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During the 29 years Alcatraz operated as a federal penitentiary it built a reputation as a Devil's Island of the soul. If Al Capone was the nation's symbol of lawlessness, then Alcatraz would be the nation's symbol for punishing the lawless.
Alcatraz. The name alone said it all. It was meant to send a shudder down the spines of the nation's most incorrigible criminals, and it did from the day it opened in 1934. It stripped Al Capone of his power. It tamed "Machine Gun" Kelly into a model of decorum. It took the birds away from the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz was the end of the line. It was the U.S. government's version of the "final solution" to combating the lawlessness that Prohibition spewed throughout the Roaring 20s and into the teeth of the Great Depression. The government needed a prison as tough and harsh as the high-profile criminals it was finally running to ground. In Alcatraz, with its damp coldness, austere isolation, rigid discipline and code of silence, it got what it wanted. By the time the government shut down the prison in 1963, "the Rock" had indisputably done its job.
Today, Alcatraz is one of the biggest tourist magnets and famous landmarks of San Francisco. The island's mystique, created primarily by books and motion pictures, lures over a million visitors a year from around the world to see first-hand where the U.S. government broke some of its most notorious criminals. They journey into a dim piece of Americana. Many go away to remember for the rest of their lives the hair-raising chill they felt upon being locked up, for just a few seconds, in an isolation cell. The clichéd expression "if these walls could talk" is taken to a deeper level when probing the rigid silence of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Island got its name in 1775 when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the San Francisco Bay. He named the small, 13-acre, uninhabited island with its swift currents, minimal vegetation, and barren ground for its pelicans, calling it La Isla de los Alcatraces.
Seventy-two years later in 1847, the U.S. Army took notice of the Rock and its strategic value as a military fortress. Topographical engineers began conducting geological surveys and by 1853 U.S. Army Engineers started constructing a military fortress along with the Pacific Coast's first operating lighthouse.
The discovery of gold along the American River and California in 1848 brought shiploads of miners from around the world into California. As word spread around the globe of abundant wealth in California, the U.S. government would evoke security measures to protect its land and mineral resources from seizure by other countries. Located just inside the mouth of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz would become the United States' symbol of military power in the West.
After several years of laborious construction and several armament expansions, Alcatraz was converted to a military fortress. It featured long-range iron cannons and four massive 36,000-pound, 15 inch Rodman guns capable of sinking mammoth hostile ships three miles away. Alcatraz's guns could fire 6,949 pounds of iron shot in one barrage. Though the fortress fired only one 400-pound canon round at an unidentified ship and missed, it served its purpose as a mighty deterrent to foreign invaders.
With the advance of military weaponry, Alcatraz's function as a fortress soon faded. By 1861 it began to find its true calling when the government began to hold Civil War prisoners there. In 1898, the Spanish-American War took the prisoner population from a mere 26 to over 450. In 1906 following the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake, hundreds of civilian prisoners were transferred to the island for confinement. By 1912, a large cell house was constructed on the island's central crest and by the late 1920s, the three-story structure was near capacity.
Alcatraz was the Army's first long-term prison. By exposing the inmates to a combination of harsh confinement and ironhanded discipline, it quickly developed a reputation as a tough detention facility. The prisoners were broken into three classes based on their conduct and crime. Prisoners in the third class were not permitted reading materials from the library, visits or letters from relatives, or to talk to each other. If they violated these rules they faced being put on hard-labor work details, having to wear a 12-pound ball and ankle chain, and/or solitary lockdowns with a bread and water diet.
The average age for an inmate soldier was 24 years. Most served short-term sentence for offenses such as desertion or a lesser crime. Longer sentences were imposed for crimes of insubordination, assault, larceny and murder.
One interesting element of the military order was that prisoners' cells were used only for sleeping unless they were in lockdown status. All prisoners were prohibited from visiting their cells during the day. Inmates with first or second-class rankings were allowed to go anywhere about the prison grounds except to the guards' quarters on the upper levels.
