Why Prisoners Preferred Alcatraz

Why Prisoners Preferred Alcatraz

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Daily Activity Schedule

06:30 AM: Morning whistle. Prisoners arise, make beds, place all articles in prescribed order on shelf, clean wash basin and toilet bowl, wipe off bars, sweep cell floor, fold table and seat against the wall, wash themselves and dress.

06:45 AM: Detail guards assigned for mess hall duty they take their positions so as to watch the prisoners coming out of the cells and prepare to march into the mess hall with them. The guards supervise the serving and the seating of their details give the signal to start eating, and the signal to rise after eating.

06:50 AM: Second morning whistle the prisoners stand by the door facing out and remain there until the whistle signal, during which time the lieutenants and the cell house guards of both shifts make the count. When the count is found to be correct, the lieutenant orders the cells unlocked.

06:55 AM: Whistle signal given by Deputy Warden or Lieutenant all inmates step out of their cells and stand facing the mess hall. Upon the second whistle, all inmates on each tier close up in a single file upon the head man.

07:00 AM: Third whistle signal lower right tier of block three (C-Block), and lower left ear of block two (B-Block), move forward into the mess hall, each line is followed in turn by the second and third tiers, then by the lower tier on the opposite side of their block, followed by the second third tiers from the same side. The block three line moves into the mess hall, keeping to the left of the center of the mess block two goes forward at the same time, keeping to the right. Both lines proceed to the serving table the right line served from the right and occupies the tables on the right the left line to the left, etc. As each man is served, he will sit direct with his hands at his sides until the whistle is given for the first detail to begin eating. Twenty minutes allowed for eating. When they are finished eating, the prisoners placed their knives, forks, and spoons on their trays the knife at the left, the fork in the center, and the spoon on the right side of the tray. They then sit with their hands down at their sides. After all of the men have finished eating, a guard walks to each table to see that all utensils are in their proper place. He then returns to his assigned position.

07:20 AM: Upon signal from the Deputy Warden, the first detail in each line stands and proceeds to the rear entrance door of the cell house to the recreation yard. Inside detail, or those not assigned any detail, proceed to their work or cells.

07:25 AM: Guards and their details move out in the following order through the gates:

  1. ) Laundry
  2. ) Tailor Shop
  3. ) Cobblers Shop
  4. ) Model Shop
  5. ) All other shops
  6. ) Gardening, and labor details

The guards go ahead through the rear gates and stand opposite the rear gate guard. There they count prisoners passing through the gate in single file and clear the count with the rear gate guard. The detail stops at the front of the steps on the lower level road. The guard faces them to the right and proceeds to the shops, keeping himself in the rear of his detail. Upon arrival in the front of the shops, the detail holds and faces the shop entrance.

07:30 AM: Shop foreman counts his detail as the line enters the shop and immediately phones the count to the lieutenant of the watch. He also signs the count slip and turns it over to lieutenant making his first round.

07:30 AM: Rear gate guard drafts detailed count slip, phones it to the lieutenant of the watch, signs it, and proceeds with it to the lieutenant’s office.

09:30 AM: Rest period during which the men are allowed to smoke in places permitted, but are not allowed to crowd together.

09:38 AM: Foreman or the guard gives whistle signal all of the men on each floor of shops assemble at a given point and are counted, and return immediately to work. This assembly is quickly done, the count is written on a slip of paper, signed by the foreman or guard, and then turned over to the lieutenant making his next round.

11:30 AM: Prisoners stop work and assemble in front of the shops. The count is taken by the foreman or the guard. The foreman phones in the count and signs the count slip, turning it over to the guard, who proceeds with the detail to the rear gate and checks his detail in with the rear gate guard.

11:35 AM: In the recreation yard, the mess hall line is immediately formed in the same order as in the morning. The details proceed in the same lines to the mess hall.

11:40 AM: Dinner routine is the same as for breakfast, except at the completion of dinner, when the details immediately proceed to cells.

12:00 PM: Noon lock-up cell count the detail guards remain in front of cells until the prisoners are locked up in the count made.

12:20 PM: Unlock and proceed the same as before going to breakfast. Except that the prisoners marched in a single file into the yard, number three (C) cellblock first. Shop details again form in front of their guards.

12:25 PM: Details are checked out of the rear gate the same as in the morning.

12:30 PM: Details enter the shops and are counted by the foreman and the guard. Procedures are the same as 07:30 AM.

02:30 PM: Rest period the procedure and count are the same as in the morning.

04:15 PM: Work stopped the procedure and count are the same as 11:30 AM.

04:20 PM: Prisoners into the gate, with count.

04:25 PM: Prisoners marched into the mess hall, with count.

04:45 PM: Prisoners returned to their cells.

05:00 PM: Standing count in the cells by both shifts of the lieutenants and the cell house guards.

08:00 PM: Count in the cells.

12:01 AM: count by lieutenants and the cell house men of both shifts.

03:00 AM: count in the cells.

05:00 AM: count in the cells.

A total of 13 official counts are made each 24 hours. In addition, shop foreman make six verification counts. Sunday and holiday routines require their own schedules, with time reserved for haircuts, showers, clothing changes, and recreation. As for shaving, the prisoners were required to remove their whiskers three times a week.

** See Alcatraz Rules & Regulations for inmate recreation schedules.

The clutch operated locking device that could be configured by officers to open groups or individual cells.

An officer prepares tables in the Alcatraz Mess Hall.

A typical cell at Alcatraz in March 1956. This is the cell of one of several prisoners permitted to pursue oil painting.

The Haunting of Alcatraz

Located in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Federal Prison was in operation from 1934 to 1963 and was said to be America’s strongest prison. Alcatraz is also said to be one of the most haunted places in the United States.

Morbidology Podcast

Morbidology is a weekly true crime podcast created and hosted by Emily G. Thompson. Using investigative research combined with primary audio, Morbidology takes an in-depth look at true crime cases from all across the world.

Alcatraz Island, or The Rock, was home to a maximum-security federal prison known as the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Located in San Francisco Bay, the prison was in operation from 1934 to 1963 and was said to be America’s strongest prison. Alcatraz is also said to be one of the most haunted places in the United States.

