by Darcia Helle

In our modern world of supermax prisons overflowing with gang members, it might be difficult to imagine Alcatraz as a place criminals feared. But the men who spent time locked away on that now famous island prison would probably tell us that today’s inmates have it easy.

The small, rocky island of Alcatraz is located in San Francisco Bay, and sat unused until 1847, when the US Army claimed it as a military fortification. Initially a symbol of military strength, the fortress of Alcatraz included long-range iron cannons and 15-inch Rodman guns. Within twenty years, the modernization of weaponry rendered these defenses, and therefore the fortress, obsolete. At about the same time, the Army found itself in need of a military prison. The natural isolation made Alcatraz the ideal location for this purpose, and soon the fortress was transformed. In 1861, the island of Alcatraz began its 102-year history of housing prisoners, first as an army penitentiary and then as a federal prison.

alc8Civil War prisoners were the first to arrive on Alcatraz, with the inmate population rarely exceeding a couple of dozen at a time. In 1898, the Spanish-American War changed things dramatically, and the prisoner count soared to more than 450. Life on Alcatraz became further complicated in 1906, when hundreds of prisoners were brought over after a catastrophic earthquake in San Francisco. The mass influx of prisoners forced building expansion. A large, three-story cell house was completed on the island’s central crest by 1912, and had nearly reached capacity by the late 1920s.

alc10Rising operational costs of this unexpectedly massive island structure became too much for the army, and in 1933 ownership was handed over to the Department of Justice. The federal government was happy to have this ready-made prison. The Great Depression had brought with it an excessive crime surge. The combination of Prohibition, massive unemployment, and desperation fostered a new era of gangsters and organized crime. This new breed of criminals had taken over large cities, and local prisons were not able to keep these mobsters behind bars. The federal government needed an escape-proof prison where they could lock away the worst of these bad guys. With Alcatraz, they found exactly that.

Alcatraz was immediately transformed into a maximum-security federal prison, designed to hold no more than 300 inmates. Rarely was someone sentenced directly to Alcatraz. Inmates found their way to the island, known as “the rock”, through behavior problems and escape attempts. Once there, inmates had to earn their way to a different prison through good behavior. Parole was not an option from Alcatraz.

alc5Al Capone was one of the first and most infamous prisoners to do time on Alcatraz. Raised in Brooklyn, NY, Capone worked as a bouncer in a number of brothels. He later moved to Chicago where, by 1924, he was heavily involved in running prostitution rings, gambling houses, and bootlegging. His earnings at that time are believed to have exceeded $100,000 per week. Adjusted for inflation, that would be approximately $1.3 million dollars per week today.

Capone loved the limelight and, for a time at least, the public loved Capone. Many people thought of him as a modern day Robyn Hood, as he opened soup kitchens for the poor and used his money to sway politicians. By 1929, Capone’s criminal empire was worth more than $62 million – $835 billion today.

alc11By this time, Capone was living a life of luxury in Palm Beach, Florida, while his underlings ran things back in Chicago. His biggest rival was George “Bugs” Moran, who was cutting into Capone’s bootlegging business. Capone ordered “Machine Gun” McGurn to eliminate Bugs Moran. Ordering this hit would turn out to be Capone’s undoing.

Seven of Bugs Moran’s gang members were gunned down in what became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In a stroke of irony, Bugs, the intended target, got away. Capone’s responsibility for this blood bath was widely known and impossible to ignore. President Herbert Hoover had no choice but to go after Capone. The intensive, undercover operation took nearly five years, but finally the federal government had what they needed to put Capone behind bars.

alc3On October 17, 1931, Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years at Atlanta Federal Prison. But Capone made a mockery of his incarceration. He used his money and political power to bribe the guards and the warden for luxuries and special treatment. His lavish prison life brought him unwanted attention, and in 1934 he was sent to Alcatraz. On that island prison, Capone finally met his match.

alcJames A. Johnston was the first of four wardens at Alcatraz. He made the rules and he did not back down. At the time, the average prison had one guard for every 10-13 prisoners. Johnston insisted on one guard for every three prisoners. The inmates had no commissary. Their reading material was strictly censored, and newspapers and radio were not allowed at all. Inmates received no counseling and were not offered any classes or groups to join. Recreation was severely limited and always monitored. Entertainment was virtually nonexistent. Boredom on Johnston’s Alcatraz was an ongoing and extreme problem for both inmates and guards.