Despite stringent rules and harsh standards for thuggish crimes, Alcatraz primarily functioned as a minimum-security prison. The types of work assignments given to inmates varied, depending on the prisoners, their class, and how responsible they were. Many prisoners worked as both general servants, cooking, cleaning, and attending to household chores for island families. In many cases select prisoners were entrusted to care for children who lived on the island. The Island was also home to several Chinese families who were employed as servants and made up the largest civilian population.
San Franciscans grew to dislike having an Army prison as a sterile focal point seated in the middle of beautiful San Francisco Bay. The Army brought in soil from nearby Angel Island, trained several prisoners as gardeners and planted several varieties of flowers and foliage. The California Spring and Wild Flower Association made contributions of top-grade seeding ranging from rose bushes to lilies. The prisoners enjoyed tending their gardens; landscape work assignments were among the most sought-after job assignments.
Over the decades, the prison's routine became increasingly relaxed and recreational activities more prevalent. In the late 1920s, prisoners built a baseball field and were allowed to wear their own baseball uniforms. On Friday nights the Army hosted "Alcatraz Fights," featuring boxing matches between inmates selected from the Disciplinary Barracks. These fights were popular and often drew several visitors from the mainland who had finagled an invitation.
In 1934, because of the expensive operating costs in the midst of the Great Depression, the military decided to close the prison and shift ownership to the Department of Justice.
The Alcatraz Solution
Prohibition spawned a nationwide crime surge during the '20s and early '30s, ushering in an unprecedented gangster era. Al Capone wielded more power, both raw and political, than any gangster before him. As the Great Depression took hold in the early 1930s, U.S. newspapers were full of the exploits of sharply dressed public enemies who flouted the law and got away with it. Faced with machine-gun toting gangsters, law enforcement agencies would often cower before better-armed gangs in shoot-outs and public slayings.
A public cry swept the nation to take back America's heartland. Alcatraz would play a major role in the federal government's overdue response. If Al Capone was the nation's symbol of lawlessness, then Alcatraz would be the nation's symbol for punishing the lawless. In this respect, Capone and Alcatraz were perfect foils in a tragedy: iconic symbols drawn together on an unavoidable collision course. Thanks to Capone's celebrity, the birth of a unique detention facility was cast. It was nicknamed Uncle Sam's Devil's Island.
As a federal prison, Alcatraz would serve the dual purpose of incarcerating the nation's most notorious criminals in a harsh, disciplined environment, and act as a visible warning to this new brand of criminal that the federal government meant business.
Sanford Bates, the head of the Federal Prisons, and Atty. Gen. Homer Cummings led the Alcatraz project and kept a hand in the design concepts that were finely detailed. One of the nations foremost security experts, Robert Burge, was commissioned to help design a prison that was escape-proof as well as forbidding. The original cellblock built in 1909 would undergo extensive upgrades and renovations.
In April of 1934 work began to give the military prison a new face and new identity. The soft squared bars were replaced with modernized tool-proof bars. Electricity was routed into each cell and all utility tunnels were cemented to remove an inmate's ability to enter or hide. Tool-proof iron window coverings would shield all areas that could be accessed by inmates. Special elevated gun galleries would transverse the cellblock perimeters, allowing guards to carry weapons secured behind, out-of-reach, iron-rod barriers. These galleries would allow the guards to oversee all inmate activities.
Special tear-gas canisters were installed in the ceiling of the dining hall and could be remotely activated from both the gun gallery and the outside observation points. Guard towers were strategically positioned. A new technology allowed electromagnetic metal detectors to be utilized, positioned outside the dining hall and on prison industries access paths. The cell house contained a total of nearly 600 cells, with no one cell adjoined to any perimeter wall. If an inmate were able to channel his way through the cell wall, he would still need to find a way to escape from the cell house itself. The inmates would only be assigned to B, C, & D blocks since the primary prison population would not exceed over 300 inmates.