In the 1850s, the military built a fortress on the rock and this was the work place of labourers that didn’t make it into the gold mines. Many lives were lost during the building phase. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Alcatraz Island was used to house tribal leaders of Arizona and Alaska. Eventually, Alcatraz Island became a prison. At first, it was a military prison, but in 1934, it became a federal prison – Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. It was said that Alcatraz was impossible to escape from. Those who attempted to escape were either shot dead, died while attempting to cross the cold and strong current, or were forced to surrender or be killed. 1 Over the years, a total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts 23 were recaptured, six were shot dead, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.” The most notable escape attempts were the May 1946 attempt, which became known as the Battle of Alcatraz, and the June 1962 attempt. During the Battle of Alcatraz, two correctional officers and three prisoners were killed. Two of the surviving prisoners involved in the escape attempt were later executed for their involvement. In the June 1962 escape, three prisoners escaped out of their cells. While they – or their bodies – were never found, the FBI ascertains that they drowned in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay when they attempted to flee the island.

Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners that caused trouble at other prisons, including some of America’s most heinous and ruthless criminals. It was a “last resort prison” to hold those who had no chance of rehabilitation. It was home for the worst of the worst and over the years, 1,576 murderers, mobsters, and everything in between called Alcatraz home. 2 Arguably, the most infamous inmate was Al Capone who served four years. Some other notable prisoners included Doc Barker, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, and Floyd Hamilton. Time served was especially hard because San Francisco’s cityscape reminded them of the freedom they had lost. George DeVincenzi, a guard at Alcatraz from 1950 to 1957, said the proximity to the bright lights and life of San Francisco drove the prisoners insane. “Yachts circled the island, and men on the third tier of C and B blocks could see girls in bikinis drinking cocktails,” he said. “It was so near, and yet so far…” One can only imagine the frustration an inmate felt while gazing at the city skyline or sunset over the fabled Golden State Bridge. The prison closed in March of 1963 due to high operational costs and budged costs. Furthermore, it had developed a bad reputation over the years. “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody,” said the Gregory Johnson, the night watchman.

Today, Alcatraz has become one of the biggest tourist destinations in the United States tourists now flock to the very site that prisoners pined to flee. Each and every year, around 1.4 million tourists take the ferry from Pier 41 at Fisherman’s Wharf over to Alcatraz Island to tour one of the world’s most feared prisons. Some visit to learn about the history of the prison and its occupants while others visit in the hopes that they will catch a glimpse of something mysterious. With such a violent and tragic history, it’s easy to see why Alcatraz is said to be reportedly haunted.

The most haunted spots in Alcatraz are said to be the Warden’s House, the hospital, the laundry room, and cell block C, where several prisoners died during the 1946 attempt. According to paranormal investigators, prisoners, and guards alike, cell block D which was solitary confinement – is the spot with the most paranormal activity. It’s said that the air in Cell block D is substantially colder than the rest of the prison. Once the windowless door was slammed shut in these cells, the inmate was enveloped in complete darkness and silence. A former prison guard said that when a prisoner was sent to cell block D, they screamed uncontrollably as soon as the door slammed behind them and all they could see was pitch black. Many prisoners claimed that they weren’t alone in these cells and that they often saw glowing eyes inside the cell with them. There was one certain prisoner that complained about seeing glowing eyes and screamed throughout the night. In the morning, he was found dead with strangle marks around his neck. John Banner, who was imprisoned in Alcatraz for four years, recalls the squeal of the wind at night, even to this very day. “Laying awake, listening to that wind, trying to hold on to what sanity I had left, I always thought of the brutality of that prison…” he reminisced.

Solitary confinement cells in Alcatraz.

Prison guards initially laughed at the claims of ghosts. However, some started to experience paranormal activity themselves they heard bizarre sounds and felt unseen fingers touching them. The first warden even said that while conducting a tour, he heard a woman crying but when he looked to the source of the crying, there was no woman there. Erik Novencido worked as a night watchman for 10 years after Alcatraz closed its doors. One night, he said he took a picture inside the electroshock therapy room to show his friends who were curious about his job. When he developed the film, the photograph showed a face in the room staring right back at him. “Sometimes I was just overwhelmed by fear,” he said. Gregory Johnson, another night watchman of Alcatraz, said “I couldn’t imagine being out here at night without my gun.” 3 While working at Alcatraz during the night is particularly eerie, during the day can be just as terrifying. Veteran park ranger, Craig Glassner, said he had been afraid during the day while at Alcatraz: “Once on an isolated spot, I heard ‘whooooo, whoooooo,’ like someone blowing on a big Coke bottle,” he said. “I thought, ‘Do I run?’ Then I saw it was the wind blowing across the stanchions of a fence. It really freaked me out.” Mary McClure, who spent 12 years working the nightshift at Alcatraz, said: “Many times, at night in the cell house, I had the distinct sensation of being pinched on the butt.”

Prisoners and guards aren’t the only ones to have experienced something unexplainable. Visitors have claimed to hear mysterious clanging sounds, crying and screaming throughout their tours of the prison. In 2014, British tourist Sheila Sillery-Walsh claimed she captured a photograph of a spirit while visiting Alcatraz. As she glanced into one of the visitation waiting rooms, she snapped a photograph. The photograph depicts a ghostly figure staring through the glass window on the door. “When I glanced at the photo on my mobile, I saw this dark female figure in the picture. I looked at the window again and there was no one in the room,” Sillery-Walsh told the Daily Mail. “From that point onwards, I wasn’t interested in the Alcatraz tour anymore. I just kept looking at the picture over and over again.” Another tourist of visited Alcatraz in the 90’s was adamant that they saw the ghost of Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. “When Debra and I got to the Birdman’s cell, we heard canaries singing,” said Walter Zaheely. “And then we saw an old man sitting on the bed, reading a book.” 4

Arguably, the most infamous ghost of Alcatraz is that of Al Capone… While his body lies in a modest grave in Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois, his spirit stills lurks within the walls of Alcatraz. During his confinement at Alcatraz, Al Capone was in the advanced stages of syphilis he would often claim he was haunted by the ghosts of his victims and would babble and cry in his cell. 5 Al Capone found comfort in his banjo and would sit on his bed playing for hours. As syphilis slowly ate away at his brain and he became more and more irrational, the prison guards would frequently hear him begging for mercy from the ghost of James Clark, one of the S. Valentine Day Massacre’s victims. He spent the last stretch of his prison sentence in Alcatraz’s infirmary. Following his release, fellow mobster, Jake Guzik said he was “nuttier than a fruitcake.” In 1969, a park ranger told a paranormal investigator that eerie banjo music can sometimes be heard emanating from Al Capone’s old cell and the shower room where he used to practice.

