The fact that it was a working (and in some respects, still is) prison.
24 hour guard
Built: 1850 Closed: 1963
long pants / sleeves
Water and something to snack on.
Born of necessity, perhaps even political expediency, Alcatraz represents the federal government's response to post-Prohibition, post-Depression America. Both the institution and the men confined within its walls are a part of this era, and in order to be studied with any degree of understanding, it must be attended to with a focus on this time period. Prisons are a reflection of society and the reflection offered by Alcatraz is one of great clarity.
The collaborative effort of attorney general Homer Cummings and Director of the Bureau of Prisons, Sanford Bates, produced a legendary prison that seemed both necessary and appropriate to the times. The emergence of persistent assertions about J. Edgar Hoover's interest and influence with regard to Alcatraz cannot be corroborated, but neither have they been completely denied. With the public peace constantly threatened by crime, a response had to be made and Alcatraz was that response.
An in-house memo issued by Cummings shortly after taking office addressed the subject of creating a special prison for kidnapers, racketeers, and individuals guilty of predatory crimes. A remote site was sought, one that would prohibit constant communication with the outside world by those confined within its walls. Although land in Alaska was being considered, the availability of Alcatraz Island conveniently coincided with the government's perceived need for a super-prison.
Having taken possession of the former Army prison and having circumvented the San Francisco citizens who were concerned at the prospect of vicious criminals in the near vicinity, the Bureau of Prisons set about selecting a warden who could do the job. A well-organized, no-nonsense businessman and prison administrator with twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections, James A. Johnston was to be that man. Johnston had retired at the time of his appointment by the Department of Justice, and its acceptance resulted in his serving as warden of Alcatraz for the next fourteen years.
Classified as a concentration model, where difficult-to-manage prisoners from other institutions would be concentrated under one roof, Alcatraz served as an experiment. Segregation on this scale had not before been practiced, and only time would indicate its success or failure. Warden Johnston and the second Director of the Bureau of Prisons, James V. Bennett, both were men well ahead of their time. Visionaries in the field of penology, their knowledge enabled Alcatraz to function as it had been hoped and to serve later as a model for the federal prison located in Marion, Illinois.
Contrary to popular myth, Alcatraz was to confine only a few of the infamous headline-makers of the era. Of the 1545 men to do time within its walls, the vast majority were not to be found on wanted posters adorning post office walls.
Alcatraz was, of course, home to Al Capone for slightly under four and a half years. Transferred from USP Atlanta in August of 1934, Capone was among the first "official" shipment of prisoners to be received. His arrival generated bigger headlines than the opening of the institution, giving birth to the endless myth of Alcatraz. The most difficult aspect of Capone's management in Atlanta was his constant contact with family members who took up residence at a nearby hotel. Through this channel of communication Capone continued to run his organization in Chicago. He also worked at corrupting officers and enlisting fellow prisoners as personal servants. Influence and privilege were lost at Alcatraz where Capone was assigned menial jobs and treated in accordance with others. In failing health due to syphilis, he was transferred to FCI Terminal Island in January of 1939, and then on to USP Lewisburg, released from there in November of that same year.
Arriving on the second "official" shipment to Alcatraz in September of 1934 was George "Machine Gun" Kelly. Involved first in bootlegging, he was apprehended and sentenced to Leavenworth. At the conclusion of a three-year stay, Kelly emerged from prison in touch with some of America's best bank robbers, and immediately pursued a new line of work. From lucrative bank jobs, he advanced to kidnapping in 1933, holding for ransom a wealthy Oklahoma oil magnate. His capture resulted in the first Lindbergh Law trial and it was a courtroom sensation. Kelly was given a life sentence and returned to USP Leavenworth, within months being transferred to Alcatraz. He was considered a model prisoner by the officers with whom he came in contact, causing some question regarding his transfer to the more secure institution. Headlines and Hoover must here be considered. After seventeen years on Alcatraz, Kelly suffered a mild heart attack and was returned again to Leavenworth in 1951. Within months of being paroled in 1954, a final attack ended his life at the age of 59.
From early days as a petty thief, Alvin Karpis moved on in his career to join Ma Barker and form the Barker-Karpis partnership literally laying waste to the Midwest between 1931 and 1936. His flamboyant style of robbery and kidnapping earned him the absolute wrath of J. Edgar Hoover. Karpis soon found himself with a new title, that of Public Enemy No. 1, and his name was recognized throughout the country, Avoiding capture for some fifteen months after the Barkers were apprehended, Karpis was finally taken into custody in New Orleans on May first, 1936. By August of that year, Karpis was residing on Alcatraz where he would spend the next 26 years, transferred to USP-McNeil Island in April of 1962, and released from the federal prison system via deportation to Canada in 1969. Leaving that country to assume residency in Spain, Karpis committed suicide in 1979.