Alcatraz's "Golden Rule Warden"
The Bureau of Prisons chose James A. Johnston, a disciplinarian with a humanistic approach to reform, as Alcatraz's warden. Johnston came to the position with a broad-based background of business, and 12-years experience in the California Department of Corrections. In 1913 Johnston had been appointed warden of San Quentin Prison. He also had served a brief appointment at Folsom Prison. Johnston had become notable for the programs he implemented for prisoner reform. He didn't believe in chain gangs but in having inmates report to a job where they were respected and rewarded for their efforts.
Nicknamed the "Golden Rule Warden" at San Quentin, Johnston was praised in newspapers for the California highways that were graded by San Quentin prisoners in his road camps. Although inmates were not compensated, they were rewarded with sentence reductions. Johnston also established several educational programs at San Quentin that proved successful with a good number of inmates. Despite his humane approach to reform, he also carried a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. His rules of conduct were among the most rigid in the correctional system and harsh punishments were delivered to defiant inmates. During his tenure at "Q" Johnston had overseen the executions by hanging of several inmates.
At Alcatraz, Johnston was allowed to hand pick his correctional officers from the federal prison system. Johnson and Sanford Bates created a vision of guiding principles that the prison would operate under: No prisoner would be directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Wardens from the various penitentiaries were polled and permitted to send their most incorrigible inmates to the "Rock." They sent inmates with histories of unmanageable behavior and escape attempts, but they also sent their high public profiles inmates who were receiving privileges because of status and notoriety.
Inmates who sought an attorney to represent them while incarcerated at Alcatraz would have to do so by direct request to the U.S. attorney general. All privileges to inmates would be limited and no inmate, regardless of his public stature, would be allotted special privileges.
Inmates would have to earn visitation rights, but no visitation would be allowed for the first three months. The warden must approve all visits, but only one visit a month per inmate. Inmates would be given restricted access to the prison library, but no newspapers, radios, or other non-approved reading materials would be allowed. Mail was a privilege and all letters, both in-coming and out-going, were to be screened and typewritten after being censored. Work was a privilege and not a right. Consideration for work assignments would be based on an inmate's conduct record.
Each prisoner would be assigned his own cell and only the basic minimum life necessities would be allotted such as food, water, clothing, medical and dental care. The inmate's contact with the outside world was cut off. Convicted spy Morton Sobell later stated that the rules at Alcatraz were so stringent that inmates were never allowed to explore the cell house. They would be marched from location to location always in a unified manner. The routine was unyielding, day after day, year after year. As quickly as a right could be earned for good behavior, it could be taken away for the slightest infraction.
Alcatraz Opens in 1934
When Alcatraz opened under Warden Johnson in August 1934 there were 32 prisoners from the Army still serving out their sentences. They were joined by 11 prisoners from McNeil Island in Washington State, 53 from the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, and 102 from the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Al Capone, Doc Barker (who was the last surviving son from the famous Ma Barker Gang), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud, and Floyd Hamilton (a gang member and driver for Bonnie & Clyde), and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis were among the first federal prisoners sent.
Inmates who arrived at Alcatraz were driven in a small transfer van to the top of the hill. They were processed in the basement area and provided all of their basic amenities and a brief shower. When Al Capone arrived on the island, he made quick attempts to flaunt the power he had enjoyed at the federal pen in Atlanta. Capone had taken advantage of many of the leniencies provided in the other prison. In fact, he constantly solicited guards to work for him, belittling their low wages and attempting to get their help in running his rackets from prison. Capone, however, was unlike many of the other inmates. Most of the other inmates came to Alcatraz with long criminal records, as veterans of the penal system. Capone on the other hand, had spent only a short time in prison before being transferred to Alcatraz. In the Atlanta pen, Capone was able to arrange unlimited visits by family and friends, and was even believed to have booze smuggled into his cell along with special uncensored reading materials.