Whether or not you believe the paranormal tales from Alcatraz, there’s no denying that the island has a fascinating history. Alcatraz even offers night tours for those who are feeling extra adventurous. Haunted? Maybe… Dark and creepy? Most definitely. If you visit and experience something unexplainable, make sure to let us know!

Georgia Nephew Of Alcatraz Escapees Keeps Their Story Alive

LEESBURG, Ga. (CW69 News at 10/CNN/Albany Herald) — Every family has a “history,” and Widner had been hearing about the legacy of his uncles — John and Clarence Anglin — since he was old enough to understand what the grown-ups were talking about. Even at 11 years old, he proclaimed that he was going to tell the “real story” about his uncles’ escape from Alcatraz Prison.

Plus, there were all those FBI agents who were always around.

“I think that’s what convinced me more than anything to tell my uncles’ story,” Widner said as he marked the recent June 11 anniversary of John and Clarence Anglin’s and fellow inmate Frank Morris’ escape from the prison that had been proclaimed inescapable. “Everywhere we went when we were young, there were FBI agents around. They came to our house, they followed us, they listened in on all of our phone calls.”

It is the story upon which the movie “Escape From Alcatraz,” starring Clint Eastwood is based.

Widner, his mother Marie and his brother Ken took on the chore of archiving the Anglin brothers’ history over the ensuing years, and it was those efforts that convinced Ken and David to participate in two very recent and landmark projects that tell the story of a daring escape that captured the imagination of the country, made the Anglin brothers and Morris folk heroes, and has confounded the upper echelon of law enforcement now for 58 years.

David and Ken, who’d contributed to several documentaries on their uncles’ escape, were integral to the making of the startling — and extremely well-made — History Channel documentary “Alcatraz: The Search for the Truth,” and David Widner teamed with renowned author Michael Esslinger to pen “Escaping Alcatraz: The Untold Story of the Greatest Prison Break in American History.”

“There had been so much written about the escape, but one of the things that really stuck out to me was how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI tried to convince everyone that while my uncles and Frank Morris had been able to get out of prison at Alcatraz, they actually did not ever make it to the mainland,” Widner said. “The FBI was embarrassed that they hadn’t been able to find (the escapees), so they tried to convince everyone that the three of them died in the waters surrounding Alcatraz.

“We, of course, collected evidence that said otherwise, and I think over the years we’ve pretty much convinced everyone that what the FBI said was not true.”

As early as the 1860s, Alcatraz was utilized as a facility of incarceration, housing insolent soldiers who cheered the death of President Lincoln in post-Civil War America. By the end of the century, the island continued to serve what officials saw as its rightful purpose: a place to lock men away.

A disciplinary barracks was built on the 22-acre island located in the San Francisco Bay in 1912, and by the 1920s, the three-story structure was at full capacity. With its location 1.25 miles from San Francisco and the California mainland, Alcatraz — known as The Rock — seemingly earned its reputation as escape-proof. The structure was officially opened as a federal penitentiary in 1934, and it housed some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, men like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, Mickey Cohen, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, and the famed “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud, who were confined to The Rock to pay for their crimes.

Each prisoner was told the same thing when he came to Alcatraz: There’s no escaping.

“We got letters from some of the prisoners, men like Whitey Bulger, and they told us that when you got to Alcatraz, you were told that sharks patrolled the waters around the island,” Widner said. “There are some sharks in those waters — a few great whites have been seen there — but most were bottom-feeders. It was just another scare tactic to keep the prisoners from thinking about escape.”

One man — Joseph Bowers — did try to make a break in 1935, but all evidence indicates he was a suicidal inmate (he’d tried to kill himself once in the prison) who was shot before he even reached the water around the island. He became little more than a footnote in the prison’s history. Two others, Ted Cole and Ralph Roe, made it into the water on a foggy night, and while there were stories of the pair later showing up in South America, most witnesses say the prisoners perished in the waters around the island.

What they did do, though, was place doubt about the invulnerability of The Rock.

John and Clarence Anglin were part of a family of 14 children who grew up poor in the tiny Donalsonville and Colquitt communities in south Georgia before later moving to central Florida’s Ruskin. They and their older brother Alfred, who would play a key role in the brothers’ escape story, tired of school and started what would become a life of petty crime. Interestingly, the Anglin boys over the years developed a keen ability to break out of whatever institution imprisoned them.

At around 10 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1958, the trio, using a toy gun, robbed the Bank of Columbia in Alabama, getting away with around $18,000. But five days later they were arrested in Ohio. The three pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a federal prison in Atlanta, but since the state of Alabama carried a possible death sentence for bank robbery, the Anglins were moved there and tried again for their crime.

John Anglin was imprisoned at the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., while Clarence was shipped to the United States Prison in Leavenworth, Kan. After discovery of a planned escape attempt, John Anglin was moved to Leavenworth, where he was reunited with Clarence. When the pair had an escape attempt foiled, the brothers were moved to Alcatraz. They arrived at The Rock on Jan. 18, 1960.

“My uncles were not bad guys they were just desperate,” Widner said. “Even when they robbed the bank, they used a toy gun, and when one of the bank officials fainted, they made sure he had water and was OK before leaving. But because no prison had ever been able to hold them, they were moved to Alcatraz.”

