Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Prisioners-Strikes, Riots, And Escapes


Rumors of plan escapes developed early in Alcatraz penitentiary's history. When Director Bates heard of these rumors in December of 1935, he immediately alerted Warden Johnston. The Warden assured him that such stories were to be expected. The prisoners, from the minute they arrived on the island, thoroughly checked their surroundings for weak spots. They constantly dreamed up ways to escape - if they could get weapons, if they could get a speed boat, or if they could get an airplane to wreck certain buildings, and so on. He told the director that he and his staff took such matters seriously, but that they did not let such rumors given the jitters.

The rumors of December became the realities of January when about 60% of the convicts went on strike. Trouble began in the laundry on Monday morning, January 20, 1936. Some of the prisoners were moved to their assigned stations rather slowly. About 8 AM in number of them on the upper floor moved toward the stairway, yelling for others to join them. The ever enlarging group moved down to the first floor. An officer telephoned the front office, notifying the deputy warden, the lieutenant of the watch, and the armorer of the disturbance. The deputy ordered the tower guards to stand by their posts while he and the lieutenants went to the work area. At the laundry the officers lined the prisoners who had quit work, warned them, and then march them into the cell house. Johnston had this group of 120-30 immediately locked in their cells.

The next step, said the Warden, was an attempt to separate the sheep from the goats. Each man was taken out of his cell, one at a time, and individually interrogated and given advice. Many of them had no particular grievance except that they would like more privileges. But even this group refused to return to work; if they had done so, they would have been identified as "rats" or "yellow," and perhaps suffered reprisals. Some inmates appeared insolent, hostile, and defiant during their hearings. The interviewing and the sorting out continued throughout the day, some returning to work and still others quitting their tasks. In the afternoon the 100 or so who were locked up began yelling and shouting, making a monstrous uproar. Five of the loudest were taken to the basement and locked up in solitary.

On Tuesday, the 21st, twenty-four prisoners working in the kitchen would join the strike. They, too, were locked in their cells. The chief steward and eight guards kept the kitchen going. By Wednesday, three the prisoners in solitary brought back upstairs; but seven others were taken down to the "dungeon." Everyone locked up was given water to drink. But no bread was issued to them until Thursday morning. By Friday, some 80% of the strikers had agreed to return to work. Though still locked up continue to give bread and water, and the doctor’s careful check, until Saturday when they received a meal of soup, scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee. Six men refused this food and were promptly taken to the hospital for force-feeding with a tube. En route, two of the six change their minds; but the other four were force-fed with a quart of milk with eggs and sugar beaten into it. By the end of the week Johnston felt well on top of the situation and gave a short statement about the strike to press. The Chronicle printed the story, working in Al Capone’s name because it was known that he then worked in the laundry. Capone, according to the story, had "squealed" that a general strike was coming and that the other prisoners had threatened to lynch him. An angry Johnston notified Washington that the Capone story had not an iota of truth; Capone had had no part of the strike. By February 8, only 17 prisoners remain locked up, 15 of them in the isolation cells in the first tier of old the block (this meant only that they were isolated from the rest of the cell house), and two in the upper solitary (as distinguished from the dungeon, but not otherwise identified). In an effort to break up this hard-core, Johnston had one placed in isolation in a regular cell in B-Block, two in A-block, (also, old army), and 12 in D-Block. He placed them on one full meal a day and bread and water twice a day. On February 15, the remaining 15 went on a hunger strike. Three days later the chief physician decided to force-feed them. Five promptly change their minds; 10 had the tube administered. At the end of January, two prisoners were still being force-fed, but the strike was over. Johnston told the director that they had got through a trying time without shots being fired, no clubs or gas being used, and nobody being hurt. He considered the work of his crew to have been nothing short of marvelous.

Alcatraz had its first escape attempt in 1935, when Joe Bowers, a violator of postal laws attempted to climb a fence and jump into the bay on the south side of the island. After repeated warnings the guard shot him. Bowers, wounded in the lungs, plunge down the 60 foot embankment and was killed.