Warden Johnston had a custom of meeting the new "fish" when they first arrived at Alcatraz and usually participated in their brief orientation. Johnston wrote in a memoir that he had little trouble recognizing Capone while he stood in the lineup. Capone was grinning, and making quiet, smug comments from the side of his mouth to other inmates. When it was his turn to approach Warden Johnston, it appeared that he wanted to show off to other inmates by asking questions on their behalf in a leader-type role. Johnston quickly provided him his prison AZ number, and made him get back in line with the other convicts. During Capone's time on Alcatraz, he made several futile attempts to con Johnston into allowing him special privileges.
Capone eventually resigned himself to Johnston's regime. "It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked," Johnston quotes Capone telling him. Capone spent four-and-a-half years on Alcatraz and held a variety of jobs. He got into a fight with another inmate in the recreation yard and was placed in isolation for eight days. While Capone was working in the prison basement, an inmate who was standing in line waiting for a haircut, exchanged words with him and then stabbed him with a pair of shears. Capone was admitted to the prison hospital and released a few days later with a minor wound. Capone eventually became symptomatic from syphilis, a disease he had evidently been carrying for years. In 1938 he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve the remainder of his sentence.
George "Machine Gun" Kelly was also in the first group of inmates to arrive in August of 1934. He worked in the industries, lived on the second tier of B Block, and quietly served 17 years on the Rock before being transferred back to Leavenworth in 1951.
Throughout its history, Alcatraz continued to be a magnet to many famous gangsters. Most followed the stringent routines with little or no defiance; in the process their influence on the outside was voided.
Alcatraz's Unrelenting Regimen
The inmates' day followed an unrelenting, methodical routine. Awakened at 6:30 a.m., they had 25 minutes to tidy their cells and stand to be counted. At 6:55, individual tiers would be opened and the inmates would march in a single file to the mess hall. Breakfast lasted 20 minutes. The inmates were then marched out to line up for their work assignments.
The main corridor was called the "Broadway." The cells there were considered the least desirable because the bottom tier was inherently colder against the long slick run of cement. They were also the least private because guards, inmates, and other personnel frequented this corridor. The newer inmates were generally assigned to the second tier of B Block in a quarantine status for the first three months of their imprisonment.
While other prisons carried guard/prisoner ratios exceeding one guard to every 12 inmates, at Alcatraz it was one guard for every three prisoners. With the gun galleries at each end of the cell blocks and the frequency of counts (12 per day), the guards were able to keep incredibly close tabs on each inmate. A new innovation, electronically controlled gates, also enhanced the prison's ability to confine the rogues of American society. Because of the small number of total inmates on Alcatraz, each guard generally knew each inmate by name.
In the early years of Alcatraz, Johnston employed a silence policy that many inmates considered the most unbearable of punishments. There were reports that several inmates were going insane on Alcatraz because of the severe order of silence. One inmate, a former gangster and bank robber named Rufe Persful, took a hatchet while working in one of the shops and chopped off his fingers on one of his hands. This event was later inaccurately depicted in the movie staring Clint Eastwood, Escape From Alcatraz, that chronicled the 1962-escape attempt of Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin Brothers. The silence policy was later relaxed but was one of few policy changes that occurred over the prison's history.
The media hype surrounding Alcatraz, created primarily from a lack of available information released by prison officials, deemed Alcatraz to be "Devil's Island." Because inmates were not directly paroled from Alcatraz, the media had a difficult time finding men who had lived on the inside. When the press would talk with former inmates, they usually told horrific stories about the brutalities they experienced while incarcerated there. Most depictions were flawed, but these stories of horrid beatings, rigid disciplinary measures, and extreme isolation fueled the media's interest.
