CooperToons HomePage Merry History Dept. of Education CooperToons Books


A Most Merry and Illustrated History of

Daily Life on Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island
A Piece of the Rock

From August 11, 1934 to March 21, 1963, over fifteen hundred men had a Piece of the Rock. That is, they were residents of the Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. Even now, over half a century after it was closed, Alcatraz remains controversial.

When it opened, most people thought it was just what the guardian of America, J. Edgar Hoover, needed. After all, when Edgar wasn't playing the horses, denying the Mafia existed, and living with his friend, Clyde, he had to deal with the likes of Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis, and Doc Barker. As one historian put it, Edgar needed a "super-prison" to put the "super-criminals" once they were caught by his "super-cops."

But times change, and after World War II a lot of people began going to college. There you learned you were supposed to "rehabilitate", not punish, criminals, and the real reason we had such a spiraling crime rate is that prisons were just factories for churning out more and worse criminals than before. So the image of Alcatraz gradually shifted to where it became the archtype of the prison founded on brutality, staffed by sadists, and the best thing to do would be to shut it down so the inmates could go happily frolicking back to Leavenworth. But today, with convicted murderers signing megabook deals, and when prisoners are complaining because budget cuts are reducing their free phone calls to 300 minutes a month, a lot of people think we need more prisons like Alcatraz.

The Rationale of the Rock

The idea behind Alcatraz seems sound enough. In every prison you have individuals who are, even by prison standards, rather tough to deal with. Since these "incorrigibles" take up undue amounts of time of the guards, wardens, and staff, their presence makes rehabilitation of the other prisoners all that much harder. What you need, then, is a place to send all the really bad boys, so you can get back to the job of rehabilitating those prisoners that can be, well, rehabilitated.

You need a place for the really bad boys.

So in 1934, Attorney General Homer Cummings started looking around. Luck was with him and it turned out the United States Army had decided to shut down a military prison on a small island in San Francisco Bay. After looking it over, Homer decided once the place was fixed up a bit it would be perfect. He then asked the wardens of the other federal prisons to make list of whom they wanted to get rid of. Soon special trains were rolling across America with what were - at least officially - America's most dangerous convicts.

So most prisoners were not sentenced directly to Alcatraz. Instead they were transferred from other Federal prisons, like Leavenworth, McNeill Island (in Washington), or the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta - either by request of a warden or at an order of the Bureau of Prisons. There the difficult, high-profile, and dangerous prisoners would be stuck. Any rehabilitation had to be self-imposed. If the convicts didn't want to change their act, that was fine, they could stay there. If they didn't shape up, they didn't ship out.

Still, a sentence to the Rock was NOT supposed to be permanent. The length of the "average" stay is a bit unclear. Some writers say it was five years; others say eight. And authors Don DeNevi and Philip Bergen (who was also the Captain of the Guard) maintained that few prisoners remained there for more than three years.

That doesn't mean all prisoners were short-term visitors, though. Some, like Robert Stroud, the misnamed "Birdman of Alcatraz", spent 17 of his 54 years in prison on the island. And Clarence Carnes, the only active participant to survive the 1946 "Battle of Alcatraz" blastout attempt, remained there from 1945 until January, 1963, just a few months before the prison closed. But it was Alvin "Creepy" Karpis who set the record. From 1936 to 1962 Alvin called Alcatraz home. Even not counting a brief transfer to Leavenworth, he spent more than 25 years on the Rock.

The Wardens

The residents of Alcatraz were not just the cons. Others lived there, too. The Warden, for instance, had a palatial mansion right there on the Rock. And he had an office both in the prison proper and another in San Francisco.

The Wardens: Johnston, Swope, Madigan, and Blackwell

The wardens of Alcatraz were a mixed lot and it's not really clear by what common thread they were selected. The first - and longest serving - was James A. "Saltwater" Johnston. Alternatively described as a tough disciplinarian and an innovative reformer, he could be both. Starting in 1912, he had served as warden at Folsom Prison in California, and then in 1913 he began his long tenure at San Quentin. By 1926 he felt he had served mankind long enough and left the prison to go into banking. But when Attorney General Homer Cummings decided he wanted Alcatraz, the first person he thought of was Saltwater Johnston.

At both San Quentin and Folsom, Johnston had implemented many reforms, including the abolishment of corporal punishment. To many that stamped him out as a bleeding heart softie. But softie or not, bleeding heart or not, in his first years at Alcatraz he had no hesitation in chaining ornery prisoners to cells in the abandoned military basement - called the "Spanish dungeons". The practice was always against the regulations of the Bureau of Prisons, and to be fair to Johnston, it was a temporary expedient because of the lack of a proper disciplinary section. Once D-Block - the official "Treatment Unit" - was in place, use of the Spanish dungeons was dropped.

At heart, Johnston was an administrator who could go from being a warden to a banker and back to warden with ease. He was articulate and could put on a good face for the public and the press. In the early years of Alcatraz, that was a big plus. He also looked good, like a progressive warden should: judicious and dignified with a big shock of white hair. He did tub up a bit in his later years, though.

Possibly because he was there so long, Johnston was generally respected by inmates and guards alike. Once when he was jumped and pummeled by a maniacal prisoner, a number of guards AND prisoners came to his aid. Johnston finally retired in 1948.

His successor, Edwin Swope, served only bit more than six years. He, like Johnston, was a veteran of state prison administrations, but didn't have the dignity or public relations polish that Johnston did. Opinion of him was mixed, and his failure to build up any real rapport with the men - guards or inmates - was almost certainly a factor in his decision to leave in 1955

Swope was replaced by Paul Madigan. Probably Madigan was the one warden who a good chunk of the prisoners actually LIKED. The fact that Paul had worked his way up through the ranks of the Alcatraz guards certainly helped a lot. He knew the prison, the prisoners, and the guards. Paul also had a genuine interest in helping out any prisoner who wanted to reform. It was Madigan who got the Birdman transferred off Alcatraz to the Medical Facility for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri, and after much struggle he finally managed to wrangle a parole for Alvin Karpis, J. Edgar Hoover's infamous "Public Enemy Number 1."

Paul was an affable man. Perhaps too affable. He'd agree with almost anything anyone - convict or guard - asked for. Soon he was dubbed "Promising Paul", and one inmate said Madigan would promise you a stripper for your cell if you asked. After a while, it was clear that Madigan had the Irish Gift of Blarney and people didn't really take his promises too seriously. But everyone liked Paul and were sorry to see him leave in 1961 to take the warden's job at MacNeil Island.

"Promising Paul" was one warden the inmates actually liked.

The last warden was Olin Blackwell. Olin was a good old boy from Texas with a jocular, back-slapping manner. In some ways he was the most progressive of all the wardens, and he, like Madigan, had a true interest in the prisoners' welfare. But he was also tight-fisted and would cut costs in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. And if this caused problems, Olin could always find someone else to blame. When three prisoners made the famous 1962 "Escape from Alcatraz", the only people disciplined were lower ranking guards. It was Olin, though, who had shut down a crucial watch tower that guarded the route the prisoners took to the Bay. All in all, everyone could take him or leave him.

Other Inhabitants

In addition to the warden, lower ranking employees could live on the island. The east end of the island had apartments and cottages, and if there was a vacancy even a lowly guard and his family could move in.

Guards, Kids, and Cons - They were all there.

Naturally, a lot of the wives had mixed feelings about living on Alcatraz, but they recognized the advantages. In the early to mid-twentieth century, Americans hadn't become so fanatical about mobility as they are today and - hard to believe - a lot of families didn't even own a car. Also virtually all moms stayed at home and having your husband commute only a few hundred yards to his job was a big plus.

Like all mothers, they worried about their brood, not because they were afraid the prisoners would harm their children, but because the kids loved to wander down to the Bay. There were no beaches, the water was rough and cold, and worse, the kids always wanted to go where they weren't supposed to. The west side of the island was particularly verboten, since anyone seen scrambling among the rocks could be taken for an escaping prisoner. Kids did drift down there from time to time. There were never any mishaps, but the kids would get a royal chewing out.

Being a kid on Alcatraz was pretty cool. Just living there gave you a bit of an elevated status over all those less fortunate children who lived in regular houses and apartments in San Francisco. You took the ferry to school each day and you could also take the boat into town whenever you wanted. The kids also had special recreation facilities, and parties on the island were frequent. Of course you could invite your school chums.

Contact with the inmates was completely forbidden. Except for seeing the occasional outside work details - always accompanied by guards as there was no trusty system - the families would rarely even see an inmate. Visits to the prison itself were strictly against the rules and the first time any of the kids got to see the inside of the cellblock was the day after the prison closed.

The Guards and the Guarded

But in addition to the inmates, it was the guards that made up the bulk of the island's population. Because of the calibre of the convicts, the Bureau of Prisons tried to keep Alcatraz well staffed, and the intent was to have about three inmates per guard. A very high ratio for a prison, then or now.

Some of the the "correctional officers" (as they were called) were trained professionals who had served at other state and federal penitentiaries. Others, though, had no experience at all and hadn't started out intending to be caretakers for the 200 or so most dangerous men in America. Instead they were men who had passed the federal civil service examinations and were simply hoping for the security of a government job. When they found out they were headed for Alcatraz, most of them were just as apprehensive about what they would find as the prisoners were.

The guards were not the sadistic monsters of popular fancy.

In addition to the civil service requirements, the guards did have a month of training classes, and additional courses were offered from time to time. That was NOT typical for early to mid-century prisons. Possibly because of these reasonably rigorous standards, most of the guards on Alcatraz handled themselves well and were rarely if ever the brutes of popular fancy.