Burton Phillips, a 23-year-old bank robber and kidnapper serving a life term on Alcatraz, wrote Director Bennett in June of 1937. Phillips claimed that his constitutional rights were being violated because his requests for legal publications and legal opinions have been denied. "Are you to put me in here for life, stop all my mail and deny me the right of legal redress by keeping me in ignorance of legal decisions? Then I would be better off to slit my throat, or perhaps, someone else's and make you hang me, ending quickly and mercifully a life which would otherwise be carried on torturously year after weary year without hope or possibilities of legal release. I'll grant you the point that there is nothing in the Constitution to keep you from starving, torturing and mistreating me but it must be a regrettable oversight on your part to deny me full access to legal documents."

Phillips would not get the legal material, but in two months after writing this letter he would get himself a Warden.

The second general strike (in September 1937) developed in much the same way as had the first one. On the first day, September 20 men remained in their cells after the noon meal, refusing to return to work. Among them was Burton Phillips. Before the strike ended, a total of 132 joined the protest. During the noon meal on September 23, Warden Johnston entered the mess hall to observe the prisoners in the mess line. Suddenly Phillips stepped out of line, knocked the Warden down and kicked him several times, which knocked him unconscious, caused many contusions about his head and face, lacerated the inside of his nose, and badly cut the Warden's left ear. Guards rushed to rescue the Warden, finally pulling Phillips off.


Burton Phillips


Stairwell leading down to the cellblock basement where the notorious dungeon cells were located.


Alcatraz D-Block, known as the Treatment Unit was where men who broke the prison rules were placed into solitary confinement.


View from a cell on the second tier of D-Block.


Ted Cole


Ralph Roe


Doc Barker

An examination showed that the Warden had not received a fracture to the skull and the doctor stated that he would be able to return to work in a few days. Nobody reported what the guards did to Phillips. An indication of what befell him was recorded by Chief Clerk, L. O. Mills: "Today, after regaining consciousness (Phillips) said to Deputy Miller that he regretted he did not have some sort of weapon with which to have killed the Warden." Two days later Phillips was said to be a patient in the prison hospital.

The strike was almost over when Johnston returned to work on September 20. Fifteen men were still in isolation (including Phillips), but all of the rest of the prisoners have returned to their jobs. Johnston was determined that no prisoner would think he had been coward by the attack, later writing: “I went immediately to the mess hall and stood on the spot where I fell and check the lines in, stay through the meal and checked the lines out as I had deemed that to be the best way to resume my duties."

The first successful escape from the island, but probably not to the mainland, occurred in December of 1937. Theodore Cole, 24 years old and serving a 50 year sentence for kidnapping and Oklahoma; and Ralph Roe, 29 years of age and serving a 99 year term for armed robbery of a national bank, also in Oklahoma, plunged into the swift tides of the San Francisco Bay and disappeared forever. Both men were working in the mat shop located in the industrial building at the Northwest end of the island - the building that Warden Johnston was worried about because it's waterside could not be seen by the tower guards. The two were present for the 1 PM Count on December 16, but they were missing at the next count at 1:30 PM. An investigation showed that they had broken out two panes of glass in a waterside window, saw the material sash, let themselves out, and then used a Stillson wrench to break a lock on the wire fence that surrounded that part of the building.

Director Bennett reported to the attorney general that at first it was thought they had hidden in the caves under the northwest end of the island, but since it was high tide at the time and most of the caves were inundated, there was extreme doubt that the men could still be on the island. The fog was quite thick at that time, but he doubted the two could've swam to the mainland because of the very fast rising tide that day. Perhaps, concluded Bennett, these men selected this picturesque way to commit suicide.

The Hunt went on. The U.S. Coast Guard and police boats crisscrossed the bay. Police and sheriffs watched the shoreline. Although Warden Johnston announced he thought the ebb tide had swept the prisoners out to sea, no one else seemed ready to agree. The Chronicles headlines told the story: “San Francisco Police Warn Against Raid by Escaped Convicts.” “Bank Managers Told to Have All Guards Alerts," "Alcatraz Inmates Pleased with Success of Break," "G-Men Flock to S. F. to Tighten Net in Felon Hunt," “Alcatraz Felons Alive, at Liberty, Prison Pal Says,” or “Convicts Reported Seen Near Petaluma."