In 1941, Henry Young went on trial for the murder of fellow inmate Rufus McCain, his accomplice in a failed escape. Young's attorney's inaccurately claimed that Young had been the subject of continual beatings by guards and had undergone extensive periods of being left in extreme isolation. Young's story was again inaccurately depicted in the movie staring Kevin Bacon and Christen Slater, titled Murder in the First. The movie claimed Young was a teenage orphan who was sentenced to Alcatraz for stealing $5 from a grocery store in order to feed his starving sister, and that he "never harmed or attempted to harm anyone" before entering Alcatraz.
The true story is that he was a bank robber who had taken and brutalized a hostage and committed murder in 1933 – some three years before being incarcerated at Alcatraz. At Alcatraz, Young was a difficult inmate who challenged and provoked fights with several other inmates, including Joe Crezter, who was considered a violence risk, and who later murdered two Alcatraz guards during an escape attempt. Young and his eventual murder victim, McCain, had both spent nearly 22 months in solitary confinement for a failed escape that ended in the shooting death of public enemy Doc Barker.
After Young and McCain returned to the normal prison population, McCain was assigned to the tailoring shop and Young to the Furniture Shop located directly upstairs. On Dec. 3, 1940, Young waited until just after the 10 a.m. count to run downstairs and plunge a knife into McCain. McCain fell quickly into shock and died five hours later. Young refused to disclose his motive for the murder.
During Young's trial his attorneys made the claim that because Young had been held in strict isolation for three years that he could not be held responsible for his violent action.
Warden Johnston was brought in under subpoena to testify on prison conditions and policies. In addition, several inmates were subpoenaed to testify on the environment of Alcatraz and many recounted the "rumors" they had heard of inmates being locked in dungeons and severely beaten by guards. They also testified that they knew of many inmates who "went crazy" because of such treatment. The jury sympathized with Young, convicting him of manslaughter, which resulted in only a few years being added to his sentence. Young continued to be a difficult inmate following his trial and was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Mo. After serving out his federal sentence in 1954, he was sent to Washington State Penitentiary and released on parole in 1972 after nearly 40 years in prison. He finally jumped parole; it is unknown whether he is still alive.
After Young's trial, D Block, better known as the Treatment Unit, was refurbished. D Block was comprised of 42 cells with varying degrees of penalization. For the most serious offenders of prison rules and regs, inmates could be confined to the Strip Cell. The cell was by all accounts, the most severe punishment the prison could dish out. It assured complete depravation of all peripheral senses.
The single "Strip Cell," or otherwise known as the "Oriental," was a dark steel encased cell with no toilet or sink, just a small hole in the floor for human excrement. A guard even controlled the hole's flushing lever. Inmates were placed in the cell without clothing and given restricted diets. The cell had a standard set of bars with an expanded opening to pass food, and a solid steel outer door that remained closed, leaving the inmate in a totally pitch-black, cold environment. A sleeping mattress was allowed during the night, but removed at dawn. Inmates were usually only subject to this degree of punishment for 1-2 days.
The "hole" was a similar type of cell and made up the remaining five, dual-door cells on the bottom tier. These cells contained a sink and a toilet along with a low wattage light bulb. Inmates could spend up to 19 days in this level of isolation. The mattresses were taken away during the day, leaving the inmate in a state of constant boredom and severe isolation. On the solid steel outer door, guards would sometimes open the small cover to allow in light for inmates who were behaving peacefully.
The remaining 36 segregation cells were similar to the cells in general population. Inmates held in segregation were allowed only one visit to the recreation yard per week, and two showers. Meals were served in the cells. Reading was the inmates' primary mode of diversion. From these cells the inmates caught a glimpse of San Francisco, a view they considered another form of torture. The sounds and sites of freedom were so near, yet so far.
The Birdman of Alcatraz
Other than Capone, Alcatraz's most publicized inmate was a 52 year-old Robert Stroud (a.k.a. the Birdman of Alcatraz AZ#594). Stroud was one of the few inmates placed directly into Alcatraz's Segregation Unit when he was transferred there from the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., bypassing the standard quarantine process. Stroud spent 17 years on Alcatraz and was never introduced into the general population. Like Capone, Stroud had enjoyed many privileges not allotted to fellow inmates at his preceding residence.