Motion pictures about Alcatraz all too often represent the inmates as sensitive, caring human beings who were (of course) imprisoned unjustly and guarded by sadistic inhuman monsters that like nothing better than torturing, beating, and in good times, simply humiliating their charges. The fact is that even though the scriptwriters (or their producers) might claim the movie is the unvarnished truth, they can (and do) invent episodes of pure fiction to make the story more saleable. The sad reality is a lot of motion picture about Alcatraz can be pure garbage.

Although most former inmates do NOT remember Alcatraz with a wistful sigh of fondness, their testimony indicates by far most of the guards were professionals who followed the rules. There were exceptions of course, but in general the guards dealt with the inmates properly and even with respect. It wasn't unheard of for an inmate who stayed in San Francisco after his release to become friends with his former keepers.

This doesn't mean, though, that ALL guards were the monolithic flawless ideals of J. Edgar Hoover's fancy (and considering what Edgar fancied, that's probably a good thing). Certainly there were guards who shouldn't have been there. More than one were so clearly unsuited for the job that they were assigned duties that kept them from direct contact with the prisoners. But these were the exceptions, not the rule. But sad to say, the administration seemed to cover up these bad apples rather than give them the boot.

"Jughead" Miller: Firm - VERY firm - but usually more or less fair - sort of.

More problematic were the guards who normally went by the rules, but in times of stress (riots, breakouts, strikes, and the like) might go beyond what the Bureau of Prisons considered the bounds of good taste. The prisoners did not normally consider these guards as brutal or sadistic, and as long as they personally didn't run afoul of them, might even grant them some grudging respect.

Probably the one guard who left the most lasting impression on the inmates was Officer (and later Associate Warden) E. J. Miller. Dubbed "Jughead" or "Meathead" by the cons, contemporary stories tell how he would think nothing of smacking a con if he thought it was necessary. Still a surprising number of the guards and inmates held him in high regard. Even one Officer George Gregory, one of the most by-the-book guards who served on Alcatraz, thought well of Miller's handling of the men, even while admitting that when Miller was excited he would start yelling to thump this or that miscreant.

Some convicts, though, weren't quite so charitable. Inmate Miran Thompson, during his trial for participating in the 1946 "Battle of Alcatraz", claimed Miller had yanked out a handful of his hair and threatened to kill him if he didn't sign a confession. Clarence Carnes, who was also a defendant, claimed that E. J. "beat the [crud]" out of him. Once he was paroled, though, Clarence changed his story and said he was never abused. By that time, Miran, alas, was no longer around to deliver a second opinion. All in all, the historical consensus seems to be that Associate Warden Miller was firm - often VERY firm - in his handling of the men, but he was usually more or less fair most of the time, sort of.

Getting Even

But even though the inmates would admit the guards were rarely sadistic or brutal, they were - at least in most prisoner's mind - the enemy. If the guards left the inmates alone and didn't bother them, then the typical prisoner wouldn't bother them, either. But if the convicts thought the guards were hassling them unnecessarily - whether it was true or not - the prisoners tried to get even. And, according to one inmate, they did get even. Always.

You got even in various ways. You could be disrespectful to a guard, refuse to obey his orders, or just ignore him. You could also leave food on your plate, feign stupidity, or refuse to work. Special jobs gave more opportunities for payback, and prisoners working in the laundry would sometimes shred up the guards' uniforms and clothes if they felt they had a beef.

Special jobs gave opportunities for payback.

Resistance was often collective. Work and hunger strikes popped up every couple of years or so, and if a movement was institutionwide then each prisoner was expected to go along. All of these were sure to result in punishment, but the inmates accepted that.

Some individuals could be quite creative in expressing displeasure. One technique (used by Al Capone once he started cracking up) would be to deface your cell with whatever was available. "Whatever was available" was at times downright disgusting, particularly since it could be turned into a projectile, more unpleasant than dangerous. In times of riots and strikes, this seemed to be a particularly popular form of resistance - at least for the inmates.

A particularly popular form of resistance.

Another favorite trick was to not flush the toilet, let the contents ripen, and then mush everything (Number 1 AND Number 2) into a paper cup. Then when a guard opened the cell door, you let him have it. This was a favorite of the prisoners being held in solitary since the guards couldn't always see what was coming.

Handling such prisoners could be difficult and sometimes required a firm hand. These were, after all, the days before various sophisticated riot control devices were available. Years after the prison had closed, one officer made no bones about how he handled the time when a near maniacal prisoner had befouled his cell and was hurling the effluvia left and right. The guard simply walked in, dodging the flying debris as best he could, and knocked the man out. Again, this was NOT the way the Bureau of Prison wanted you to handle such a situation, but they didn't really provide the guards with many alternatives, either.

Non-sophisticated riot control

Often the best way to handle the cantankerous prisoners was simply to ignore them. Once Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz" - always a chronic complainer - said he wasn't feeling well. After two visits from the medical orderly (who found nothing wrong), the men in the cell block, in a show of solidarity for Robert, said they would wreck the cells if a bona fide doctor wasn't sent for. It's interesting that they would do this and be willing to accept whatever punishment would be meted out since most prisoners really didn't like Robert all that much. In any case, the doctor didn't show up.

Well, the men did as they said they would. They first smashed all their toilets, broke their sinks, and shredded their mattresses. The guards told them to cut it out. The prisoners then set fire to their toilet paper and threw the flaming rolls out of the cells (the men were permitted matches for their cigarettes). After the doctor still didn't show up, the men then threw parts of their broken toilets and sinks at the windows shattering the glass into splinters. The guards just ignored them.

After a while the inmates realized they no longer had mattresses, toilet paper, or toilets, and they also couldn't smoke. And with the disturbances going on they weren't given any food and the broken windows were letting in the cold Bay winds. So the show of solidarity for the Birdman finally petered out. According to one inmate who participated in the riot, the only disciplinary action against the men was the obligatory time in solitary on restricted diet, and loss of privileges and good time credits. No physical abuse or improper retaliation was ever taken.

As one of the prisoners was being led to solitary, he walked by the Birdman's cell. It was in perfect order.

In short, the guards were on one side of the bars, and the prisoners on the other. Fraternization between the officers and convicts was not allowed. But on occasion the barriers did fall. Glenn Williams, a bank robber who did time on Alcatraz from 1958 to 1962 once volunteered to clean up a file room and a guard was assigned to watch him. Glenn and the guard began to talk, and in a short time the two had become good friends. After Glenn was released, he never saw the man again and to this day does not even know his full name.

Life in the Cell Block

Although there were certainly times of strife and discord between the guards and inmates, the typical day was not marked by the riots, strikes, and breakouts that always make for a good movie, but by monotony, boredom, and routine. Alcatraz was, above all else, a disciplinary prison, and the life there was strict and regimented. The inmates were told when to get up, when to eat and go to work, and when to sleep. Conduct requirements were strict, and when the prison opened in 1934, the inmates were not even allowed to converse. This rule, impossible to enforce and ridiculous in any case, was relaxed in 1938. Then the prisoners could talk in a "quiet" manner, while eating or working, and when they were in the cells.

The cells were small, 5' X 9', and were on what today would be called permanent "lock-down". That is the cells were kept locked. Those raised on Hollywood prison fare are sometimes surprised to learn that in most real prisons then and now this isn't and wasn't typical. Usually cells are opened during the day and the men are at reasonable liberty to move around.

And unlike today where the inmates can sit at leisure in the cells, watch color television and videos and listen to stereos, and some prisons have golf courses and tennis courts (and some really do), life and recreation at Alcatraz was pretty sparse. Each man had a bed, sink, toilet, bookshelf, and a small table for writing. He was permitted three books at a time from the library, and he could have matches, cigarettes, and materials for writing, drawing, or painting. But he could not keep money or food (except some fruit) in his cell. Only in the last couple of years were radio headsets installed.

Visitors today can visit cells restored to their (more or less) original condition. They give a pretty good idea of what the inmates lived with, but it was really a bit more Spartan than what you see now. An inmate returning to visit Alcatraz after thirty years remarked that the mattresses on the bunks were a lot cushier than the one he had.

Visitors were allowed once a month and they had to have written permission from the Warden. Inmates and visitors sat in different rooms, were separated by a shatterproof window, and talked via a telephone. Letters - both coming and going - were censored. Not too many of the inmates had visitors, though.

Newspapers were not allowed since they might have stories about the big shots on the island. Magazines were circulated, though, but first they were doctored up to remove anything that the administration didn't think the prisoners should see. Magazines like Popular Science had articles removed if it looked like they might give the inmates ideas for escape.

Every two weeks there was a movie. The subject matter was always selected for its wholesome message, of course. Nothing about crime, violence, and CERTAINLY nothing with any suggestions of sex. So as like as not every other Sunday a group of America's most dangerous men would be sitting in the country's toughest prison and watching Shirely Temple and Bill Robinson tippy-toe across the screen.

Still, some of the convicts recognized there was a positive side of Alcatraz. For one thing, with the near constant surveillance by guards and lack of a trusty system, inmate-on-inmate attacks occurred far less frequently than in other institutions. But violence did occur and when that happened one or more of the perpetrators could count on spending some time in The Hole.

"The Hole"

Overall the prisoners at Alcatraz were NOT always the most easy going and congenial gentlemen in the Federal penal system. And quite a few did cause problems for guards and other inmates.

The more intractable prisoners, and those considered a danger to others, were kept in isolation or segregation. Courteously termed, the "Treatment Unit" or TU for short, this was D-Block. There a prisoner was kept from the general population, ate in his cell, and had restricted time in the yard. But they were almost always housed in a typical cell, not in the lightless dungeons as even now are depicted in movies that claim to tell the "truth" about Alcatraz.