When the Anglin brothers were moved to Alcatraz, the warden at Leavenworth offered some advice to his counterpart on the notorious island: Keep the Anglin brothers separate. But Alcatraz Warden Olin Blackwell ignored the suggestion and put the Anglins in adjoining cells. Over the course of their time on the island, they met fellow inmates Frank Morris, who had a genius-level IQ, Allen Clayton West, Cohen, Thomas Kent, Clarence Carnes, Woodrow Wilson Gainey, Johnson and Red Winhoven. Most who investigated the famed prison break say each of these men played a role in planning and helping the Anglins and Morris carry out their escape plan.

The Anglins and Morris, who used sewing skills they’d picked up at the prison to make personal flotation devices and a life raft out of stolen raincoats, managed to dig around vents in their cells using spoons, reminiscent of the Tim Robbins escape in the highly regarded “Shawshank Redemption” movie. They also procured paints that they’d used in impressive paintings of John Anglin’s girlfriend and her sister that helped them create lifelike dummy heads out of bar soap that they placed on their beds to fool guards. The dummies also had real hair that the Anglins had secretly removed from the prison barbershop.

Also utilized in the escape was a concertina, an accordion-like instrument whose bellows was used to inflate their flotation gear.

Once they crawled through the narrow holes they’d dug in their cells, the Anglins and Morris made their way to the roof of the prison and shinnied down a drain pipe to reach the prison grounds. They managed to secure their self-made flotation devices to one of the boats that brought guards to and from the island, in essence hitching a ride out into the open waters. From there, the story takes on an air of mystery, but a policeman on the mainland reported seeing a small boat suspiciously afloat in the harbor on the night of the escape. Some have suggested that Cohen had the boat left there for the escapees, and Johnson has claimed he was responsible.

In any case, after a massive manhunt that went on for months and involved prison officials, area law enforcement agencies and the FBI, the Anglins and Morris became folk heroes, inspiring everything from “sightings” all over the country to a song — “A Mile and a Quarter” … the distance to the mainland — by country artist Sonny James. Guards at the prison were punished, security was increased and Alcatraz’s inmate population was emboldened.

With closure of the prison then imminent, two more prisoners — John Paul Scott and Darl Dee Parker — using tactics similar to those of the Anglins and Morris, actually escaped from Alcatraz only six months after the trio’s daring getaway, and made it to the mainland alive. However, they were captured and returned to the prison.


One of the more chilling aspects of the History Channel documentary about the escape from Alcatraz was the side story of Alfred Anglin. Serving his time in an Alabama prison, and by all accounts a model prisoner, Alfred died days before he was eligible for parole when, Alabama prison officials said, he was electrocuted while trying to escape.

“There had been a family meeting with Uncle Alfred only a few days before on a picnic table on the prison grounds,” Widner said. “We are now convinced that ‘private’ conversation was bugged. Alfred talked about John and Clarence and said he knew where they were. We always believed Uncle Alfred was beaten to death by prison officials who were trying to find the brothers’ location.”

In “Alcatraz: Search for the Truth,” U.S. Marshals officials agreed to exhume Alfred Anglin’s body to try and determine if he was indeed beaten to death. In exchange, David and Ken Widner agreed to supply DNA samples to prove (or disprove) bones that had washed up in San Francisco Bay were those of John and/or Clarence Anglin, as the FBI had suggested.

The grisly exhumation of Alfred Anglin, whose body was in “pristine condition” after years of burial, did not show evidence of the kind of physical abuse that the family had thought likely, but the DNA samples offered by the Widners proved definitively that the bones that were discovered were not those of either of the escaped Anglin brothers.

“We still feel there was something done to Uncle Alfred,” Widner said. “The coroner in Tampa said his death was not caused by electrocution.”

Much of the evidence of the Anglin brothers’ post-escape life revealed in the documentary came from a conversation with long-time family friend Fred Brizzi, a known drug smuggler. He indicated that the brothers were indeed alive and in Brazil. He gave the Anglin family photos, one of which was exhaustively pored over by a facial recognition expert who deemed the photo was indeed of the Anglin brothers.

“We know the brothers escaped and lived in South America,” Widner said. “I know of times that they came to America to visit the family. There’s no doubt in my mind they escaped from prison and lived out their lives.”

Widner, meanwhile, said he has other possible projects about the Great Escape in the works. One area he said he’d like to pursue is investigating his uncles’ lives in South America to see if they had families and if there are surviving relatives.

“There is a great deal of interest in my uncles’ escape, and we are going to explore it further,” David Widner, who lives in Leesburg, said. “Their story is amazing, and I hear from people all over the world who are still fascinated by it all these years later.

“It’s become part of my life’s work to document and tell the true story of what happened at Alcatraz. It’s part of me, part of who I am. I’ll never let it go until the entire story is told.”

©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN and the Albany Herald contributed to the story.

Fortress Alcatraz

Fortress Alcatraz
Alcatraz's notoriety as a penitentiary overshadows its earlier, and longer, use by the Army. Surprisingly, this small island once was the most powerful fort west of the Mississippi River.

San Francisco Bay is the largest natural harbor on America's West Coast. The gold rush of 1849 turned San Francisco from a sleepy village of 300 people into a booming city - and a tempting prize for possible foreign invaders. The Army's first plans were for forts on each side of the Golden Gate, with Alcatraz as a secondary defense. However Alcatraz became a primary fort almost immediately, when there were major obstacles to building a fort on the north side of the Golden Gate.

San Francisco's first defenses, eleven cannons, were mounted on Alcatraz in 1854. By the early 1860's Alcatraz had 111 cannons. Some were enormous, firing a fifteen-inch ball weighing 450 pounds. Defenses included a row of brick enclosed gun positions called casemates to protect the dock a fortified gateway or Sally Port to block the entrance road and a three-story citadel on top of the island. This served both as an armed barracks and as a last line of defense.

Ironically, while built to guard against a foreign invasion, Alcatraz's most important period militarily was during the Civil War, 1861-1865. Since it was the only completed fort in the bay, it was vital in protecting San Francisco from Confederate raiders. Early in the war ten thousand rifles were moved to Alcatraz from a nearby armory to prevent their being used by southern sympathizers, The crew of a Confederate privateer were among the island's first prisoners.

