1933. As Attorney General Homer Cummings was returning to California from a trip to Alaska his boat passed the San Francisco Bay. Cummings, the Chicago-born progressive, now working for FDR, spotted the old Disciplinary Barracks on the island. The War Department was looking to give up responsibility for the island which had previously acted as a Military Prison and a Fortress going back to the Civil War. This was great luck for Cummings, who was looking for an ideal place to home a state-of-the-art maximum security prison.
This new type of prison was part of Cummings long campaign to reign in the crime wave that spread across the country. As the era of the old west bandit came to a close, new types of crime were imported and created in their place. Black hand extortion rings popped up in most cities that had large, Italian immigrants. This style of extortion was achieved by sending anonymous blackmail letter’s to local businesses and officials with the strong implication of “pay up, or else!” The or else varied. This type of intimidation could be traced back to the “old world”, but would be perfected in Chicago.
In Chicago brothels and racketeering in drugs, gambling and “protection”. One of the most visible of the racketeers was Big Jim Colissimo, who ran Colosimo’s Cafe. Chicago’s underground drank and socialized alongside the business men and Chicago officials. Colosimo’s big innovation was to decentralize brothel’s. Bring the business nearer to the customer’s instead of one central location.
:::::A new type of criminal was emboldened by fast getaway cars, seemingly unstoppable Thompson Sub-Machine Guns, firing up to 850 rounds and minute and laws that tied the hands of local law enforcement. Endless streams of money from bank robbing and distributing illegal liquor drew in many men during the depression era. Cummings was appointed by Roosevelt to stop this new breed of criminal. Dead or Alive.::::
Cummings would focus on extending federal law beyond the act of interstate kidnapping. Bank robbery, crossing state lines with stolen goods and the possession of sawed off shot guns, suppressors and machine guns. He would hand these new powers over to the FBI to hunt down and stop these criminals.
The construction of the prison was overseen by Attorney General Cummings, Director of the Federal Prisons Sanford Bates and the newly appointed Warden Johnston. Their main priority was to punish the worst of the worst. Prisoners who had caused trouble at other prisons. These prisoner’s would be recommended by the warden’s of other Federal institutions. Often referred to as incorrigible these men included rioters, murderer’s and prisoner’s who had previously escaped.
These escapee’s were a fairly large proportion on the inmates who would be imprisoned in Alcatraz. Warden Johnston later noted that of the 85 men that were taken in at Alcatraz, they had a total of 100 jail and prison escapes between them.
Guard tower’s were erected. Tool proof steel bars installed. Barbed wire was added to large fences around the perimeter and the jagged edged cliff’s below the buildings. Metal detector’s were setup at various points throughout the prison. These were despised by the inmates because they believed they could be manually triggered to set off the alarm by guards looking to harass a particular inmate. The water’s for a two mile radius around the island would only allow the passage of government ships to pass. Additionally the crashing waves of freezing shark infested waters would play an additional natural barrier to escape.
Upon entering the prison the cell house was divided into four separate cell blocks that ran the length of the building separated by corridors named after famous streets. (There are maps available on sohpodcast.com/alcatraz1) Cell Block A was no longer in use. During the upgrades before opening in 1934, there was a shortage of tool proof steel and Cell Block A was never upgraded. Cell blocks B and C were where new inmates and the main population was housed. B and C were located in the center of the the main cell house and divided by “Broadway”, the main corridor that lead from the entrance at the Administrative Office and terminated at the dinning hall. Across both far ends gun galleries were installed, connected by catwalks that would give the guards an advantage from their perch. In the middle of Broadway there was a “cutoff” that created a physical barrier to anyone trying to easily pass through the corridor.
D block was designated the disciplinary unit for Alcatraz. Facing the west windows, the D block was the most exposed to the weather in the bay creating cold and damp cells. Six of the 42 high security cells were used for solitary confinement. These cells often known as “the hole,” had two security doors that allowed in no light or sound from the outside. One of the two doors was operated electronically by a guard in the gun gallery and the second had to be manually lowered to a second guard to physically open the door. This added layer of protection would theoretically make it impossible for an inmate to escape “the hole”.
At the end of Broadway, passed the cutoff, there was door that lead into the mess-hall. The mess-hall was considered one of the most dangerous areas of the prison. Here the inmates would have metal tools for eating and also outnumber the guards. This would be the seen of many riots and uprisings. For this reason the mess-hall was equipped with gas canisters in the ceiling that would be deployed at the first sign of trouble. The kitchen was located behind the dinning room. To work in the kitchen afforded prisoner’s more freedom than many of the other industries and made those jobs coveted by inmates.
Beyond the kitchen lies the yard. The yard was a relief from life in the cell blocks. When not locked up or working, prisoner’s could choose to spend their time in the yard or back in their cells. Softball was played in the yard. A hit over the wall was considered an out due to their small field. Horseshoes was played until inmates realized they could be used as weapons and had to be confiscated by guards. Bridge was the most popular game played by inmates. Another popular sport on the yard was handball. Alvin Karpis later wrote that when an inmate was playing extremely hard for weeks on end, he was likely trying to build up his cardio in preparation for an escape attempt that would include swimming across the bay.
In the early years after Alcatraz was turned over from to the Department of Justice there were only a handful of industries for employment of the inmates. Alcatraz was the location of a large Army laundry shop and the prison agreed to continue to do the Army’s laundry as part of the lease agreement for the island. There were also mat shops, which created large rubber mats for the decks of Navy ships. The additional jobs included a dry cleaning industry and smaller crews of men who made up the kitchen staff, a small wood working shop, a tailor and shoe repair facility.
An update to the island that opened in 1941 added the New Industries Building to the island that expanded the current industries and added a brush making factory as well as administrative offices that would hire inmates as accountants and other administrative tasks in addition to their industry jobs.
Prisoner’s would earn five to twelve cents and hour depending on their pay level. This pay didn’t amount to much even for prisoner’s. The wages earned could only be used to buy pre approved magazine subscriptions, domino’s or musical instruments. Another common luxury was to buy a personal copy of Culbertson’s Beginners Book of Bridge, the most requested book in the library. The lack of a commissary didn’t allow for the sale of candy, personal goods and other luxuries.
Job’s came with other perks. The cooks had access to their own food. So did the bakers. The men in the shop had access to materials and tools. Librarians were allowed to freely move across the cell blocks and drop of information quietly from one cell to another.
“At Alcatraz, suicide was not an infrequent state of mind, and was often prevented only by tight security, the lack of privacy and the lack of a means to accomplish it. One form of suicide was trying to escape.” – Quillen