But some of the men WERE put in lightless dungeons when they were particularly bad boys, although always on a temporary basis. In the most restrictive type of solitary, there was no light, no running water, no bed, and the toilet was a hole in the floor. These conditions rarely lasted more than 24 - 48 hours and were intended to make the violent and intractable troublemaker cool down. The next step up seems to have been a 5 to 19 day term where at night you had an actual bed but with the mattress removed during the day. But usually isolation was in a regular cell and life there was not materially different than for other prisoners. In fact, some men actually requested isolation if another inmate was gunning for them.

The "Treatment Unit"

The records regarding the exact terms in segregation were vague, no doubt intentionally so, and in the disciplinary records you never find a statement like "We put Inmate So-and-So in a totally dark cell for 5 days". Instead there is simply a brief note stating "isolation" or "segregation". So from the record it's almost impossible to tell whether an isolation term was in a normal open cell or in what was called "the hole". The standard practice, though, seems to have been to throw the troublemaker in the hole for a few days and then move him into a normal D-Block cell.

Weirdos, Whackos, and Oddballs

In seeing interviews with former Alctraz inmates, you're immediately struck at how intelligent and articulate they are. They seem to reinforce the opinion that if given the opportunity and the right environment, even the most hardened con will turn himself around and become a productive member of society. And have the potential to become a skilled lecturer and author to boot.

Weirdos, whackos, and oddballs

The trouble with journalists and reporters is that when trying to root out a story they don't interview what is called a "representative sample" of the population. Instead they seek out the people who can give a good interview. Even if they're trying to be objective, the reporters are certainly not going to put a drooling, mumbling mental defective before the camera unless they happen to be interviewing the various national political figures.

Although about half of the inmates who were released from Alcatraz DID go on to leave productive lives, they were productive AFTER they got out. When they were doing their time, just about all the men had developed some eccentricities. For a while you had a bunch of convicts who would study Spanish because they were convinced Bolivia would grant them sanctuary if they ever escaped. Then there was the inmate who kept mice for pets and tucked them into his shirt so he could feed them while he was in the cafeteria. A lot of this kind of stuff was understandable given the lack of communication with the outside word and the fact the men actually had very little to really occupy their time.

Some men were definitely going over the edge, though, and should have been at Springfield. There was the con who would climb on the sink in D-Block and look out into the yard to watch a fight, laughing and giggling hysterically all the time. Then there was "Crazy Sam" Shockley who thought he was a direct receiver of radio waves and had somehow concluded that Mexico or Spain had jurisdiction over Alcatraz. Sam was an excitable, scrawny little man and would wander around talking to himself and to the voices in his head. EVERYONE thought Sam was crazy, but as events would show, he was far from harmless.

But of all the weirdos, whackos, and oddballs, it was Suitcase Sally who took the cake.

As Officer George Gregory was a making his rounds one day in the 1950's, he passed by Suitcase Sally's cell. The first part of his nickname came from his particular crime, and the second part was from the particular "favors" Suitcase granted to the other inmates. Such favor wasn't really a problem in prison - it was quite common common, although against the rules - but Suitcase's cell was. It was a mess.

George warned Suitcase that he should straighten up his cell. Suitcase just shrugged and smiled. George THEN said if Suitcase didn't clean it up, then he, George, would come in and throw everything that wasn't regulation out. Again Suitcase just smiled and said he didn't think that would be a good idea. It was a strange statement. George didn't take it as a threat (Suitcase wasn't really a troublemaker), but it was a challenge. That was one thing that guards didn't like as an unanswered challenged undermined their authority with the men.

George was as good as his word. The next day he hauled a big box to Suitcase's cell and began tossing everything out that wasn't supposed to be there. Nothing was really much of a surprise until he found a large bag under the bunk. Opening it up, George saw it contained a bunch of socks, which was odd. The inmates were issued fresh clothes each week and socks were not really a scarcity item. Like a good officer, he thought there might be more there than meets the eye, so he continued to dig further down. Sure enough, below the covering layer of socks, George found the sack was stuffed with ladies underwear.

George was surprised, but at the same time oddly gratified. NOW he knew what was behind the complaint from Mrs. Swope, the warden's wife. For a while she had been saying that her "laundry" was disappearing. Mrs. Swope hadn't been very specific - she hadn't said WHAT in her laundry was disappearing. Knowing Suitcase's reputation, George then asked him to unbutton his jeans. Suitcase again smiled and complied. George was not particularly surprised when he saw that Suitcase was proudly sporting a pair Mrs. Swope's more intimate silk puce apparel.

Suitcase Sally

George took the stuff away and stuck it somewhere, not knowing how to best bring the subject up with the Warden.

The next day Warden Swope himself asked George to stop by. Swope started off by gently chiding George about how "tough" he had been on Suitcase Sally. Now George was a good officer - one of the best - the Warden knew, but he should take the inmates' feelings into account when doing things like searches. You had to treat them with respect if they were themselves to learn respect. A happy prison is an efficient prison, OK? George listened politely and realized the Warden had no idea of what the heck it was that Suitcase Sally had squirreled away.

Soon Officer Madigan - then assistant warden - took George aside. He, too, said he heard about the search, but unlike Warden Swope, Paul knew the details. He then pointed out that Suitcase Sally had once turned over a loaded .38 revolver that some inmate had smuggled in. In doing so, Suitcase had risked his own life and likely saved the life of more than one guard or possibly even members of the guards' families. George got the message. As far as he was concerned, Suitcase Sally could wear what he wanted.

The Routine

Virtually all convicts who spent time in the Bay and who went on to live productive lives did not speak of physical mistreatment when talking about their time in Alcatraz. Instead they decried the routine, the monotony, and the struggle of living in a system where virtually every action was tightly prescribed and monitored.

Life on Alcatraz WAS highly regimented; that at least is not disputed. Each man slept in his own cell, got up at 6:30, did his morning rituals, got counted, and marched to the cafeteria without speaking. He then went back to his cell, got counted again, and then went to work at whatever job he was told to do. You were given specific times for recreation and exercise, and lights out was at 9:30. An army veteran from the Vietnam era said reading about Alcatraz reminded him of boot camp, only there was less privacy at boot camp

There was less privacy at boot camp.

Overall, a stay on Alcatraz was rigid but doable. In the work programs you could advance to jobs which could help you find employment once you got out. One inmate was even able to learn x-ray technology and he landed a job in a hospital after his release. And although educational programs were not given on the island itself, you could take correspondence courses with various colleges, and some of the men did just that. You did, after all, have plenty of time.

An inmate on Alcatraz could count on spending nearly 60 - 70 % of the day in his cell. Out of the twenty-four hours in a day, they had twenty minutes allotted for each meal. So adding the time going to the dining hall, getting the food, and sitting down, there was maybe a total of an hour to an hour and a half spent at meals. If you worked that took care of another six hours. So all in all a typical convict spent about 16 hours a day locked in his cells.

While not eating or at work, you whiled away the time in your cells. You could read, study, draw, or paint. Once the "total silence" rule was relaxed around 1938, you could also talk with your neighbors. And if you wanted to, you could even speak to the residents in the cells above or below. To do this, though, you had to "get on the phone."

The "phone" was not a real phone, but the cell toilet. Making a call required a bit of finesse. By sitting down firmly and moving up and down like a plunger, you could build up enough pressure to force the water down, leaving the bowl and pipe empty. This made a clear passage to the cell above and below as long as the other caller had done the same thing. When you were done speaking, a quick flush filled everything back up.

On the Phone

The idea of having "the facilities" right in the cell takes some more of the delicate minded people aback. In fact, one of the reported "horrors" of Alcatraz was that the interior of the cells was visible to the inmate in the cell just across the walkway. So an inmate could easily be seen performing these absolutely necessary but usually private functions. There was (and is), though, no real alternative. And as stated above, the privacy at Alcatraz was certainly better than what a typical soldier found at a military boot camp and it was much better than in most other prisons.

For some reason or other, the toilets in the workshop had heated water. Although they were even more out in the open than those in the cells, Leon "Whitey" Thompson, an inmate on Alcatraz from 1958 to 1962, remembered them fondly. Not for their convenience, but just for the extra warmth. "I used to hit them toilets three or four times a day", he remembered. But warm toilets were not the only advantage of the workshops.

The Workshops

Since according to the rules the only things guaranteed were food, shelter, clothing, and medical attention, work was a privilege. And a goodly number of inmates looked on it that way, even if they didn't whistle while they worked, which wouldn't have been allowed anyway. At the very least, it got them out of theirs cells for six hours a day.

Whistling while you worked wasn't allowed.

You started work after breakfast. If the count checked out, then those who worked walked in single file down to the yard and formed up in the groups for the various work details. After another count, they were marched to their proper areas.

There were a number of jobs: the laundry (that also served the nearby military base), the kitchen (a preferred job), routine maintenance (cleaning, painting, the incinerator), clerical, library (including magazine distribution), the hospital, and the shops. Like kitchen duty, shop work was particularly sought after since in some cases you actually got paid and you could get industrial "good time" credit. But the big advantage of the shops is that they allowed access to items that could come in handy for escape.

Most escape aids were metal, though, and you had to get them past the "snitch boxes" as the metal detectors were called. Small items could be stuck in your shoe and if you shuffled your feet just right the metal items didn't raise up enough to break the beam. "It was hard to beat that snitch box", inmate John Dekker recalled, "but they could do it."