There was some limited modernization of the island's defenses after the Civil War. Rifled cannons were mounted. In 1854 some 450 electrically controlled underwater mines were brought to the island to protect the Bay. However, as the ships of potential enemies became more and more powerful, the defenses were increasingly obsolete. In 1907 Alcatraz officially ceased being a fortress and became Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison.

Military Prison
Alcatraz Island's use as a prison began in December 1859 with the arrival of the first permanent garrison. Eleven of these soldiers were confined in the Sally Port basement. The Army recognized that the cold water (53 F) and swift currents surrounding Alcatraz made it an ideal site for a prison, and in 1861 the post was designated as the military prison for the Department of the Pacific - most of the territory west of the Rocky Mountains.

The prison population grew during the Civil War with the addition of prisoners from other army posts, the crew of a Confederate privateer, and civilians accused of treason. The Sally Port's basement was filled, then one of the gun rooms, and a wooden stockade was built just to the North of the Sally Port.

During the next three decades additional buildings were erected just north of the Sally Port to house up to 150 Army prisoners. These provided hard labor for construction projects both on and off the island. At various times "rebellious" American Indians were also held on Alcatraz. The largest group was nineteen Hopi, held in 1895.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 increased the size of the Army enormously, and the prison population also grew. A prison stockade, known as the "Upper Prison" was hastily built on the parade ground and by 1902 there were 461 prisoners on the Island. In 1904 the upper prison stockade was expanded to house 300 inmates, and the lower prison buildings near the Sally Port were used for other purposes.

With modern weaponry making Alcatraz more and more unsuitable as a fort, in 1907 the Army dropped plans to mount new guns, and instead designated the island "Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison." The next year, with plentiful prison labor available, work began on the Cellhouse which still stands today. Completed in 1912 with 600 single cells, each with toilet and electricity, the Cellhouse was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world.

In 1915 Alcatraz was changed from a military prison to "Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks." The new name reflected the growing emphasis on rehabilitation as well as punishment. Prisoners with less serious offenses could receive training, education, and an opportunity to return to the Army. Prisoners convicted of serious crimes were not given these chances, and were discharged from the Army when their sentences were completed.

During the great depression of the 1930s military budgets were cut, and the Army was considering closing the Disciplinary Barracks - a perfect match for the Justice Departments desires for a super prison for incorrigible prisoners.

The Escape Plan

The plan for the escape was quite simple, but the means to pull it off were nearly impossible. They would need the perfect coordination of the whole team to make it work.

This was not the first escape attempt of this kind. Over 30 inmates had tried to escape Alcatraz island over the years and none had succeeded. What would make this attempt any different?


Alcatraz Island, just 2 kilometres off the coast of San Francisco, is an infamous sight in the bay. This military prison, turned federal penitentiary, housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals. 1,576 inmates did time on The Rock from 1934 until the 1960s. Here’s our list of the sinister six - Alcatraz’s most dangerous inmates:

Alvin Karpis

An official public enemy number one and part of a formidable 1930s crime gang of robbers, hijackers and kidnappers, Karpis was the group’s leader with a photographic memory. Legend says he was captured by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself and sentenced to life imprisonment on Alcatraz for ten murders, six kidnappings and a robbery. He was the last of the depression-era criminals to be caught and served the longest sentence - 26 years - of any Alcatraz prisoner. Arthur Barker, another member of the gang, was also in Alcatraz and was part of a disastrous break out, during which he was shot and killed.

Canadian-born criminal of Lithuanian descent, known for being the leader of the Barker–Karpis gang.

Capone was involved in crime from a young age and later became an infamous gangster and criminal mastermind. At the same time he had political connections and was known for helping the poor and needy. However, public opinion turned against him after the St Valentine’s Day Massacre and his capture became a priority for the new President Hoover. Five years later he was sent to Atlanta Jail where he manipulated the system, bribing the guards to receive home comforts. He was later transferred to Alcatraz where he led a very different and harsher existence.

Alphonse Gabriel Capone circa 1930 - Also known by the nickname 'Scarface'.

George 'Machine Gun' Kelly

A prohibition gangster, Kelly became a bootlegger in an effort to avoid financial hardship. He then met and fell in love with another outlaw, Kathryn Thorne, and under her influence he became increasingly notorious and earned his 'Machine Gun' moniker. His downfall was the kidnap and ransom of an oil tycoon, for which he and other gang members received life sentences. When he was sent to prison, he told the press that he would escape and break out his wife in time for Christmas. The authorities took him seriously and he was sent to Alcatraz instead. He didn’t make it home for Christmas.

The 1933 kidnap and ransom of oil tycoon, Charles F. Urschel, secured Kelly and his gang $200,000.

The Birdman of Alcatraz

Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, was surely the prison’s most famous inmate. He even had a film made about him, which earned Burt Lancaster an Oscar nomination. Stroud was imprisoned for murdering a bartender who had allegedly owed money to a prostitute that Stroud was pimping. When jailed, he was a violent prisoner, eventually stabbing a prison guard. Whilst on death row his sentence was commuted. He was put into solitary confinement where he developed an interest in canaries, having found one injured on the prison grounds. He later bred and studied them, eventually publishing books on the subject. He found his way to Alcatraz after guards from his previous prison found some of his ornithological equipment was being used to brew alcohol. He spent 17 years there – six in segregation – without his birds, spending his time writing and illustrating books.

Burt Lancaster received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Stroud in the 1962 film 'Birdman of Alcatraz'.

Roy Gardner

A notorious criminal who was as well known for his success at breaking out of jail, the eventual reason he found himself transferred to Alatraz in the first place. He escaped from McNeil Island prison in the 1920s, was recaptured and sent to Atlanta, where he continued to hatch plans to escape before being transferred to Alcatraz. He never escaped from The Rock, and later penned an autobiography titled Hellcatraz.