In 1909, the then 18 year-old Stroud shot and killed execution style a bartender who apparently had failed to pay his girlfriend Kitty O'Brian (for whom Stroud was pimping), the $10-price for her services as a prostitute. For this killing, Stroud was convicted in 1911 of manslaughter and sent to McNeil Island, a federal penitentiary in Washington State. Stroud served hard time at McNeil, but was considered a difficult prisoner to manage. In November of 1911, Stroud stabbed a hospital orderly whom he thought had reported him to the administration for attempting to procure narcotics. The hospital orderly survived the attack, but Stroud was given an additional six-month sentence and a transfer to Leavenworth.
Stroud, now 22, became a disciplinary problem for the Leavenworth administration. He was written up for miscellaneous violations and had spent time in isolation for procuring items such as hacksaw blades, chisels, and other contraband. In March of 1916, in front of over 1,000 inmates in the mess hall, Stroud stabbed Andrew Turner, a young guard, with a crudely fashioned steel shank. Turner, stunned and nearly paralyzed, slumped to the ground unconscious. Fellow guards carried him away. He was pronounced dead only minutes later. Although the details are sketchy, Stroud was apparently distraught after finding out his kid brother had attempted to visit him, but had been turned away because he had come on a day not designated for visitation.
Stroud was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He was ordered to wait out his death sentence in solitary confinement. His mother desperately pleaded for his life and finally, in 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment without parole. As a result of Stroud's unpredictable and fatally violent outbursts, Warden T.W. Morgan directed that Stroud live out his sentence in the segregation unit.
Over the duration of Stroud's 30 years of imprisonment at Leavenworth, he developed a keen interest in birds after finding a small-injured sparrow in the recreation yard. Stroud was initially allowed to breed and maintain a lab inside two adjoining segregation cells because it was felt that this would serve as a productive use of his time. As a result of this privilege, Stroud authored two books on Canaries and their diseases, having raised nearly 300 birds within his cells. Although it is widely debated whether his remedies were ever actually effective, many supporters believed that he was able to make scientific observations that would later benefit research on numerous bird species.
Stroud had built a very lucrative bird business from his cells in solitary. He had capitalized on his own perceived importance to the bird lover's community. Instead of being appreciative of the extended privileges, he became more demanding of the administration. His cells were foul smelling and grossly unsanitary. Stroud himself could be seen sitting in the midst of his birds with excrement on his shirt and cigarette butts and ashes covering the floor. He would have several bird carcasses, on which he would perform autopsies, strewn on his worktables, and cages stacked from floor to ceiling. Cell searches were nearly impossible and it was said that many of the guards had great animosity towards Stroud.
Stroud had become an administrative nightmare. The volumes of mail he received and the special requests he made burdened the staff on a daily basis. Censoring his mail, filling his orders for bird feed, reading materials, and other necessary research items could have justified a full-time personal assistant. He was extended special privileges that were unheard of in the prison system. Leavenworth was severely overcrowded, yet Stroud was able to maintain residence using two cells. For years the local administration had lobbied to have Stroud transferred to a prison where he could be more closely monitored and his activities better supervised. Stroud's birds and research at one time had publicity value, but as the years passed his writing and research demands had become a bitter nuisance to the administration.
In early December of 1942 the prison administration got its wish: Stroud was to be transferred to Alcatraz. After Stroud vacated his cell in preparation for transfer, prison officials discovered that equipment he had requested was actually being used to construct a still for an alcoholic brew. It soon became clear that his bird research also helped conceal several other illegitimate activities, one of which was a crudely fashioned knife that was hidden in a hollowed cavity of his work desk.