Other items you could sneak through were those made of bronze, copper, or aluminum. Bronze welding rods could be concealed fairly easily and could be filed down like an ice pick and made into a dangerous weapon. And by the 1940's, certain types of plastics could be fashioned into homemade knives that could do as much damage as their metal counterparts.

But most prisoners who worked stuck to their jobs, hoping that they could get good time credit and have their sentences reduced. But on Alcatraz and other prisons, the work was generally pretty dull. So some times of the day were put aside for recreation.

Recreation and the Yard

One place the inmates LIKED to go was the Yard. This was where you went for games, exercise, or just to socialize.

The amount of time spent there varied. Although one inmate remembered that they only remained there about an hour and a half at a time, this seems to be a bit of an understatement. On weekends, two and a half hours at a time was more the norm, at least according to the rules.

In the Yard

Officially, on Saturday morning, yard recreation began at 9:30 and it lasted until noon. After lunch and the count, there was another recreation period from 1:15 to 3:40. On Sunday mornings the time in the Yard began at 8:40, and it was 8:30 on holidays. The afternoon times did not change, and in certain cases (like the men on kitchen work details, they could go into the Yard on weekdays between times of heavy workloads. What you did there depended on your own temperament and sociability.

Some old timers did nothing but walk. More often, though, the men played a number of officially approved games. Handball, shuffleboard, and horseshoes were permitted, as well as chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes and certain approved card games. Gambling - or even a semblance of a gambling game - was completely forbidden.

Bridge was the most popular card game, and the inmates were permitted to buy the major how-to books. Some not only became excellent players but also turned into out-and-out fanatics - which means they were pretty much your typical bridge players. The most die-hard players would even sit and play in the rain. That was possible since the "cards" were special dominoes and could get wet without falling apart.

The most popular sport was baseball (or softball, actually - hardball wasn't allowed). The rules were modified to fit the circumstances. For instance, if you made a hit over the fence, it was an automatic out, not a home run since the guards rarely took the time to toss an errant ball back.

The trouble was the yard wasn't really big enough to field a team, and it was all too easy to bean one of the non-players. Accidental or not, it was never a good idea to smack one of the 200 or so most dangerous criminals in the United States in the back of the head with a line drive. Not even if you happened to be one of the 200 or so most dangerous criminals yourself.

The baseball games had one particular danger in that a bat could all too easily be used to settle personal differences. Jim Quillen, who spent ten years in Alcatraz for kidnapping, once saw one of the inmates walk over to the pile of bats, make a choice selection, and then sneak up behind a man. "He really clobbered him," Jim remembered. "It didn't kill him" he added, "but it should have." Eventually, baseball was banned by the vote of the inmates.

Officially, wind instruments were never allowed, but in later years, you could practice if you knew the technique.

Some recreation was allowed in the cells. Painting and drawing were by far the most popular activities. You could also play games like chess or checkers with your neighbors. The latter games were best played with two setups, one in each cell. One player would move his piece, call out his move, and the other would study the board and do the same thing. You could even play with someone further down the row. You'd make you move and then have it relayed down the cells.

Certain times were also set apart for practicing musical instruments. The less musically inclined hardly considered this time to be recreation since the ability of the players was uneven to put it politely. The quieter stringed instruments, usually guitars, were preferred by the administration, and officially wind instruments were forbidden. However, it was found that if you stuffed some cloth into your horn and played into the cell toilet the noise was cut down enough so that eventually wind instruments were permitted de facto, if never, de jure.

The Cafeteria

The food on Alcatraz had two characteristics which the average prisoner found surprising. First, there was plenty of it. Although there were certain items where you could only take a certain allotment (particularly meat), the portions were certainly adequate and even generous. And for items like bread and vegetables, you could take as much as you liked.

During the first years there, you could even go back for seconds. But during World War II Warden Johnston got a chiding letter from his superiors in Washington that it was wasteful. Besides, they said, he was the only warden in the whole prison system that permitted this rather cushy practice.

You certainly could not dawdle alone over your meal.

The second surprise was that the food, on the whole, was actually pretty good. Willie Raday, an inmate from 1945 to 1952, said it was the best in the Federal prison system, and another prisoner, Herbert Juelich, said it was like eating in a five star hotel. Although THAT might have been an exaggeration, one guard did state that the bread baked in the prison kitchen was the best he ever tasted.

There was a catch, of course. The classic "take-all-you-want-but-eat-all-you-take" rule was rigidly enforced. If you left any food on your plate, you didn't just get a scolding from your mother that you wouldn't get dessert. Instead you'd forfeit the next meal entirely. And if it appeared you were deliberately wasting food, you could end up in the one of the isolation cells in D-Block on what was termed "a restricted diet." This meant one to two of your daily meals was nothing but bread and water.

Having good food, though, also gave the administration some headaches. If the quality went downhill, the prisoners let them know it. Two inmate strikes came about because of problems with the food. But all in all, what you got at Alcatraz was as good as possible for institutionalized food.

Mealtime was, of course, as rigidly controlled as other activities. Meals were always served after an official count, after which the cells were opened, and the men stepped out onto the walkway. They did a left or right face and then walked in single file to the cafeteria. Talking at this point was strictly forbidden.

When you got to the kitchen, you went either to one of the two lines as directed by one of the guards. After you got your food you could NOT sit where you liked. Instead, you walked to the nearest available table and waited until given the signal to sit. Once you sat down you could talk with your neighbors, who were not, by the way necessarily your friends.

You had twenty minutes to eat your meal. When you were done you placed your utensils on the table. When everyone was finished, and all knives, spoons, and forks properly accounted for, you all got up together and went back to your cells. Although the guards were reasonably flexible about the twenty minute time limit, you certainly could not dawdle alone over your meal.

The total time in the cafeteria, getting your food, eating, and waiting for others to finish, was perhaps thirty minutes. Quite reasonable, actually, and the men didn't really want to hang around since despite what you may think, meal times were not that enjoyable.

The lack of conviviality at meals was partly due to the regimen and the atmosphere. After all, having to walk past a guard armed with a machine gun normally doesn't whet one's appetite. The main reason, though, was the time in the mess hall was one of the most dangerous parts of the day. Fights between inmates and guards were not uncommon, and it was in the mess hall that Warden Johnston himself was once attacked and beaten by a prisoner. Harmony wasn't helped either by the requirement you had to sit, not with your friends, but with the men who happened to be in line with you. These were typically your cellblock neighbors and like all neighbors, they could easily rub you the wrong way.

It wasn't always grim, though. In addition to having special meals on traditional holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, some menus created a festive "air", so to speak. A particular favorite - for obvious reasons - was hot dogs and beans. The inmates were always ready to put the natural effects of legumes to good use.

A favorite dinner - for obvious reasons - was hot dogs and beans.

To help improve the mealtime "atmosphere" (no pun intended), in the summer of 1961, the large ten-man tables were replaced with smaller restaurant-style four seaters. When he walked into the cafeteria and saw the new set-up one inmate remarked, no doubt a bit sarcastically, that it was like eating in a fancy San Francisco bistro. This new arrangement reduced the tensions since although the men were still supposed to fill the tables as they filed in, in reality this wasn't enforced and the men could sit where they liked. It was also easier to sneak things out of the dining hall, and harder for the guards to follow what the inmates were talking about. Like escape.


The question is always asked: Did anyone ever escape?

Out of the 34 men who tried it (two of whom tried twice) 19 survived but didn't get away. Seven were shot dead by the guards, two were executed, and one was drowned and recovered. Five prisoners made it off the island and were never seen again. Two of the five are officially listed as "unaccounted for" and the other three are presumed drowned.

Escape from Alcatraz

But for the average Alcatraz fan, official statements of the government have never held much water (no pun intended). After all, just looking at the island from the shore (or vice versa), it doesn't look like it should be all that hard to get away. And besides, every year there is the famous "Escape from Alcatraz" swim where people of all ages and sizes negotiate the distance. So if a 90 pound young slip of a girl can make it, surely the reasoning goes, a hard muscled desperate convicts, buoyed up by makeshift rafts and air-filled containers, could too.

Well, yes and no. The modern swim is timed between the tides so well-conditioned swimmers can make it to the point they're aiming for and from points where currents and undertow are minimized. There are also rescue boats posted in the Bay if anyone gets in trouble and besides you have to be a good swimmer to be even allowed to try. Distances across water are, after all, very deceptive and the nearest shore is to the south, more than a mile away. Angel Island, to the north, is nearly twice that far. Neither distance is to be attempted except by the most practiced swimmer, which the convicts most certainly were not.

A lot of prisoners worried about the famous sharks that supposedly patrolled the bay. And yes, there are sharks, but they are not the great white man-killers of legend. To this day there have been no reported shark attacks in San Francisco Bay, but the guards didn't necessarily want the convicts to know that.

Fish aren't the problem; the waters are. Anyone who has visited San Francisco knows that even on a good day the water can be extremely rough. Not so easily seen is the fact the water temperature is inevitably cold - from 50 to 55 degress all year round - and the currents are treacherous.

But the tides and undertows are the worst. They can sweep a swimmer out to sea no matter how fast he paddles toward shore. And for every story of how two girls swam to Angel Island or the way kids from the city would swim to the 200 yard warning buoys and wave at the island residents, there are many more cases where Olympic class swimmers could barely make it halfway to land. It all depends on experience of the swimmer and the conditions in the bay.

It should also be remembered that the days which are best for swimming are also the days that it would be easy for the guards to spot anyone high-tailing it from the island. So the attempts were almost always at night or when fog obscured the view. Tidal models of the bay also predict that at any given time someone leaving Alcatraz might NOT wind up on shore, but could easily be swept out to sea.