"Smiling Bandit", and the "King of the Escape Artists" - A couple of the names used by West Coast newspapers to describe Gardner. (Image: Alcatrazhistory.com)

Frank Lee Morris

Following a life of crime sprees, Frank Morris was transferred to Alcatraz in 1960. He began plotting his escape with four others. They stole tools, which they used to dig out. They built a raft and dummies for their cell beds. They escaped on June 11, 1962 and, although the raft and some personal items were found, the men never were. It was presumed that they had drowned in the strong current, but no bodies were ever found. So, no one is really sure whether the group escaped or died trying.

Frank Lee Morris's record card. His IQ was thought to be 133 borderline genius! (Image: Alcatrazhistory.com)

Alcatraz Island - Home to the Famous Federal Penitentiary.

Alcatraz, Hellcatraz, The Rock – it’s an infamous and foreboding sight, home to many notorious characters.

Check out Alcatraz with Gray Line San Francisco

Alcatraz is an intriguing story and a phenomenal sight in San Francisco Bay. If you are planning to visit San Francisco, it’s definitely one of the places to build into your trip. To help you do that, get in touch with Gray Line San Francisco at graylineofsanfrancisco.com

Our tours around Alcatraz are very popular – check out our TripAdvisor pages to find out what our previous guests thought of them – including Mother Y from Chester, England who described our City Tour and Escape from the Rock combination as being a “fab tour” and “well worth the money”. This tour will take you around Alcatraz Island where you’ll hear all about this famous island and its inmates.

Want to stop off on Alcatraz Island and explore the prison itself? We also offer packages which include tickets and a live guided tour (in English). Click here for more information on one of these fantastic packages.

To find out more head to our website at graylineofsanfrancisco.com or our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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From a Lighthouse to a Prison

The first registered owner of the island was Julian Workman, who was appointed in June 1846 by Mexican Governor Pio Pico to build a lighthouse. In 1848, at the end of the American-Mexican War, California, along with the island, became the property of the United States. In the early 1860s, when the Civil War broke out, Alcatraz served as a place to protect and store firearms for the San Francisco arsenal.

Realizing its strategic position, a fortress began to be built with 11 cannons placed on top. During the war, Confederate sympathizers were sent to the island. In 1868, after the construction of the brick prison, it was officially designated to serve as a long-term place of detention for military prisoners.

Hopi Prisoners on the Rock

Hopi Prisoners at Alcatraz, January 1895. Back Row (left to right): unidentified Polingyawma Heevi'ima Masatiwa unidentified. Middle Row: Qötsventiwa Piphongva unidentified Lomahongewma unidentified Lomayestiwa Yukiwma. Front Row: Tuvehoyiwma unidentified Patupha Qötsyawma unidentified

Hopi History: The Story of the Alcatraz Prisoners

Wendy Holliday, Historian Hopi Cultural Preservation Office

One hundred years ago, in September 1895, 19 Hopi men from Orayvi (Oraibi) returned home after spending nearly a year imprisoned on Alcatraz Island. This article is the first step in an ongoing project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their release and to document and record Hopi testimony about central events in Hopi history.

The story of the Alcatraz prisoners is one episode in an ongoing struggle between the Hopi people and the United States government. The late nineteenth century witnessed increased attacks on Hopi sovereignty and culture, as the United States government acted to "Americanize" the Hopi people. Imprisonment became the government's principal means of intimidation and punishment.

The U.S. government wanted to "Americanize" the Hopi by indoctrinating them with Anglo-American ideals and extinguishing Hopi culture. The education of children was the centerpiece of a U.S. government policy of Manifest Destiny, and it was fiercely resisted by Hopi people.

Soldiers guarding the Hopi prisoners on their arrest in Arizona, 1894

#57, Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas

All over the country, U.S. government agents coerced Indian children to go to non-Indian schools, most often off-reservation and miles away from home and family. At Hopi, pressure to send children to boarding schools began in earnest in 1887, when the first government school was established in Keams Canyon. Many Hopi parents refused to send their children to school so far away to learn the white man's ways.

In addition, the Keams Canyon School was in dismal condition. According the E.H. Plummer, the agent in Fort Defiance in 1893, the school was crowded and the buildings were inadequate. Disease was a problem in such a setting. Plummer wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs and explained his reluctance to force the school issue too strongly: "If deaths occur a strong prejudice will be aroused against the school, to say nothing of the policy of conducting a boarding school for any human pupils with such conditions of accommodations."

Despite these dangers, government agents tried to persuade parents to enroll their children in school voluntarily. Most resisted, and agents became increasingly frustrated with what they called "half-promises." Parents would tell the agents that they would send their children, but they never did, a strategy of passive resistance that worked for a short time.

The government also tried to bribe parents into sending their children to school. In January 1894, Plummer told the superintendent of the Keams Canyon School to stop issuing annuity goods and cease all work on houses and wells for the villages of Second Mesa. This was an especially calculating act, because Plummer noted that two feet of snow lay on the ground and the temperature was 17 degrees below zero.

The U.S. government most frequently resorted to force. In December 1890, for example, soldiers entered Orayvi and, through coercion and force, secured 104 children for the school in Keams Canyon. The same scene repeated itself in 1894 at Second Mesa. First, the government sent policemen to Second Mesa to round up children and bring them to the school in Keams. When this failed, School Superintendent Goodman requested soldiers to escalate the show of force in the villages.

Plummer suggested that having the troops take the children might not be wise. Instead, he suggested sending troops "to arrest and confine the headmen who are responsible for the children not being sent to school." Thus, the precedent for arresting village leaders who resisted the U.S. government was well established by 1894.

It was at about the same time that government officials began to report of two factions at Orayvi. Government agents called these two groups the Friendlies and the Hostiles. According to one of these agents, Constant Williams, "In the pueblo of Oraibi there are two factions, called by whites the 'Friendlies," and the 'Hostiles,' in about the proportion of one to two. The Friendlies sent their children to school and are willing to adopt civilized ways the Hostiles, under the bad influence of Shamans, believe that the abandonment of old ways will be followed by drought and famine, to avert [this] they wish to drive the Friendlies out."

The government's division of Orayvi into Hostile and Friendly factions was inaccurate. Nearly all Hopis were, in fact, quite hostile to government efforts to wipe out all vestiges of Hopi culture. Friendlies, for example, resisted the government's land allotment program along with the Hostiles. Resistance or compliance with the government was not a clear cut issue. Many people complied with the government and sent their children to school out of sheer necessity to survive.