Stroud would spend the next 17 years of his life on Alcatraz (six years in segregation in "D Block," and 11 years in the prison hospital) and his identity would forever become synonymous with the name Alcatraz. Contrary to popular legend, the Birdman of Alcatraz was never permitted to keep any birds while on Alcatraz, enduring the deepest lock-down of his imprisonment in the hospital ward. While at Alcatraz, however, he wrote his most famous book on bird disease, which led to Thomas Gaddis writing a book about Stroud called The Birdman of Alcatraz.
In 1959, he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo., where, on Nov. 21, 1963, he was found dead from natural causes by then convicted spy and close friend Morton Sobell.
During the 29 years of the prison's operation there were 14 known escape attempts, in which 34 different inmates risked their lives to flee the Rock. Almost all of the men were either killed or recaptured. Of the 14 attempts, two were especially significant to the island's history. In 1946, an inmate named Bernard Coy, was able to fashion a makeshift bar spreader and climb up to one of the gun galleries and use the spreader to gain entry. Coy overpowered an unsuspecting guard, took the guard's weapon and dropped firearms to several waiting convicts. Led by Coy and fellow inmate Paul Cretzer, the inmates had planned to "blast out" with firearms, but were unable to locate the key that would provide access to the prison's recreation yard. The desperate convicts took several guards hostage, and waged a violent war against Alcatraz.
Thousands of spectators watched from San Francisco shores while the Marines rushed the island, barraging the cell house with mortars and grenades. Inmates inside the cell house took refuge behind water soaked mattresses and lay helpless while bullets riddled their surroundings. With all hope for escaping extinct, convicts Coy, Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson and Clarence Carnes decided to fight it out.
Johnston was unable to get a full assessment on the number of inmates involved and believed that there was a potential for the threatened safety of San Francisco. With the entire prison under siege, Johnston called for aid from the Navy, Coast Guard, and the Marines. Cretzer, now desperate, and realizing that the hostages (all prison correctional officers) would probably credit him with plotting and executing his second escape attempt, pointed his pistol into the crowded cell of officers and opened fire.
The fighting lasted two full days, and finally with no place to hide from the ceaseless gunfire, Cretzer, Coy, and Hubbard retreated to a utility corridor for shelter. The rest of the accomplices returned to their cells in hope that they would not be identified as being direct participants in the break attempt. In the violent aftermath, Cretzer, Coy, and Hubbard were killed in the corridor from bullet wounds and shrapnel. One officer, William Miller, died from his injuries. A second officer, Harold Stites, was shot and killed during an attempt to regain control of the cell house. Thompson and Shockley were later executed together in the gas chamber at San Quentin for their role in the murder of Officer Miller, and Carnes received an additional 99-year sentence.
The most famed escape attempt was that of Frank Lee Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin. In 1962, a fellow inmate named Allen West, helped the trio devise a clever plan to construct a raft, inflatable life vests and human dummies to fool guards during the routine counts. Over the course of several months, the inmates fabricated the dummies and used special tools stolen from various prison work sites to chip away at the vent.
The vent was a 10x6-inch metal, thatch-patterned opening located at the rear of each cell. Their ingenuity came from their ability to create methodically replicated grills that hid the chipped away cement and the lifelike decoys that would deceive guards during closely visualized counts. The quality of the faked grills and dummies were remarkable. The inmates had utilized paint kits and a soap and concrete powder to create the lifelike heads with human hair that had been collected from the barbershop. The preparations took over six months of fabricating.
On the night of June 11th, 1962, immediately following the 9:30 head count, Morris and the Anglins scaled the utility shafts to the roof. West, whom the FBI believed had possibly been the mastermind, spent the majority of his time building the decoys, and wasn't able to make as much progress widening the concrete vent opening in his cell. Once they reached the roof, they climbed through a ventilator duct where they had spread apart the thick metal bars, and made their way to the edge of the roof. After descending utility pipes on the cell house's cement wall, all three scaled a 15-foot fence and made it to the island shore where they inflated their rafts and life vests. All three ventured out into the freezing Bay and were never seen again. During the morning count a guard probed his club through one of the inmate's cells; the dummy head rolled off the bed and fell to the floor.