Of course getting to land was one thing, but you also had to get FROM your cell TO the Bay. There was another obstacle to that. Alcatraz was (and is) a haven for birds - the name is actually derived from the word "Alcatraces" or "pelicans" in Spanish. But it's seagulls who were the real bane for the prisoners. They are normally rather noisy birds and the more they're disturbed, the more noise they make. They were, in fact, considered by some prisoners to be the best guards on the islands.

The best guards on the island.

So all in all, if you were on Alcatraz, the most prudent thing was to stay put and serve your time.

The First Attempts

But despite everything, some men tried to get away.

On April 27, 1936, Joe Bowers achieved fame as the first man to attempt escape from Alcatraz. A strange and pathetic man with low mental capability, Joe was spied by a guard on top of a fence by the island incinerator where Joe worked. The guard said he called a warning and said he fired only after Joe tried to go over the wire. Joe toppled from the fence to the rocks below, and so became not only the first man to try to escape, but also the first man killed trying.

But was Joe really trying to escape? It would seem so. After all, if a man climbs over a fence in a prison, it's a pretty sure bet he's not trying to sneak back in. So most people who have studied the incident think Joe really was trying to get away.

Some thought Joe was just feeding the birds

But some of Joe's fellow inmates weren't so sure. Instead, they thought the whole sad affair might have been due to a tower guard who didn't understand Joe's mental problems. One theory was an errant piece of paper meant for the incinerator had blown up and stuck to the fence, and Joe was just trying to fetch it back. The inmates also said Joe liked to feed the sea gulls and thought Joe had just climbed up the fence to toss food to the birds who had gathered on the rocks below. Although either chasing the paper or feeding the birds would have been crazy things for someone to do in a prison where guards had authority to shoot to kill, Joe was a sad case who wandered around in a perpetual fog. Many of his fellow convicts thought he was insane, and truth to tell, he probably shouldn't have been at Alcatraz at all.

About a year and a half later, on December 16th, 1937, Theodore Cole, serving 50 years for kidnapping, and Ralph Roe, with a 99 year sentence for bank robbery, managed to break through one of the mat shop windows after the guard had made his scheduled check. They slipped into the Bay and were never seen again.

Almost certainly neither Theodore nor Ralph made it. The water was 54 degrees, rough, and foggy. One inmate said he even saw them get into the water, and after they negotiated about fifty yards the cans they were using for floats shot up into the air and the men went under. The tide at the time was strong (8 miles per hour heading out of the bay) and almost certainly they succumbed to the cold and were swept out to sea. Even so, officially Theodore and Ralph are listed as unaccounted for.

Things got a bit nastier about five months later when Thomas Limerick, Rufus Franklin, and James Lucas took a hammer from the workshop, walked up to Officer Royal Cline, and smashed his head in. They then climbed on the roof of the industries building. There they threw pieces of iron at a guard tower thinking that they could smash the window, get in, and steal a gun. Those boys were about as sharp as the proverbial lead fishing weight and the guard in the tower immediately opened fire. Bullets struck both Thomas and Rufus. Rufus was only hit in the shoulder but Thomas fell with a one-inch hole in his forehead. James gave himself up. Neither Thomas nor Officer Cline survived, and Rufus and James could count themselves lucky that they were given only life sentences.

The "Murder in the First" Escape

An escape that might have the dubious distinction of being the subject of the most inaccurate and stupidest rendering by Hollywood occurred eight months later. It involved five men, one of whom, Arthur "Doc" Barker, was part of the famous Barker gang. Doc, who had an IQ of 80 or so, was cut from the same mold as his Ma, who despite what J. Edgar Hoover wanted everyone to believe, didn't really run the gang.

But it was inmate Henry Young who was taken in hand by Hollywood and made into a noble high minded but unfortunate young man who was victimized and demeaned by the sadistic guards and inhumane warden - and of course, a backward outdated penal system. It is true that Henry was in some ways a pitiable and pathetic figure, but that was because when you got down to it, Henry was really pretty much of a jerk.

According to the 1995 movie, "Murder in the First", starring Kevin Baker, Henry (Kevin) got into jail because he robbed a store so he could feed his kid sister. But, alas, the store also housed the local post office which made Henry's selfless act a federal offense. So off to Alcatraz for Henry, leaving behind his starving sister.

The post office story has some basis in fact, but nothing to do with Henry. Actually, it was Joe Bowers, the first Alcatraz non-escapee, who landed in jail because he robbed a store that had the post office on the premises. But there was no kid sister and certainly no Henry Young. Hollywood didn't like the real story where Henry had murdered a man in 1933 and later robbed a bank and brutalized a hostage, so they swiped an episode from Joe's sad life.

Henry along with Doc Barker, Rufus McCain, Dale Stamphill, and a young African American prisoner, William Martin, had discovered that the bars in their five adjoining isolation cells in D-Bock had not yet been replaced with high-grade tool resistant steel. So it was relatively easy to file their way through. On January 13, 1939 they broke out, and using a homemade (or rather, prison-made) bar-spreader on the outside windows, made it down to the waters edge.

The trouble was, with the frequent head counts the empty cells were discovered within half an hour. The searchlights picked up the men - virtually in the buff - standing at the water's edge. They had been using their clothes to tie together a makeshift raft since once they got to the Bay, Rufus finally 'fessed up that he couldn't swim.

Henry, William, and Rufus at the water's edge.

Dale and Doc tried to make a break for it, and both were shot by the guards; Dale in the legs, and Doc in the head. Doc died before they could get him into the prison hospital and the rest of the would-be escapees were put in solitary.

When Henry got out of solitary he stabbed Rufus to death. But NOT - as the movie shows - in self-defense. Henry never gave a reason, but most likely it was because Rufus had fouled up their escape.

As far as killing Rufus, Henry said Alcatraz made him do it. His defense attorney called other inmates to the stand who testified to the brutalities of life on the Rock. Careful selection assured that most of the defense witnesses had such long sentences that committing perjury meant nothing and even then a lot of the testimony dealt with "rumors" the prisoners had heard. The prison officials AND the trial judge were quite irritated when the jury convicted Henry only of manslaughter. The judge gave him the maximum possible - three years - and tacked it on AFTER his other sentences ran out.

In the movie, Henry dies as a suicide in solitary after scrawling the word "Victory" on his cell wall. Nothing like that happened. Henry stayed at Alcatraz, causing problems with both officials and inmates alike. Later he began to show signs of mental instability (maybe feigned, maybe not) and in the late 1940's was found sitting in a supposed catatonic state in his cell.

He was transferred to the Medical Facility for Federal Prisoners in Springfield. That was not necessarily a plus since, although it boasted absolutely beautiful ground and had dormitory style living, the guards there had the reputation for being the toughest in the Federal system. The story was if a prisoner gave them a hard time, the officers would grab the man and choke him to unconsciousness. True or not, the story at least cut down the amount of serious malingering among Federal prisoners.

Whether it was the doctors or the guards that cured him, Henry eventually recovered to the point where once his Federal sentence was finished in 1954, he was sent to the Washington to do his time for his separate state conviction. He was released in 1972, but broke parole a year later. No one knows what happened to him after that.

Preludes to the Battle

A non-escape that at first glance seemed inconsequential occurred on May 21, 1941. While at work in the mat shop, Lloyd Barkdoll, Joe Cretzer, Arnold Kyle, and Sam Shockley overpowered Officer (and future Warden) Paul Madigan. They tried to saw their way through the bars but couldn't make it. Officer Madigan pointed out that the count was going to be made soon, they couldn't get away, and so why not just give up now before someone gets hurt, OK, boys? The men saw the logic of the argument and surrendered. Madigan's cool handling of the situation impressed everyone and certainly had an influence on his later being appointed Warden.

Another and rather mild escape attempt happened on September 15, 1941 when John Bayless snuck down to the water but was soon picked up. At his trial he tried to make a break for it but was grabbed by a guard.

A more serious escape followed on April 14, 1943. Once more this started in the shop where Floyd Hamilton, a junior member of Bonnie and Clyde's gang, along with three other prisoners, James Boarman, Harold Brest, and Fred Hunter, brandishing homemade knives, captured two guards. They got through a window and made it into the water hoping to use empty cans as floats. They were immediately spotted in the water, and the guards sent out the launch to pick them up. But as the boat drew close to the men, one of the guards in the tower opened fire and hit James in the head. Harold tried to hold him up until the boat arrived but couldn't hang on and James sank. Floyd also had slipped beneath the waves and was presumed dead.

The manner in which James had been killed raised controversy. Usually guards and inmates disagreed about the necessity for use of such deadly force, but not in this case. One inmate asked why, if James was just about to be picked up, did they have to shoot him? Officer Al Bloomquist, fifty years later, expressed real sadness at what he clearly felt was a totally uncalled for shooting. Even Philip Bergen, the chief guard, said he thought that the shooting might have been an accident - a bullet from a stray warning shot. Former inmate James Quillen, who later became friends with Phil, never bought that argument, though.

The ending was ironic. Warden Johnston announced the convicts had been recaptured with the exception of Floyd and James, who had both been killed. Floyd, he said, had no doubt drowned and been swept out to sea. Then four days later, a live but very battered Floyd Hamilton was found hiding in one of the caves on the island's shores. He was taken to the infirmary and eventually returned to his cell.

