat.” He was allowed to a safety razor without a blade, a bath towel, a face towel, a toothbrush, a drinking cup, tooth powder, shaving soap, and a brush on his shelf. Davis said that the prisoners were issued to kind of tobacco: cigarette tobacco and papers and cut plug with a corncob pipe. Both tobaccos tasted terrible. While only 20 min. were allowed for everybody to eat, he admitted the food was good. He mentioned another modification of the rules, saying that the inmates were allowed to watch a movie on every legal holiday. Just as in the Army prison, some inmates managed occasionally get their hands on some alcohol - but Davis would not say what they drank nor where they got. He also disclosed the fact that the prisoners called Deputy Warden Shuttleworth "Gracie Allen." But he forgot to add that Warden Johnson is the name was “Saltwater.”

The consulting psychiatrists from the U.S. Public Health Service undertook an examination of all the prisoners on Alcatraz. Most of those found to have serious mental disorders were sent to Leavenworth for observation in a psychiatric ward. However, a few mentally ill persons could usually be found in Alcatraz as hospitals or in their cells. One such was Rufe Persful, age 29, and serving 20 years for robbery and kidnapping of Arkansas Sheriff. Somehow, the San Francisco Chronicle found out that Persful, had cut off his left hand with an ax and had bake another prisoner to cut off his right hand. Warden Johnston as usual would neither confirm nor deny the story. However, Washington officials quickly released the grim details: Persful had grabbed a fire ax in the prisoner garage and had chopped off only the fingers of his left hand. The new director, James V. Bennett, visited Alcatraz at this time (1937) and inform the public that he considered Persful to be deranged. Later that year another prisoner, Edward Wutke, convicted of murdering a fellow seaman on the high seas, fastened a tiny pencil sharpener blade to the handle of his safety razor and slashed his jugular vein. He bled to death in his cell during the night. Events such as these, and others less serious, led Bennett to promise additional psychiatric services for Alcatraz.

Bennett's visit to the island in July 1937 concerned some important matters that he wished to discuss with Johnston. Unlike former Director Bates, Bennett questioned some of Alcatraz’s rules and regulations, and he obviously was impressed with some of the criticisms that have been made. No record of their conversations have been discovered, but on his return to Washington, Bennett politely informed the Warden of some changes that he would like to see on the Rock. He began by saying that he had been giving some thought to what was a privilege and what was it right for prisoners. Then he listed some specific points concerning Alcatraz:

"I feel that it is unnecessary to impose quite such rigorous rules with respect to talking in the mess hall and when the men are walking into the cell blocks from the work yard and details. I think you agreed that your present censorship of magazines was too rigorous and I suppose you will gradually make such changes in it as seems to you to be reasonable. We shall also provide you with a better grade of issue tobacco and I want the library facilities expanded so that every man can have all of the books of the proper kind and all the rights for magazines to read whenever he wishes.”

Another change the Bennett wanted was the location of the rifle range. In 1936 Johnston had target set up before a small embankment behind the dry-cleaning plant, building 84, near the rock crusher. Guards practice their sighting and shooting from the road tower just outside the yard. Naturally this firing into the prison work area tended to make prisoners rather nervous. Bennett agreed that the target range was dangerous, and he concluded that perhaps it should be removed altogether.

Succeeding reports by Johnston showed that he took the director’s suggestions to heart. In 1938, he announced that a printed library catalog had been placed in each cell and that the average library circulation had increased to 8.2 books per man per month. Thirty men now practiced on musical instruments; and the 10 man orchestra was giving a concert in the cell house monthly. Carefully selected motion pictures were shown on the major holidays. "Professional" and amateur softball leagues had been formed, with four teams in each league. Of the 72 men who had enrolled for the 110 courses offered by the University of California, 68.9% had completed their work. In 1939, 133 men were enrolled. An additional 1,000 books were added to the library. An electric record player had been purchased, and the federal music project of the work projects administration had donated many fine recordings. The music library soon grew to 1,000 records, and musical programs were provided three times a week.

The last major change in the welfare of prisoners came during World War II when wages were introduced for the first time. The salaries were not grand, ranging from five cents an hour for men in fourth-grade jobs, to $.12 an hour for those in the first grade jobs. These wages were increased in 1944 and again in 1946 - ranging from 7 to 17 and half cents per hour. But it is doubtful if Alcatraz ever became as comfortable as Herb Caen describes it. According to Mr. Caen, Mickey Cohen’s favorite restaurant San Francisco was Paoli’s. When Cohen ended up on Alcatraz, Paoli’s prepared him a nightly dinner of a New York steak and a loaf of French bread: “A waiter named ‘Bug-Eye Frank,’ now retired, would take the food down to the Alcatraz pier, where a guard would pick it up.” Alcatraz is a source of endless storytelling now; but in its time it was often indeed the grim place so often described by the San Francisco newspapers.