The government used overwhelming force against both factions and imprisoned people who resisted. Thus, the decision to send a child to school did not necessarily mean acceptance of the white man's ways.

In any case, tensions at Orayvi were mounting in the face of intensified pressure from the U.S. government to comply with its wishes. The government became increasingly frustrated with Hopi resistance to their efforts. To make matters worse, a land dispute between Navajos and Mormon settlers near Tuba City, Arizona was heating up.

Beginning in 1893, Agent Plummer reported to Washington that Navajos were trying to interfere with a dam built by Mormon settlers. By January 1894, tensions had increased to the point that Plummer feared bloodshed. In May, he wrote to the commissioner, "I fear very much that if attempt it made by the civil authorities to arrest the Indians by force that serious trouble will result."

Chiefs Lomahanoma and Habima just before their arrest in 1894 at Hopi.

#1, Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas

That trouble eventually spilled over into Hopi lands. Since the 1870s land around Munqapi and been farmed by Tuuvi, an emerging leader of Munqapi, and families from Orayvi who were sympathetic to those who became knows as Friendlies in the 1890s. As tensions were increasing in Orayvi over the education issue and divisions within the village, the hostility between whites and Navajos in Tuba City added fuel to the flames.

On October 10, 1894, Samuel Hertzog, the school superintendent, reported to Plummer that 30 hostiles had come to Munqapi, seized the fields, and planted them in wheat. According to Hertzog, "This is the first act of hostilities." Hertzog also suggested that these hostilities might have had more to do with the local tensions around Tuba City: "May be because a Mormon and a Navajo stole one man's corn and afterward came and cut the fodder and told Ololomai (Loololma, Kikmongwi [leader/chief] of Orayvi) to get out."

For a variety of reasons, in October 1894, 50 Hostiles did go to Munqapi and plant the lands that had traditionally belonged to their clans. The government, in their strategy of divide and conquer, predictably took the side of the Friendlies. Agent Plummer asked Washington to send two troops of cavalry to adjust the difficulties and, he wrote, "if necessary arresting such of the Hostile element as have appropriated lands belonging to the friendly element." He continued, "The rights of property and of person of well behaved, industrious Oraibas and Navajos are being trampled upon and abused and unless prompt measures are taken by the Department murder and bloodshed will follow."

Nothing was done, however, until November, when the new Navajo/Hopi Agent, Constant Williams, reported for duty in Fort Defiance. His first action as agent was to go to Orayvi to hear the reports of differences.

On November 6, in the presence of the entire village, Loololma made the following statement to Williams: "He and his people perceiving the advantages to be derived from education and the adoption of Washington ways (i.e. civilized habits) had sent their children to school that the Hostiles, finding persuasion useless to make them give up this course, had first threatened them with deprivation of their fields and expulsion from their country into Mexico, and, finally, that the Hostiles had now sent a part of fifty men over to Moencopi, had seized the fields of the Friendlies there and had planted them with wheat that the Friendlies, being outnumbered could no more than protest and report to the agent: that they were sincerely desirous of walking in the Washington way: and that they wished for soldiers to settle the difficulty."

Lomahongewma, Spider Clan, and Heevi'ima, Fire Clan, both rivals to Loololma, replied that Loololma's facts were true. According to Williams, "They said for themselves that they do not want to follow the Washington path that they do not want their children to go to school that they do not want to wear the white man's clothes that they do not want to eat the white man's food that they do want the white man to let them alone and to allow them to follow the Oraibi path and they bitterly denounced the Friendlies for departing from the Oraibi path. They said that they had taken the Moencopi fields because they had anciently belonged to them, although they admitted that the Friendlies had had peaceful possession of them for many years they added that in the spring they intended to take away the fields not cultivated by the Friendlies around the mesa of Oraibi. And they concluded by saying that they also wished to have troops come. I asked them if they could not adjust their differences in a peaceable talk and they replied 'no, that this trouble can never be settled until the soldiers come.'"

Williams responded by saying that the Hostiles had been forbidden by Agent Plummer to disturb the Friendlies and their fields. Thus, they should not expect to harvest the crop or take away the Friendlies' fields around Orayvi. In addition, "Their desire for the presence of troops would be gratified." At this point, the meeting ended. Williams returned to Fort Defiance where he wrote this report.

Army guards and Hopi prisoners with crowd waiting and watching.

#60, Mennonite Library and Archives,
Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas

On that same day, November 15, 1894, he requested two cavalry companies with Hotchkiss guns to be sent from Colorado. He wrote, "The Friendlies must be protected in their rights and encouraged to continue in the Washington way, and being convinced that this can only be done by a display of force and the arrest of the principal men engaged in the disorders."

And so, on November 25, troops came to Orayvi and arrested 19 Hostiles: Heevi'ima, Polingyawma, Masatiwa, Qotsventiwa, Piphongva, Lomahongewma, Lomayestiwa, Yukiwma, Tuvehoyiwma, Patupha, Qotsyawma, Sikyakeptiwa, Talagayniwa, Talasyawma, Nasingayniwa, Lomayawma, Tawalestiwa, Aqawsi, and Qoiwiso.

Because they were arrested by government troops, these men were taken first to Fort Defiance, and then to Alcatraz, a military installation on a harsh island of rock in San Francisco Harbor. These men spent nearly a year at Alcatraz because the government had once again resorted to its ultimate form of coercion at Hopi: military force.

On January 4, 1895, the San Francisco Call published a story under the headline "A Batch of Apaches." The article stated, "Nineteen murderous-looking Apache Indians were landed at Alcatraz island yesterday morning." The article misidentified the 19 Hopi men who had been arrested at Orayvi the previous November. The article is filled with racial stereotypes of murderous and "crafty redskins" who refused to live according to the "civilized ways of the white men." In February, the same newspaper published another story about the "Moquis on Alcatraz."