Two more quasi-escapes followed. On August 7, 1943, Ted Walters was able to get out of the laundry and down to the water before he was captured. Almost two years later, inmate John Giles had managed to piece together an army uniform and snuck into an army detail aboard one of the ferryboats heading for Angel Island. A head count on the boat showed one too many men and a radio call was made back to Alcatraz. The prison launch beat the army boat to the shore and John was nabbed.

Years later, Chief Guard Phil Bergen seemed more amused than otherwise and said he felt that John maybe should have been paroled rather than receive another five years. The escape was clever and no one was harmed or even endangered. Of course, if John had succeeded, you can bet Phil would not have felt so charitable.

1946: The Battle of Alcatraz

Up to the time Clint Eastwood immortalized the 1962 escape of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers, the most famous escape attempt was the 1946 "Battle of Alcatraz". It started on May 2 and lasted for three days. It was also by far the most violent break ever attempted at the island - particularly if you count the action taken by the authorities to stop it.

Masterminded by Bernard Paul Coy, a Kentucky moon runner and bank robber, the escape involved five other convicts: Martin Hubbard, Miran Thompson, Clarence Carnes, Joe Cretzer, and our friend "Crazy Sam" Shockley. Joe and Sam had been involved in the previous attempt in 1941 that was ended peaceably by Officer Madigan. Clarence was a full-blood Choctaw Indian, who at 19 was the youngest inmate ever sent to the island.

Clarence's criminal career began at the tender age of sixteen in Oklahoma when he killed a man during a hold up. He was sentenced to the Granite Reformatory, escaped, stole a car, and made the owner drive him and a friend to Texas. So in short order, Clarence had violated two federal statutes 1) the Dwyer Act and 2) the Lindberg Kidnapping Law. His court appointed lawyer recommended a guilty plea and Clarence, thinking he'd get off relatively lightly, agreed. He was immediately slapped with the maximum. Thinking it unjust that he got 99 years for "driving three blocks", Clarence was now a sullen, immature, dangerous, and self-justifying convict.

Coy was at his job mopping up the C-Block floor when Officer William Miller (not to be confused with Associate Warden E. J. "Jughead" Miller) passed by. Coy grabbed Miller and with the help of Hubbard, bundled him up and threw him into a cell. The convicts figured on getting Miller's keys, releasing all the prisoners into the yard and from there taking over the island. It was to be a massive revolt with every prisoner participating. Whether it could have worked is debatable, and in any case, during the confusion Miller managed to hide the yard key in the cell toilet.

But Coy continued with his plan. Doffing his clothes, and greasing himself up, he scaled the bars up to the gun gallery. With a bar spreader he managed to force the bars apart from their normal five inch separation to more than seven. It was a tight fit and his main concern was whether his rather pronounced ears would let him squeeze through. They did and he managed to wiggle into the gallery.

Once on the walkway, Coy hid behind a door until Officer Dean Burch came through. Coy slammed the door in Burch's face, knocked the him down, and throttled the officer until he passed out. Coy then grabbed the key chain but then found the key to the gun stores wasn't there. So all he could get were Burch's rifle and pistol plus some nightsticks and "gas billies".

Coy scrambled up to the gun gallery.

While Coy was scrambling up the bars, Hubbard had released the other inmates, not too hard since all the doors on a tier could be opened at once. Four of the inmates joined them, Thompson, Cretzer, Carnes, and Shockley and they all went to where Coy was holding hostages.

Students of the Alcatraz breakouts have wonderd why in the world Coy let "Crazy Sam" go along. He was not only universally regarded as insane, but also possesed a tested IQ of 54, was emotionally unstable, and could be excited to the point of irrationality. Unbeknowst to him he had been slated for transfer to the Federal Prisoners Medical Center in Springfield. Without doubt he was the worst person they could have chosen. It is possible that Joe Cretzer, Sam's partner in their 1941 escape attempt, suggested they enlist Sam's help. But it's more likely that when Sam was released from his cell he just attached himself to the group of escaping cons.

It was Coy who had recruited Clarence. With nothing to lose, Clarence was willing to try anything. But as the others later found out, Clarence, despite his faults, had a bit too much of the milk of human kindness for the plan - which was bad for the plan, but (ultimately) good for Clarence.

Gradually the convicts had managed to capture eight other guards and stashed them with Officer Miller. Then Coy unlocked the cells in C, D, and B Blocks and hoped that all the prisoners would all join in.

They were sadly disappointed and none of the other inmates took up the offers. Jim Quillen was enlisted but immediately saw that the plan was cockeyed and went back to his cell. By that time the whole prison knew some of the inmates were on the loose and guards had taken up stations at the doors and by the windows. Peeking in, one of them saw Jim enter his cell and so later could vouch Jim wasn't in on the plan.

Soon Jim heard a volley of shots - not from outside but further down the cell row. What had happened was that Cretzer, frustrated by not having the right keys and egged on by both an arrogant, smug Miran Thompson and a screaming foaming-at-the-mouth Sam Shockley, began firing at the guards tied up in the cell. Joe emptied his pistol, and all but one of the hostages received serious wounds (and one would later die). Those that weren't really unconscious faked it, knowing that was their only hope.

Coy figured that in the heat of anger, Joe's aim probably wasn't at it's best. So he suggested that Clarence go into the cell and "finish the job" with a knife. Clarence walked in, saw the guards were still alive and then told Coy they were all dead. That act of relative kindness later saved Clarence's skin. After the convicts walked away, one of the guards, Ernest Lageson, managed reach up to the wall and scrawl the names of the men he had seen: Coy, Thompson, Shockley, Carnes, Hubbard, and Cretzer.

Without the keys there wasn't much the would-be leaders of the revolt could do. Sam, Clarence, and Miran decided to blend back in with the inmate population. Sam couldn't get to his own cell so he joined the group that was with Jim Quillen. Jim, remembering how Sam was with him nearly the whole time, always doubted that Sam was really involved in the escape. But in later years he also said he could not honestly remember when Sam joined them, whether that was before or after the guards were shot. But from the testimony of others, it was clear that Sam, if not actively firing at the hostages, was there when it happened, and certainly encouraged it.

Throughout the years, Warden Johnston had dealt with escapes before, but nothing like this. Maybe it was because of the time he was attacked by a prisoner in the cafeteria, but now he began to lose his cool. Somehow - despite being told otherwise by his own guards - he was convinced the escaped cons had a machine gun. And he had no idea if there were three or thirty convicts on the loose. So he issued orders to shoot to kill anything that moved. Unfortunately, those orders were not rescinded when three guards were sent in to try and rescue the hostages. Two of them were hit by fire from their own men and one later died.

Not making much progress in finding who or what was involved, Warden Johnston - literally - called in the big guns. An offer from the commander of the local army base - General Joe Stilwell, no less - was gratefully accepted. For the next 30 hours, the cellblocks of Alcatraz were indiscriminately bombarded with explosives, gunfire, and rifle grenades.

Such an approach at riot control would be frowned on today. Warden Johnston would have (and even then probably should have) gotten into a heap of trouble. To capture three convicts armed with a single rifle and a pistol, totally innocent inmates were sprayed with bullets, grenades, and shrapnel as they huddled on the floor for 30 hours, protected only by their mattresses.

It was a miracle that none of them were killed or even seriously wounded. Jim Quillen always remained bitter about the bombardment, which he was sure was done out of pure revenge.

Jim Quillen in his cell

Gradually the guards and army volunteers managed to secure the various sections of the prison. D-Block had received particularly heavy shelling. To protect the prisoners who were stuck on the first tier, the 56 year old Birdman, Robert Stroud, scrambled down the cell fronts and shut the steel doors of the isolation cells. He then climbed back up to his cell.

The real Robert Stroud was a cantankerous and difficult prisoner, quite unlike Burt Lancaster's placid Hollywood rendition. But here Robert showed his mettle. When the opportunity presented itself he called out an offer to the Captain of the Guard, Phil Bergen. If they would stop shooting, Robert said he would give himself up as a hostage. After some skepticism, Phil agreed and the shelling stopped.

By then the only convicts unaccounted for were Coy, Hubbard, and Cretzer. They had taken refuge in a utility corridor in C-Block. The guards bored holes in the corridor's ceiling, lowered grenades on strings, and for good measured, opened the door every few hours and sent in a massive spray of bullets. That, it seems, should do the trick.

It did. On the third day the guards opened the door to the corridor and peeked in. Working their way toward the end of the passageway, they found all three men laid out. They were stone cold dead.

From the surviving hostages, Warden Johnston was finally able to piece together who did what to whom and when. So the guards trooped to the cells holding Sam, Clarence, and Miran. To what extent the three prisoners were manhandled is a bit blurred by conflicting testimony, but even if the men weren't physically abused the guards did speak pretty rough to them. They ordered Clarence out of his cell and threatened to blow his head off if he made a false move. When Miran protested he hadn't done anything, the guards said they'd toss him over the railing if he didn't quit lying. And Sam, after being ordered out of the cell he had shared with Jim Quillen and the others, was told by his escort that he could expect to have two parts of his anatomy dealt with most severely if he tried anything.

Sam, Clarence, and Miran were put on trial for murder. Sam's defense was insanity. Although a psychiatrist testified that at the time of the breakout Sam probably didn't know what he was doing, Sam was found guilty. That he actively urged the killing of nine prison guards may have swayed the jury a wee bit. Miran didn't have much of a defense, but would claim - literally, to his dying day - that he was in his cell the whole time. Clarence said he wasn't part of the actual killings, and that was true enough. But not enough in the eyes of the law to make him innocent.