The most complete media coverage to be accorded an Alcatraz inmate was given to Robert Franklin Stroud. He was to gain world wide attention and notoriety as the Birdman of Alcatraz, regardless of the fact he was not permitted to continue his avian studies during his 17 years on the island.
Following incarceration in USP McNeil Island, where he was sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter in 1909, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth after serving only three years. A history of violence dictated the move, and Stroud had been in Leavenworth less than four years when he attacked and killed a custodial officer in front of better than 2,000 other inmates. His trial resulted in the death sentence, but was commuted to life after his mother requested the intervention of President Wilson. Stroud's hostile and sometimes violent nature left prison administrators no choice but to keep him away from other inmates and officers, and prison officials interpreted this to mean he should spend the remainder of his life in segregation of some sort.
The keeping of birds and the studying of avian diseases gained international attention for Stroud, but it was also to figure prominently in his ultimate transfer to Alcatraz. He began to openly violate prison rules and regulations in favor of continuing his experiments and communications with bird breeders and fanciers around the world. Stroud was literally packed up and moved out in the middle of the night, with his destination being San Francisco. Arriving on Alcatraz in 1942, he was to enjoy the company of fellow inmates within the confines of D Block until there occurred a change in administration with the retirement of Warden James Johnston and the arrival of Warden Ed Swope. The enigmatic Swope was not to be challenged in any way by Robert Stroud and immediately moved him into a private room in the prison's hospital.
Using ill health to justify the move, Swope was able to segregate Stroud in such fashion that few, if any, were ever able to again see him. Genuine ill health forced Stroud's transfer to the Federal Medical Facility in Springfield, Missouri in 1959. Four years after being received at the FMC, Stroud died of natural causes. The man about whom the world knew, the man about whom books were written and films were made was to be ignored in death as the date of his passing followed by one day the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
On the morning of his death, Stroud was found by a fellow inmate who is probably more widely recognized on an international scale than any other confined on Alcatraz - recognized not so much by his own name than by the defendants with whom he was tried in 1951. Charged with conspiracy to commit treason, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing Prison in 1953, and Morton Sobell was to arrive on Alcatraz the year before, 1952, and would spend the next five years as the federal system's most famous political prisoner.
Sobell's case could easily be an example of J. Edgar Hoover's influence. He simply did not fit the type generally selected for incarceration on Alcatraz, but he most assuredly did meet the criteria for the type particularly targeted by the FBI director. At this point, it is again emphasized that the historic era must be given clear and serious focus, as the red witch hunt for Communist subversives spread across the country, led by Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. Sobell alleged that Hoover dictated his placement in this maximum security institution, and there really exists no denial regarding this allegation.
Following the five years inside Alcatraz, Sobell finished out the remainder of his sentence in USP Atlanta for a total of eighteen and a half years out of the original thirty set forth by Judge Irving R. Kaufman, Taken by the beauty of the Pacific and the Golden Gate, Sobell expressed a desire to return to San Francisco when freedom was again his to enjoy. Morton Sobell resides today in the city, and is part of the living history of Alcatraz.
By 1962 the era on which the Federal Prison history of Alcatraz is predicated was coming to an end. Times were changing and the Bureau of Prisons knew that they would have to respond to that change. Alcatraz offered no concept of rehabilitation, and the bureau was reconsidering its philosophy as it examined tho pros and cons of warehousing as opposed to rehabilitation. The physical structures on Alcatraz were indicating wear and tear that would cost the government millions of dollars to upgrade to required security.
Always an expensive institution to operate, 1961 found the daily cost of inmate upkeep approaching one-hundred dollars, and an overall cost for continuing operation at better than six-million dollars. A new prison could and would be constructed at Marion, Illinois for ten-million, so to continue incarceration of inmates on Alcatraz was economically unsound.
It is said that J. Edgar Hoover expressed displeasure at the closure of the prison, but his decades-long power base could not stand up to the new attorney general who made it quite clear to Hoover that a contrary decision had been made - a decision that would be backed by the attorney general's brother in the White House.
On Thursday, 21 March 1963, the end of an era arrived with the official closure of Alcatraz. The population had been gradually reduced commencing in February, with the final twenty-seven inmates taken off on the aforementioned date. For the first time in its long and controversial history reporters were permitted on the island to cover the news story that would make headlines across the country: