page 1 THE CREATION OF aLCATRAZ Between the years 1934 and 1963 one of the most infamous prisons in history was operated. Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary earned a reputation for being one of the most feared prisons in the world. Its maximum security escape-proof environment was built to house the most villainous criminals of its time. For 29 years, under four wardens, Alcatraz Penitentiary succeeded as being a place of isolation and reformation for a total of 1, 567 inmates. During the 1930 s a crime wave crashed through American towns and cities.
The primary cause for the eruption and eventual spread of criminal activity, during this period known as the Gangster Era, was the legal prohibition of intoxicating drinks. Gangs such as the Tough Gang were involved in robberies, dealing with post offices and mail-delivery vehicles, around the country. Other well-known offenders included Al Capone, machine gun kelly, albert bates, harvey baily, and john dillinger (all who ended up in alcatraz, except for dillinger who was killed by the police). It was clear that the local law enforcement agencies were unable to combat the threat these men posed to the community. Even when they were captured and incarcerated, it was not uncommon for them to escape and continue their dealings in a new city or state.
The increased element of criminal activity in American cities made it clear that America needed a place to isolate its most dangerous public enemies. The government recognized the benefits that such an institution would provide. If this group of men, known as the toughest two percent, were isolated from society and even from other prisoners in the state institutions, a great burden would be lifted from the federal system. The attorney general at the time, homer s. cummings, consulted president Franklin Roosevelt about the concept of building a prison for the sole purpose of reforming an isolating page 2 dangerous criminals from the general public. Roosevelt supported this revolutionary idea, and swiftly approved the project.
attorney general cummings, then began preparations for locating a suitable site for this prison of super maximum security. Shortly after his search began, cummings discovered that alcatraz island, which had previously been used by the war department as a military fort and prison, was not being fully utilized. in 1934, an informal transfer of alcatraz island from the war department, to the department of justice, was completed and preparations were continued for the occupation of the island and the establishment of a prison. If alcatraz was to be a place of storage for hundreds of men it would have to be thoroughly remodeled. the older buildings of the military prison would be restored, and additional areas would be added.
it was the job of alcatrazs first warden, James A. johnston, to supervise the addition of the necessary features, and to make it escape proof. johnston began the remodeling enterprise by installing communication devices such as short wave radio and telephones, which would allow the guards and other personal to communicate around the island, and it also enabled them to communicate with the mainland. these security features would also prove to be useful in the future to prevent against riots. searchlight towers and floodlights were also added to the old army prison to prepare for the future influx of prisoners. tear gas outlets were installed in the ceiling of the dinning hall, and at the main entrance of the administration building.
Ideally, the prisoners would not have had sufficient access to enough materials within their cells to create a successful riot. Therefore, it was not necessary to install tear gas outlets in the individual cells of the prison. The next security feature that was added to alcatraz penitentiary was the hiring of armed guards. For every three alcatraz inmates, there was one guard, who was professionally trained to maneuver a gun. johnston established gun galleries in different ends of the cellhouse, and installed electric doors and gates throughout the prison. metal detectors were placed on the dock, at the rear gate, and at the entrance to the administration page 3 building.
barbed wire was placed atop towering fences, that separated the prisoners from the outside world. the water of the San Francisco bay was perhaps the most unique security feature that alcatraz boasted of. the island itself was one and a half miles away from the mainland, and the natural tides and currents of the bays chilly water would surely prohibit a escape artist from crossing into freedom. warning signs were placed around the perimeter to caution boats to maintain a 200 yard distance away from the island. if a boat violated this perimeter, the guards would be forced to open fire on the vessel. Buoys also encompassed alcatraz island, and served the same purpose as the warning signs.
Warden Johnston placed iron bars in the cells. He therefore made provisions for their replacement with tool-proof steel bars which, unlike the iron bars, would prevent against erosion and make it nearly impossible for the inmates to saw their way through them. The windows of the prison were also reinforced by the addition of tool-proof steel bars. alcatraz penitentiary More then ten buildings were scattered around Alcatraz island during its ten years as a prison. Independently operated double doors were in place in the buildings to allow only those who were authorized to pass either in or out of the high security environment that each structure maintained. Perhaps the most important building to the actual prison operation was the cellhouse.
This building was composed of approximately six hundred cells, each divided into four cell blocks: A block, B Block, c block, and d block. Most jailbirds were housed in either the b block or c block during their incarceration. Each cell measured nine feet by five feet, with an eight foot ceiling overhead. Within each cell was a bed made of steel page 4 (topped by a mattress), a toilet, a shelf an electric light (which was not permitted to be used after 9.
pm). Sheets, blankets, and pillows (with pillowcases) were provided to the inmates to make their stay a little more comfortable. Inmates who obeyed the rules of the prison, were granted special activities that often included time in the recreation yard. This area of the prison was designated for the prisoners as a place where they could participate in a myriad of games. The Industry Buildings also provided the cooperative inmate with the chance to escape the every day routine by allowing them to work in various workshops doing such tasks as washing laundry, cooking food, carpentry work, electrician work, and tailoring. Even working in the industry buildings was a privilege.
privileges Life on the rock was not always as gruesome as is commonly supposed. alcatraz would allow certain freedoms for those who respected the rules and did as they were told. These freedoms were called privileges, and for some prisoners they were their reason for living, and an escape from imprisonment and the confines of their cells. Such privileges included the right to ask for a light or heavy portion of food in the mess hall (however an inmate was required to eat everything on his plate without excuse).