All three were convicted. Sam and Miran received the death penalty. Clarence had another life sentence tacked onto the one he already had. Clarence's age has been cited as the reason for the leniency, but the way he kept the hostages alive by lying to Coy was probably a more powerful mitigating circumstance. Even the prosecutor acknowedged that Clarence's behavior deserved some consideration, and that's probably what did really the trick.

Sam and Miran were taken to San Quentin. Miran, who had always fancied himself some kind of legal whiz, spent his last night writing legal briefs to the Supreme Court. When the morning came, Miran was nearly hysterical, still whining and sniveling that he was in his cell all the time. He asked the guards if they could hold off the gassing. Of course, they couldn't. And they didn't.

Sam had eaten a huge dinner, slept like a baby, and apparently couldn't have cared less.

Because Clarence got off relatively lightly, most of his fellow cons figured he had squealed on the others. That wasn't true, but for the next fifteen years or so most of the other prisoners on Alcatraz had nothing to do with him. He wasn't too popular with the guards either. Finally in January, 1963, he was transferred to Leavenworth. Clarence was off the Rock at last.

Clarence wasn't too popular with the cons or the guards.

By now Clarence had finally realized the only person he could blame for his ending up in prison was himself. So at Leavenworth he settled down and became a model prisoner. Paroled in 1974, he went to live with his sister in Kansas City.

Clarence, who had been in jail from childhood to middle age, had trouble adjusting. Life on the outside, it seems, wasn't all it was cracked up to be. In 1976 he deliberately violated his parole so he could get back to prison. He was sent back to Leavenworth but the authorities played a dirty trick on him and let him out again after only eighteen months.

Back in the world, Clarence now found himself a minor celebrity, and he was used as a source by a number students of penology although some writers found his tendency to change his stories somewhat frustrating. Finally in 1980 his life was the subject of a Made-For-TV movie that to this day virtually no one can remember seeing. As usual Hollywood had to make it look like Clarence shouldn't have been in prison, so they made one of his partners the actual killer. That wasn't true. It was Clarence who pulled the trigger.

Although Hollywood had paid him $20,000, Clarence blew it all almost immediately on booze and fancy living. When the money was gone, he slipped into an alcoholic existence on skid row in Kansas City. Once in his cups he called up a writer and lamented that if he had still been in prison he would probably be sitting in a warm room, watching television, and eating popcorn. Finally he found he had diabetes.

Clarence needed medical treatment, and there was only one place where he knew he could get it. So in 1987 he stole some money, and so once more violated his parole. He was sent to the Medical Facility for Federal Prisoners at Springfield where he learned he had also contracted AIDS. He could have been released, but he told the prison officials he wanted to die, not in a nursing home, but in prison. In 1988, he did.

Two More Tries

It was more than ten years before another convict would try to escape. In 1956 on July 23rd, Floyd Wilson snuck away from a work crew down by the dock. His intention was to build a raft out of driftwood, and by hiding in among the rocks and along the sea wall, he managed to stay out for 12 hours before he was nabbed.

Two years later, on September 29th, 1958, Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson overpowered a guard while they were on an outside work detail. They bound and gagged him with tape and then they snuck down to the shore.

Johnson never really got away from the island and was caught by the Coast Guard as he hung onto some rocks along the island's shore. But it looked like Aaron might have made it. A manhunt stretched across the nation but he couldn't be found.

Almost two weeks later, a guard in the tower saw something floating in the bay. The launch was dispatched and, sure enough, it was Aaron, now deceased and quite the worse for wear. As usual for convicts who made it to the water, he had drowned, was swept away, but in this case, the tides had pulled him back.

The "Escape from Alcatraz" Escape from Alcatraz

There are at least two movies that try to depict life on Alcatraz more or less accurately. One is "The Birdman of Alcatraz", which although making Robert Stroud less cantankerous than he really was, portrays the day-to-day doings of the island in a more or less realistic manner. Some people think it actually was shot on the island, but it wasn't. At the time the movie was made, Alcatraz was still a working penitentiary, so the "Alcatraz" scenes were shot on a Hollywood sound stage.

The "Escape from Alcatraz" Escape from Alcatraz

But the second movie that tried to portray a real Alcatraz WAS shot on the island. That was Clint Eastwood's "Escape from Alcatraz" and is about the only escape attempt (with the exception of the one by John Giles) where the inmates tried to use their heads.

Clint played Frank Morris, a convict who had been bouncing around prisons since he was a teenager. His conduct had landed him at Alcatraz and there he met two brothers, Clarence and John Anglin. Frank also got acquainted with inmates Tom Kent, Allen West, and an older, at as later events would show, at least a marginally wiser Clarence Carnes. All these men were involved in the original plan.

In the movie, Frank (Clint) hatched, developed, and carried out the plan. But Tom maintained it was really Allen who dreamed it up. Tom withdrew from the plot (with the approval of the others) because he couldn't swim. Similarly, Clarence decided he was getting too old for that type of stuff. Tom later completely rehabilitated himself and won a parole, and he had no real reason to lie about who was the brains behind the scheme. So his story can be taken at face value.

Allen and Frank realized that the problem with all the previous breakouts was there were so many prisoner counts that any escape could be discovered literally in an hour or less. The men were counted not only during the day and at work, but also as they slept (and the prisoners griped about it since the occasional flashlight shining into their cells didn't make for unbroken repose). So Allen figured they needed some way to make it look like they were still in the cell while they were really happily swimming away to freedom.

That part wasn't so hard. With bits of soap and cement dust (there was plenty of both around) the men molded fake heads onto wire or wooden frames. Since the heads were going to be put in their bunks and covered with blankets they didn't have to be too realistic. One of them was only about the top 25 % of a head. The hair was from the barber shop clippings.

To get out of the cells, the men used sharpened spoons to widen the ventilation ducts at the back of the cells which led into the utility corridors. The cement was becoming rotten and could be dug through a little at a time. To hide their work, they fashioned fake cardboard ventilators which they stuck in the holes during the day.

Since the men knew by now you couldn't just jump in the water and swim to Fisherman's Wharf, Allen, Frank, and the Anglin brothers decided to make inflatable rafts and lifejackets from raincoats. They put everything together in the upper unused tier of cells where they were supposed to be cleaning up as part of their jobs. At the start they deliberately brushed cement and dirt onto the cells below and got the prisoners below to "complain". Then they "suggested" a simple solution. They would just stretch blankets over the top cell fronts and everyone would be happy - especially them since no one could see them make the rafts.

It seems incredible that they got away with it. But they did.

On the night of their escape the men pulled the cardboard covers off the ventilators and squeezed out of their cells and into the utility corridor. That is all except Allen. He never showed up and Frank and the Anglins got their rafts, life vests, and scrambled through the vents up to the roof. Then they climbed down the wall and made it to the bay. And that was the last anyone ever saw of Frank or Clarence or John.

The escape wasn't discovered until the next morning when the guards reported three men wouldn't get out of their beds. A quick check showed that wasn't true. In fact, the men had gotten out of their beds already.

The men had gotten out of their beds already

What happened to Allen? He was still in his cell and when they found his fake head, he couldn't deny his part in the plan. He said the hole was too small for him to fit through and that he had to work another hour before the hole was big enough. He was (so he said) ticked off when he found the others had left without him. But there was nothing he could do so he just returned to his cell and would accept whatever punishment was meted out.

Neither Clarence or Tom (both of whose participation wasn't known for years) believed him. Nor did any of the guards. They all thought he just chickened out.

Did they make it? Pure probability says no. The water temperature was 54 degrees and the tide was 8 miles per hour - exactly as it was a quarter of a century before when Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe made it to the Bay.

But they did have vests and rafts, didn't they? And if you see the movie, you know the Warden made a trip to Angel Island to the north and found a fresh flower of a type that was found only on Alcatraz. Someone must have dropped it. And it could have been only one of three people.

Unfortunately, again the facts get in the way with this picture. Bits of the life rafts were found in the bay in the next couple of days. Experts who looked at them said the makeshift equipment wouldn't have lasted very long and would have rapidly lost air. If the rafts sank and the men went in the water, they would have almost certainly drowned. With the tide the way it was, the odds the men - with the majority of the raft and life vests - would be swept out to sea.

More telling evidence was soon found. A plastic bag with letters from Clarence's family and addresses was discovered floating in the bay. Again it's unlikely it would have been abandoned if he had gone to the trouble to take it with him. Then a month later sailors on a freighter spied a body floating in the sea outside the Bay. It was horribly decomposed so the captain of the ship just reported it to the authorities. Although the pants were described as "dirty white" it is possible it was the blue denim of the prison uniforms that had been bleached by the water and the sun.

But what about the flower? Some people think this would prove the men did make it. But again this is the problem with movies - scriptwriters can make up whatever they want. This little episode was pure Hollywood bullshine.

Despite the odds against them, Tom Kent, to his dying day, believed his friends got away, and even a few serious researchers will admit the men "might" have made it. But the odds were against it, and the evidence - at least what there is of it - really says they didn't.

One Last Try

By this time, it was clear that Alcatraz's days were numbered. The cement was crumbling and America's spiraling crime rate was creating thousands of "incorrigibles" each year. It was kind of ridiculous to have a "super-prison" designed to hold only 300 men. A new and larger maximum-security prison was going to be built in Marion, Illinois, and there wasn't much point in keeping Alcatraz open. Everyone agreed except J. Edgar Hoover. But by then Bobby Kennedy was in charge, and he didn't like Edgar anyway.

John finally proved it could be done.

So Alcatraz was slated to be closed. But the men still wanted to get away.