Did they escape? The story was dramatized in several books and the famous motion picture staring Clint Eastwood and Fred Ward, Escape from Alcatraz. The FBI actively pursued the case for several years but never came across any effectual leads.
The End of Alcatraz
One of the greatest ironies of Alcatraz was that the frigid and treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay, which had proved to be the ultimate deterrent of escape for nearly three decades, contributed to the downfall of America's super-prison. After the escape of Morris and the Anglins, the prison fell under intense scrutiny due to the deteriorating structural condition and the diminishing security measures resulting from budget cuts. The corrosive effects of the saltwater, along with the exorbitant cost of running the prison (Cost at USP Alcatraz was $10.10 per day compared to $3 at USP Atlanta, plus the estimated $5 million needed to restore the prison, provided U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy grounds for closure.
The Indian Occupation
On March 21, 1963, USP Alcatraz closed after 29 years of operation. Over the next few years, various interest groups advanced ideas on how best to use the island. One proposed a West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty, another a shopping center/hotel complex. The island remained essentially abandoned until 1969 when a large group of American Indians descended on Alcatraz and claimed the island as Indian Property.
The Indians articulated great plans, hoping to start an educational Native American Cultural Center. Numerous celebrities as well as the Hell's Angels lent their support. The Indian occupation had both media and the government's attention. Federal officials met with the Indians, often sitting crossed-legged on blankets inside the old prison dining hall, discussing the social needs of the Indians. As the occupation became a cause celebre, the volume of visitors to Alcatraz became overwhelming. The island started to become a haven for homeless and those less fortunate. The Indian leadership soon faced the same problems that the prison administration once faced: no natural resources. All food and water had to be ferried over on a boat. This was an expensive and exhausting process.
Despite special prohibitions declared by the Native Americans, drugs and alcohol were routinely smuggled onto Alcatraz. What there was of social organization soon fell apart, causing the Indians to resort to drastic measures to survive. In an attempt to raise money to buy food, they allegedly began stripping copper wiring and copper tubing from the island buildings for sale as scrap metal. The worst tragedy was when Yvonne Oakes, daughter of one of the key Indian activists, fell to her death from a third-story building balcony. The Oakes family left the island in grave despair and never returned.
In the late evening of June 1, 1970, an accidentally started fire raged throughout the compound, damaging several of the main buildings, and burning down the warden's home, the lighthouse keeper's residence, the Officers Club, and badly burning the historic lighthouse built in 1854.
Federal officials blamed the Indians for the fire while the activists blamed governmental saboteurs. The media, which had been largely sympathetic toward the Indians, turned against them and began to run stories of alleged beatings and assaults. Support for the Indians fell drastically. The original organizers had all abandoned the island, and the remainder fought among themselves with clear evidence of a loss of solidarity and society.
On June 11, 1971, 20 federal marshals along with the Coast Guard descended on the island and removed the remaining residents. All were taken to Treasure Island under protective custody. The evacuation marked the official end at Alcatraz. In 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Alcatraz Island was included as part of the new National Park Service unit. The island opened to the public in the fall of 1973 and has become one of the most popular Park Service sites, with more than one- million visitors from around the world visiting the island each year.
Today Alcatraz is considered an ecological preserve, home to one of the largest western gull colonies on the Northern California Coast. The thrill of being on Alcatraz comes both from an awareness of its historical significance as well as the prison's portrayal through Hollywood and motion pictures. Over the years, many of the former inmates returned to the island amidst the tourists, still trying to come to terms with their imprisonment on Alcatraz, trying to understand why people choose to visit a place that for them is such a monument of anguish.
For more information about Alcatraz, go to Michael Esslinger's web site: www.AlcatrazHistory.com.
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