"Uncle Sam has summarily arrested nineteen Moqui Indians. and taken them to Alcatraz island, all because they would not let their children go to school. But he has not done it unkindly and the life of the burnt-umber natives is one of ease, comparatively speaking. They have not hardship aside from the fact that they have been rudely snatched from the bosom of their families and are prisoners and prisoners they shall stay until they have learned to appreciate the advantage of education."

In 1995, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office began a project to record the history of the Alcatraz prisoners. It began with an article in the Tutuveni about the events leading to the arrest of the prisoners. As the San Francisco newspaper suggested, the men were imprisoned because they opposed the government's program of forced education and assimilation. The Tutuveni article was based upon government records. Subsequent research uncovered these San Francisco newspaper articles. While they shed light onto the story of the Alcatraz prisoners, they are all told from the point of view of the white government and Anglos who supported the forced education program.

These viewpoints often reflected callous disregard for the human suffering of the Hopi prisoners. The San Francisco newspaper article wrote that the prisoners' days were generally spent sawing large logs into shorter lengths. Occasionally, their work was interrupted by trips into San Francisco to visit the public schools, "so that they can see the harmlessness of the multiplication table in its daily application." Their accommodations were the same as that of the white military prisoners, and their food was "like that of any ordinary second-class hotel."

According to the Call, "It is even difficult to find work for them at times. They rise early, breakfast, go to work, if the weather is fine, eat their dinner at noon and then work all afternoon. This is followed by tea or a wholesome equivalent for it and then bed. Their taskmaster is a good-natured, well educated young man with a sympathetic understanding of their condition that makes it easy for him to deal with them and keeps them in even humor."

1894 - Hopi crowd watching in suspense.

#50, Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas

According to the newspaper, the Hopi prisoners were treated rather well. The article claimed that the prisoners' only grievance was being taken from their homes and families. In fact, other sources provide glimpses into very real hardships faced by both the prisoners and their families back at Hopi. John Martini described the prisoner's cells at Alcatraz as "tiny wooden cells. worlds removed from the western desert and plains." Indeed, a description of Alcatraz in 1902, just seven years after the Hopi prisoners were jailed there, suggests that the cells were in poor condition: "The old cell blocks were `rotten and unsafe the sanitary condition very dangerous to health. They are dark and damp, and are fire traps of the most approved (sic) kind.

Furthermore, taking the prisoners from their homes and families was more than "rude." In a series of letters between H.R. Voth, a Mennonite missionary at Orayvi, and Guruther, the Commanding Officer at Alcatraz, family members at Hopi were extremely worried about the prisoners. There were rumors that some of them had died.

In August, Voth wrote to the Guruther that the pictures of the prisoners were "very much appreciated by relatives and friends" because rumors had circulated that they were "poorly fed, clothed, worked hard, some had died, etc. were perhaps killed."

In September, Voth wrote to Lomahongiwma to report on the prisoners' families and the crops. These reports must have caused considerable anguish among the prisoners, especially those who were separated from their families during important ceremonies and planting and harvesting. In addition, two of the prisoners' wives gave birth to children who died while the men were at Alcatraz. Being torn from their villages and families was certainly more than a rude inconvenience.

The story of the Alcatraz prisoners, in the written historical records, is incomplete. It is based solely on written records and is missing Hopi perspectives. The Cultural Preservation Office would like to complete a written account of the Alcatraz prisoners by using Hopi remembrances and stories. We would like to gather stories of the actual hardships endured by the prisoners at Alcatraz, as well as the friends and families left behind to raise families, plant and tend to the crops, and worry about their loved ones imprisoned in a distant place. The Cultural Preservation Office has been able to trace some of the descendants of the prisoners. We have a current list of these descendants on file. If you would like to share any stories about the prisoners' experiences at Alcatraz or the lives of their families while they were imprisoned, please contact Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, at the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office at 928-734-3611.

Hopi prisoners of the U.S. Government sent to Alcatraz Island for "seditious conduct" Jan. 3 to Aug. 7, 1895.

Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas

The following is a list of the Alcatraz prisoners and their clans.

Aqawsi (Kwaa/Eagle)
Heevi'yma (Kookop/Fire)
Kuywisa (Kookop/Fire)
Lomahongiwma (Kookyangw/Spider)
Lomayawma (Is/Coyote)
Lomayestiwa (Kookyangw/Spider)
Masaatiwa (Kuukuts or Tep/Lizard or Greasewood)
Nasingayniwa (Kwaa/Eagle) Patupha(Kookop/Fire)
Piphongva (Masihonan/Grey Badger)
Polingyawma (Kyar/Parrot)
Qotsventiwa (Aawat/Bow)
Qotsyawma (Paa'is/Water Coyote)
Sikyaheptiwa (Piikyas or Patki/Young Corn or Water)
Talangayniwa (Kookop/Fire)
Talasyawma (Masihonan/Grey Badger)
Tawaletstiwa (Tasaphonan/Navajo Badger)
Tuvehoyiwma (Hon/Bear)
Yukiwma (Kookop/Fire)

Why was Alcatraz so hard to escape from?

Alcatraz has gone down in folklore as one of the meanest prisons in history, as well as one of the toughest to escape from. That doesn’t mean to say no one tried it, but you had to be pretty determined, smart and lucky to get away from this maximum security site.

First of all, Alcatraz was on an island. Well, if you can call it that. It was little more than a rocky outcrop on which little raft-making or camouflage-creating foliage grew. This meant that any escape either had to involve a plane, boat or a long, hard swim. The water can often drop to 16 degrees C (60 degrees F) and the currents will slosh you about furiously, meaning you’re in for a rough ride. Another hazard was the Great White sharks that patrolled the area.

Secondly, it was pretty well defended. In a former life it was a fort, built in 1912 with steel and concrete the main, insurmountable barriers to a way off the island. The steel was called ‘tool-resistant’ and did exactly what it said on the tin – it was strong enough to resist any attempt to saw away with whatever blade the inmates were able to get their hands on.

Thirdly, there was no preferential treatment for any of the inmates. While big names crooks may have got treated well in other prisons, there was no room for celebrity at Alcatraz where all inmates were treated the same and were only allowed out for one hour of exercise a day.