On December 16, 1962, one last try was made by two bank robbers, John Paul Scott and Darl Parker (Darl was really his name, not a misprint). Both men managed to saw their way through a window and sneak out of a kitchen work detail and get into the water. It was winter, it was cold, and the water was rough. Even though they had made water wings from inflatable gloves, Darl only made it about 100 yards and was found on the small crop of rock called "Little Alcatraz", hanging on for dear life.

But John got away and finally proved even an out of condition con could manage the distance. But just barely. Early the next day some teenagers saw "a body" at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. They called the police who found what at first looked like a dead John Paul Scott beached on the rocks beneath the bridge. Closer inspection showed John was battered, bruised, but still alive - although not by much. He was rushed to the hospital. In a day he was back at Alcatraz.

After the prison closed, John and Darl were both transferred to Marion. John tried to break out from there but couldn't manage it. He and Darl were both later paroled despite their 30 to 50 year sentences and less than exemplary behavior while on the Rock.

But John never reformed, and he landed back in a federal prison in Florida a few years later. And there he stayed.

Later a professor who was studying the history of Alcatraz went to interview John about his escape. He showed John photographs of the shore below the Golden Gate. A few feet more and John could have crawled up onto a smooth, sand-covered beach and might have gotten away.

"Oh, my God!" was all John could say. Over and over.

He died in the late 1980's, still in jail.

From Prison to Park

By 1963 no one really wanted Alcatraz anymore. San Francisco never cared for it in the first place, and since the cost per inmate was about three times that of other prisons, the Bureau of Prisons didn't think so much of it either. Besides, after the Morris and Anglin escape it had become clear the whole prison would have to be overhauled. A study showed the cost would be in the millions. So Bobby Kennedy, then Attorney General, ordered Alcatraz closed.

The prisoners were removed in stages and sent to other institutions. The last group left on March 21, 1963.

After that Alcatraz languished into disrepair. Some local financiers thought about buying it and turning it into a tourist trap. The city ultmately said no and Alcatraz continued to decay.

In 1969, members of the American Indian Movement took over the island, offering to buy it for $24 worth of beads. Seriously, they wanted the island for a Native American University. Negotiations never got anywhere, but there didn't seem to be much reason to try any strong arm stuff - certainly not to get some people off an island no one else seemed to know what to do with. The government just decided to wait it out and eventually a number of Indians settled in, including familes with children.

In 1970 the thirteen year old stepdaughter of the Indian leader was killed in a fall from one of the stairwells. He left the island. No one was in charge now, and soon most people outside of San Francisco had forgotten anything about the takeover. When the island was cleared by US Marshals in 1971 there were only fifteen people there, four of them children. Once more the sea gulls took over.

A year later what should have been done in the first place was done. Alcatraz was taken over by the National Park Service and made part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Today it's one of America's most visited National Parks, perhaps proving Oscar Wilde's maxim that "Americans take their heros from the criminal class."

The "New Alcatraz"

But what about the old prisoners? Just because Alcatraz closed didn't mean they got to go home. Most still had long sentences to serve.

The really tough guys got shipped to Marion, Illinois. Like Alcatraz, Marion has been decried as a repressive and inhumane institution unsuited for modern civilization. Some reformers claim it is really a place to get rid of the prison dissenters and jailhouse lawyers who fight for prisoners' rights. They haven't had much luck with their arguments, and in 1983 Marion went into permanent lockdown, just like the good old days on Alcatraz.

The really tough guys got shipped to Marion

It's pretty much indisputable that being in prison isn't much fun. But as usual reformers aren't really helped by the fact that the most appealing "exposes" of the harsh prison systems still seem to be motion pictures heavily laced with fiction. The movie "The Birdman of Alcatraz" may have prompted petitions to free Robert Stroud, but when he was asked by a prison official why he wanted a parole, Robert simply replied he had a list of people to kill. So although Burt Lancaster may have deserved a parole, Robert Stroud never really did.

"Maximum correctional facilities" are still opposed by the prisoners and their advocates, but so far lawsuits have simply reaffirmed the right of the government to have such institutions. More and more such facilities have cropped up, and some are even privately run with a high degree of professionalism. So times change, the pendulum always swings back, and today even "liberal" politicians can't get elected with today's get-tough-on-crime and zero-tolerance policy. So it's a pretty sure bet that these latter-day Alcatrazes are here to stay.

Bibliography and References

"Alcatraz '46: Anatomy of a Classic Prison Tragedy", Don DeNevi and Philip Bergen, LesWing Press, San Rafel, CA, 1974, Well written and interesting book derived from records and interviews of guards and inmates (Philip Bergen was the Chief of the Guards at the time and was later made associate warden). Not exactly a scholarly work as it is filled with direct quotes, making it appear that all convicts had stenographers assigned to record every word even when they were sitting in solitary confinement, escaping, or murdering guards.

"Alcatraz Inside, The Hard Years, 1942-1952", Jim Quillen, Golden Gate National Parks Association, 1992. Not a famous, "high-profiler", but after his conviction for kidnapping, Jim was an ornery prisoner and ended up on Alcatraz from 1942 - 1952. Although given the opportunity to participate in the 1946 escape attempt, Jim saw what was up and went back to his cell. Later, he calmed down and became a model prisoner - but it was in spite of Alcatraz, he felt, not because of it. In his last years on the island, he was trained to operate the X-ray at the infirmary. He was later paroled and was hired as X-ray technician in a California hospital. After Jim retired he became one of the most articulate sources of information for researchers of Alcatraz. He died in 1998.

"Birdman: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud", Jolene Babyak Ariel Books, Berkeley, California, 1994. To the authorities, Robert Stroud was a homicidal sociopath who was so dangerous that for the safety of the other prisoners and guards, he had to be kept isolated from the inmate population even on Alcatraz. Naturally they were extremely irritated when Burt Lancaster made him into a persecuted gentle genius. At least some of Robert's friends, though, (and he did have friends) remembered him as an intelligent and witty man whose treatment caused him to lose his mental stability. This books shows that both views are not incompatible.

"Alcatraz Screw: My Years As a Guard in America's Most Notorious Prison", George Gregory, University of Missouri Press, 2002. Objective and balanced but no punches are pulled. George was of the firm, but fair school of correctional officers, who did what he had to do to handle America's most dangerous convicts. He doesn't shy away from talking about the rougher aspects of handling the men, but George went out of his way to help the inmates who needed it. Unlike many other authors on Alcatraz, he discusses the racial divisions that arose after World War II, and his book is the only one that deals in detail with the drug problems among the inmates. Above all he shows how a good guard had to use his head, whether it was breaking up a yard fight, handdling starry eyed prison reformers, or dealing with idiotic administrators more interested in bucking for promotion than doing their jobs. And it was George who had to deal with the inmate who was stealing Mrs. Swope's underwear.

"Breaking the Rock: The Great Escape from Alcatraz", Jolene Babyak. Ariel Vamp Press, 2001. Discusses the 1962 escape in detail. Two survivors of the break out plan, Clarence Carnes and Tom Kent were major sources. Like George Gregory's book, this books shows how racial tensions affected the inmate's life in the later years, even when planning escapes.

"Battle at Alcatraz: A Desparate Attempt to Escape the Rock," Ernest B. Lageson, Addicus Books, 1999. Story of the 1946 blastout attempt by the son of one of the hostages.

"Alcatraz Justice : The Rock's Most Famous Murder Trial", Ernest B. Lageson Creative Arts Book Company, 2002. Follow-up of "Battle at Alcatraz" by the same author. Told in a popular fashion, much of the non-transcript dialog is reconstructed. But still a very good account of the trial of Miran Thompson, Sam Shockley, and Clarence Carnes penned by a knowledgeable attorney. Whether innocent or guilty, the book indicates the three men did not get what would be called a fair an impartial trial as the judge was out gunning for them. It seems virtually everyone - prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the judge were surprised when Sam wasn't ruled insane.

"Escapes from Alcatraz: The True Stories", Michael Hoff's Productions, Inc., A La Carte Communications (Beatnik Home Entertainment, 2000). Video covers all escapes with interviews of inmates, guards, researchers, and one open water swimmer. It doesn't answer the question "Did they escape in '62?" although Tom Kent says he thinks they did.

"From Alcatraz to the White House", Nathan Glenn Williams, Willjoy Publishing, Seattle, Washington, 1994 Glenn Williams received a presidential pardon, as did Jim Quillen, which is unusual for Alcatraz inmates. It is particularly amazing to see Glenn in an interview as it's impossible to believe that this soft-spoken and thoughtful gentleman was considered one of the most dangerous criminals in America.

"Secrets of the Rock: Return to Alcatraz", A La Carte Communications, Acorn Publishing Company, 1994, 1995. Video with interviews of former inmates and guards. The answer to "Did Alcatraz work?" seems to depend on whether you were a guard or an inmate. 

"Alcatraz - The Whole Shocking Story" - Based on the life of Clarence Carnes, it gives the basic story, but as usual, rigid adherence to the facts gets in the way of what Hollywood thinks would make a good movie.

A lot of serious information about Alcatraz can be found on the web, although sadly the number of updated and maintained sites seems to be dropping fast. 

Excellent primary sources for a hundred years of Alcatraz escapes (1862 to 1962) have been placed in the public domain by Ron Filion and can be found at along with information of what the Bureau of Prisons says about the later lives of some of the would be escapees

A site dedicated to the Warden Johnston years is at It is evidently no longer being maintained as a number of links don't function and the rest are dwindlng fast. The last update was quite a number of years ago.

The official word about Alcatraz from the Bureau of Prisons can be found at  The article "Henry Young and 'Murder in the First'" is posted here with the intent to rebut the fiction in the movie. See the movie; then read the records, and you can make up your own mind.