Al Capone sat in his hotel suite in Chicago in 1929 and laughed at the judicial system. America’s most infamous gangster saw no cause to worry. Prohibition, which banned the sale of booze between 1920 and 1933, had created a remarkable business opportunity for criminals nationwide. And Capone was a true opportunist. He had grossed more than $50 million that year, mostly from illicit beer sales.
President Herbert Hoover was infuriated by the man’s flouting of authority and regularly asked his Department of Justice associates, “Have you got that fellow Al Capone yet?” Finally, in 1931, the feds got Capone. He was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to a term of 11 years. But prison didn’t scare him. In fact, Capone made himself comfortable at the United States Penetentiary in Atlanta by bribing the staff for special privileges.
Three years later, John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber, escaped from his second jail in just months. Using what he claimed was a wooden gun he had whittled (as was reported in Time magazine), Dillinger drove away from an Indiana jail—where he was being held for shooting a police officer—in the sheriff’s car.
The federal government was suitably embarrassed and decided to build a new, escape-proof penitentiary where handpicked guards could not be bribed and the warden’s conduct would be beyond reproach—where guys like Capone (and America had plenty of gangsters, robbers and kidnappers in the ’30s) would have a bit of starch taken out of them. Where all of the nation’s bad eggs could be gathered in one maximum-security basket.
What America needed, many believed, was not just an honest prison but an island prison, similar to Devil’s Island, the French penal colony off the coast of South America, surrounded by the sea, where escape was difficult and conditions were harsh. Historian Richard Gid Powers writes, “The public wanted proof that the government was getting tough [on crime]…. Adopting the popular notion of an American Devil’s Island was a made-to-order way of giving the country what it wanted.”
In 1934, America got the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, on a 22-acre island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, later christened “the Rock.” Alcatraz wasn’t merely an island; it was a visible island, in plain sight of newspaper photographers and visitors to San Francisco. The island was actually first a prison in 1861, as a military facility under control of the U.S. Army. More than 70 years later, it communicated a politically useful message to crime-weary Americans: Your Government Is Actually Doing Something to Restore Law and Order!
The complex of numerous structures included a huge cellblock, so infrastructure was already in place in the early 1930s when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons began casting around for the proposed island prison site. In August 1934 the first group of convicts arrived by train. Among them was Capone (pictured below).
The gangster and his new block mates soon realized that Alcatraz was going to be tough. Warden James A. Johnston instituted a raft of rules and intended to enforce them. Other federal prisons allowed radios—a cherished privilege. Alcatraz forbade them. Newspapers were also prohibited. Magazines were censored. A tight clamp was put on any semblance of an underground prison economy, including the market for homemade liquor. Inmates at other federal pens enjoyed fairly liberal visitation policies, but at Alcatraz a prisoner could visit with his wife or a relative just once a month.
A day in the life of a prisoner at Alcatraz was “routinized, controlled and monotonous,” write sociologists and historians David Ward and Gene Kassebaum. A wake-up bell rang at 6:30 a.m. Breakfast was served at 7. (Food was available in unlimited quantities so long as the prisoner cleaned his plate.) Work assignments filled most of the day (laundry, tailor shop, gardening, etc.). A midday meal was served at 11:30 and supper came at 4:25 p.m. At 4:50, men were locked in their cells and ordered to remain silent for the next 13-plus hours. Those were long hours, lonely hours; hours for reading, sleeping, painting, composing letters, staring at the walls. The silence was broken intermittently by a cell door clanging, a toilet flushing, an anguished sob from a con having a nightmare, a seagull and occasionally by the mournful foghorns emanating from San Francisco Bay.
Not surprisingly, men fought frequently, often with knives, and as a result were dragged to solitary. They engaged in protests, including hunger strikes and work stoppages. For some of Alcatraz’s citizens, it was simply too much to handle.
“An indescribable something prevails on Alcatraz that is not felt in any other prison,” wrote train robber Roy Gardner in a 1939 book, “…a mixture of hopelessness, hatred, self-pity and cowardice…. Alcatraz changes desperate public enemies into listless, lifeless automatons…. The hours between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. are the hours that sear men’s souls and break their spirits….”
Gardner’s book, Hellcatraz, solidified the Rock’s image as a place of misery that caused many prisoners to crumble psychologically. His descriptions of shattered souls, of men driven to the edge of madness, were undoubtedly accurate. But such fates didn’t befall all prisoners. According to authors Ward and Kassebaum (writing in 2009 after extensive review of documents), most of Alcatraz’s inmates “did not suffer serious psychological damage from their confinement” there; in fact, the prison’s strict regimen actually proved beneficial for many men, the authors reported. The absence of distractions “encouraged self-reflection and provided an opportunity for reevaluating values and priorities.” Many convicts, write Ward and Kassebaum, “decided [at Alcatraz] that they had done enough crime—and enough time.” It helped that men could win transfer to another prison—a less strict one—if they demonstrated good behavior at Alcatraz.
Some took a more direct strategy for leaving the Rock: They tried to escape. Historians have chronicled 14 known attempted escapes from Alcatraz involving 36 convicts. One particularly violent episode came in 1946 and led to a major riot, the so-called Battle of Alcatraz that ended in the deaths of two guards and three inmates. The attempted break is vividly depicted in the 1962 movie Birdman of Alcatraz.
The best-known escape attempt, in June 1962, is the subject of the classic film Escape From Alcatraz (1979) starring Clint Eastwood (above). Four men were involved, three of whom—Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin—made it off the island and were never found. Did they make it to land 1.5 miles away? To freedom? Probably not, says the FBI, citing several factors. For starters, the water of San Francisco Bay is cold enough in June to cause deterioration of body functions within 20 minutes. Secondly, the men never contacted their families for money or assistance. And finally, while it’s true that their bodies were never recovered (proof, say some, that the men got away), people who die in the bay (mainly by jumping off the nearby Golden Gate Bridge) are often swept out to sea by strong currents. (A floating body clad in prison-issue–style denim pants was briefly spotted by a Norwegian freighter crew in July of ’62 about 20 miles northwest of the Golden Gate. A body can float for a full five weeks after drowning, according to coroners and pathologists.)
Capone completed his term at Alcatraz in early 1938 and was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California. By that time, he was showing signs of mental deterioration, reportedly the result of a syphilis infection. He died at his Florida estate in 1947 at the age of 48.
Alcatraz closed 50 years ago in March 1963, deemed too expensive to operate. Today the National Park Service operates the site, which draws 1.5 million visitors annually.
Bob Frost is a freelance writer from San Francisco.