Visitation rights, though carefully granted to certain inmates, would prohibit former convicts and persons who were thought to pose a threat to the operation of the island. Good behavior allowed inmates to read books and magazines of their choice from the library. A prisoner was given the right to correspond with friends and family outside the prison through letters, but even these were carefully censored and any material that was considered to be a threat to the institution was removed. page 5 Every letter was rewritten by the staff of alcatraz, and it was not uncommon that an inmates letter had never been delivered. The recreation yard was another of the privileges that a good inmate could partake of. Morton So bell, a former inmate of Alcatraz, described the recreation yard by saying, ...
You could do what you wanted to do. You could sit on the steps and talk or watch. You could walk. You could play cards.
You had a choice here which you did not have back there. Even various sporting activities were allowed in this out-of-doors atmosphere, perhaps the most disheartening fact of the recreation yard was that one could easily see the life of San Francisco less than two miles away. This constantly served as a reminder to the prisoners that freedom was so close and yet so far away. How hard was the rock Alcatraz was best known for the rumors about its oppressive environment. Inmates, when allowed to communicate with outside world, spoke of horrors that separated it from all other prisons in America. Inmate #1465 (Leon whitey thompson) compared his previous prison experience with that of the Rock by saying, I spent twenty-four and a half years in the penitentiary, but my little over four years on Alcatraz was harder on me than the other twenty years in prison.
To me it was not a life. it was not even existing... to me it was like time stopped... nothing meant anything anymore. Every inmate was required to begin their day at the same time each mourning (approximately 6.
20 a. m). Throughout the day they were counted by the guards to ensure that no prisoners were absent for any reason. Twelve official counts were mandatory, but it was no surprise when numerous unofficial counts were randomly executed in addition to the regularly scheduled ones. page 6 Scattered throughout an inmates scheduled were required strip searches or shakedowns. Also a part of escape prevention were the metal detectors, which the inmates were forced to pass through a minimum of six times a day.
Another well known tactic that the guards used to fulminate their captors was to abandon their bullet pierced targets in places that the inmates could find them, and therefore realize the skill and power that they were subjected to. the fall of alcatraz As years passed and alcatraz welcomed new wardens, an element of warden johnstons ideas were lost. Edwin Swope, paul J. Madigan and olin blackwell were Johnstons only successors. They helped change Alcatraz from the famous prison of punishment and not reformation to one where prisoners could live, eat, and relax, relatively unmolested by the prison guards or tortured by the strict prison rules.
It was no secret that the once rigid program followed by all the inmates was slowly becoming more and more relaxed. At one time on Alcatraz, during the Johnstons reign, inmate conversations were prohibited and speaking was a punishable offense. As time progressed inmates were allowed to communicate outside of the once designated times. Eventually, future wardens would allow inmates to create their own artistic pieces with paint that they had been given. About twenty years after the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island had been established, inmates were allowed to listen to music or radio programs played by the San Francisco radio stations. Toward the end of its operation, the once common prison cell shakedowns were discontinued by the 1960 s.
Also a major change Page 7 in the way Alcatraz was operated was the fact that fewer guards and fewer counts took place later in its history. the main reason for the relaxation of the prison codes was that the government funding could no longer support the rigid routine that had for so long been the distinction of Alcatraz; and budget cuts were soon imposed. The price of maintaining a maximum security facility of this caliber, and the amount of maintenance expenses that Alcatraz was constantly procuring made its daily operation a difficult endeavor. As a result of the casual treatment of inmates, prisoners began to find ways to escape their confinement. Though, fewer guards and counts were primarily responsible for the well planned escape attempts that marred its reputation as an escape-proof environment. It was well known that the amount of money needed to keep a prisoner at Alcatraz was greater than the amount required to house the same prisoner at a different institution.
This revived the question of Alcatrazs purpose in the federal system. Was it still needed Was the Gangster Era a thing of the past Taxpayers did not want to pay for virtually the same treatment at a higher cost to them. In addition to everyday costs of Alcatraz, a new problem was beginning to surface. The very building that housed inmates were beginning to crumble, and according to estimates the needed repairs would cost five million dollars. How would the government be able to justify the repairs to buildings that were already too costly to maintain The fact is they could not. And it was for this reason that, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the Rock closed.
On March 21, 1963, the last meal was served to the few inmates that remained. These would be the final moments of the incarceration on Alcatraz Island. Delgado, james p. Alcatraz: island of change. 1991. Delgado, james p.
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