Johnston received some support for his theory when the assistant city engineer San Francisco, Floyd C. Whaley, who was a specialist in local tides and eddies, said that the currents on the daily escaped made it impossible for the two men to reach the mainland. The tides were exceptionally high that day, and the “run out” occurred between 11 AM and 4 PM at a speed of 8 miles per hour. Whaley's informed opinion made no difference whatsoever. For years the newspapers printed articles on the latest whereabouts of Cole and Roe: Arkansas, Oklahoma, and South America. This latest location had a peculiar twist. According to the story, Cole and Roe wrote a woman in the United States saying that they had successfully crossed the bay on a oil can raft. She then wrote a prisoner still on Alcatraz, relaying this information by means of a prearranged code. The fate of the two escapees continues to titillate people's minds to this day. The pair have become a sort of folk heroes to some. Others, upon reflection, doubt that any man could have remained quiet about a successful break from the Rock. For this group only one conclusion is possible: Cole and Roe drowned on December 16, 1937.

The next escaped, in May of 1938, resulted in the murder of a guard in the shooting death of a prisoner. Three prisoners were involved in this rather stupidly carried out effort: Thomas R. Limerick, bank robber and kidnapper from South Dakota, age about 37, serving a life sentence; Rufus Franklin, bank robber, serving a 30 year sentence; and James C. Lucas from Texas, age about 25, also serving 30 years. Lucas was the convicts who had stabbed Al Capone with a pair of shears in the shower room. The three worked in the woodworking shop in the industrial building.

On the afternoon of May 23, these men left their jobs and made their way to the third floor of the building, carrying a hammer, lead weights, and pieces of iron. There they came upon the senior custodial officer, Royal C. Cline, who was unarmed. One of them slug client on the head with hammer and left him critically injured. They then made their way through a window and climbed up onto the roof. The guard opened fire hitting Limerick in the head and Franklin in the shoulder. Lucas got away and hid behind a wall, but soon surrendered. Limerick died that night from the wound, and officer Cline died the next day in the Marine Hospital, leaving a widow for young daughters. Alcatraz’s flag flew at half staff for three days.

Lucas and Franklin were tried on first-degree murder charges in November. Both men based their defense on the brutality that was exercised by the prison guards. Lucas claimed to have been beaten, kicked, slowed, and pushed down a flight of iron stairs at various times. He also described his imprisonment "an old type Spanish cage" in the black dungeon. But the two were found guilty and they receive life sentences. The Chronicle pointed out that the sentences were rather meaningless "as the two already have terms longer than usual human spans."

In January of 1939, five desperate convicts undertook the largest break yet in the penitentiary's history. These five had been ringleaders in the September 1937 strike and had been held in isolation cells ever since. The isolation cells, it will be recalled, were in the old D block that had not been modernized with tool-proof steel bars. The friends of the five adjoining cells were still covered with the army’s flat, soft iron bars that could readily be cut with a hack saw blade. The five were as follows:

Arthur "Doc" Barker, the youngest of four sons the family that was bossed into a life of crime by the notorious "Ma Barker." He was convicted of kidnapping and was serving a life sentence. He was 38 years old at the time of prison break. Dale Stamphill, no data available at the time of this writing. Rufus Roy McCain, bank robber and kidnapper from Oklahoma; about 35 years old and serving a 99 year sentence. Henry Young, from Eastern Washington; about 26 years old and serving a 20 year sentence for bank robbery. William Martin, post office robber.

Proving that the metal detectors did not always work, tools of some kind were smuggled into the cells. The five men worked over a period of time sawing the cell bars, completely undetected. The windows of the cell block, faced San Francisco and had been covered with tool proof bars; but somehow and with an unknown tool, apparently a jack of some kind, the men managed to force the bars. On the foggy night at January 13, the five made their break and reached the rocky shore below the prison. Guards finally discover the plot, the siren sounded in lights flashed on. The lights picked up the men, nearly nude, using their clothing to tie raft together. The guards fired, killing Barker and wounding Stamphill by shooting him in both legs. Martin had been badly bruised by the rocks and he too was taken to the hospital. McCain and Young surrendered peacefully. Funds became available a year later for the modernization of D-Block.