The most controversial of Johnston’s rules was the “Silent System”. Conversation of any sort between prisoners was forbidden. Inmates were deprived of even the most basic human contact. Several inmates were reported to have developed psychological damage during this time. Four long years of this experimental policy proved the system too difficult to enforce and it was permanently abandoned.

alc9The prison’s main corridor, dubbed Broadway, held 168 cells and stood three tiers high. Because this area received the most foot traffic, inmates had little privacy. While uncomfortable, Broadway was much preferred over Cellblock D. Officially called the special treatment unit, this area was also referred to as isolation, segregation, and solitary. Each cell contained a sink, a toilet, and a low-watt light bulb strung from the ceiling. The solid steel door had a small insert that opened in order to push the prisoner’s food through. No form of entertainment was provided or allowed. Each inmate was cut off from all human contact. Five of the cells on the bottom tier were so dark and dank, they earned the nickname “The Hole”.

alc7The strip cell was reserved for particularly difficult inmates. This was a dark, steel-encased cell with no bed, sink, or toilet. The door was solid steel and remained closed at all times. Prisoners were stripped naked and placed inside with no blankets or light. The “toilet” was a hole in the floor. A thin mattress was provided for sleeping hours only.

Time in “the hole” was not supposed to exceed 19 days and time in the “strip cell” was limited to two days. This standard, however, was not always adhered to. Reports were made of prisoners driven insane by the extreme sensory deprivation caused by too much time in both of these types of cells.

alc6This is the world Al Capone suddenly found himself thrown into. James A. Johnston ensured that Capone was given no special privileges. After several failed attempts to con or bribe Johnston, Capone finally admitted defeat and remarked, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.”

Capone’s stay on Alcatraz was far from the luxury he’d experienced at Atlanta Federal Prison. He spent some time in isolation, and was stabbed with shears by a fellow inmate. Eventually the syphilis bacteria he’d been infected with years prior got the better of him. In 1938, when he became symptomatic, Capone was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

By the 1950s, Alcatraz’s structure began to deteriorate. The salt air had corroded the metal and concrete. Around 1961, the power plant became a problem, causing electrical blackouts. Plumbing pipes were cracked and major structural repair was needed. During 1960-61, the Bureau of Prisons spent $300,000 on renovations. An estimated $4 million more would be required to keep Alcatraz from falling apart.

alc4Repairs were not the only factor in the high maintenance costs of Alcatraz. Because of its isolation, all supplies, including water, had to be trucked in and sent over by boat. This meant that even everyday expenses for this prison were much higher than all others. The cost per prisoner was almost three times higher at Alcatraz than at any other U.S. Prison at that time.

By 1962, officials decided the costs were not worth the benefits and it was time to close Alcatraz. Construction had already begun on the US Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, the replacement for Alcatraz. On March 21, 1963, the last 27 prisoners were transferred from the island prison over to Illinois. Alcatraz officially closed in June of 1963.


Please click to below to view Darcia’s Helle’s previous post:

Cyberspace, Darknet, Murder-for-Hire and the Invisible Black Machine

darcDarcia Helle lives in a fictional world with a husband who is sometimes real. Their house is ruled by spoiled dogs and cats and the occasional dust bunny.

Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.

Join Darcia in her fictional world:

The characters await you.


18 Responses to Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom

  1. mrsh says:

    Interestingly enough….In Texas prison is very similar to the way Alcatraz is described and worse in some ways. Thanks for the education I learned something new.

    • Darcia Helle says:

      There is an interesting mix of better and worse with the new prisons. Today’s wardens can’t get away with the kind of strict rules Johnston implemented. I once asked a prison guard why the inmates weren’t forced to conform in the way the military is, as a way to teach the men and women a better sense of rules, etc. He told me they can’t force inmates to cut their hair because of “religious freedoms”.

      • PatrickHMoore says:

        I suppose it’s a kind of old school versus new school conundrum. Either way it’s unfortunately hell.

  2. Lise LaSalle says:

    Excellent piece Darcia and very informative. To think that it is now a tourist attraction boggles the mind. It’s the last place I would want to tour but I guess it has a Noir quality to it.

    I wonder if Capone ‘medical’ condition was paid for to get out of this hell hole.

    • Darcia Helle says:

      My husband and I went to Alcatraz a decade or so ago. Very cool place in a fascinating, macabre kind of way.

      Capone actually had neurosyphilis, which is a brain/spinal cord disease caused by untreated syphilis. He wound up with a kind of psychosis because of it. I think he was in Terminal Island prison for about a year before being released. But his condition was not treatable, and he needed constant care.

      • PatrickHMoore says:

        Among federal prisons, Terminal Island today is a Level 3 Medical Center which means it’s not quite a hospital, but can — at least in theory — provide medical treatment for numerous conditions. That being said, the weakness of the medical treatment provided by the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) is legendary among those in Federal practice here in the US.

        • Darcia Helle says:

          That would be an interesting topic to explore, Patrick. I remember reading some horror stories about the medical “care” given to inmates. I think it was the book Inside: Life Behind Bars In America, though I’m not sure. I’d have to go through my library to be sure.

    • Rick says:

      Lise – As a true crime aficionado, you really should go on a tour of Alcatraz. Visiting there really allows you to place yourself in the shoes of the inmates who lived there, like Capone and Frank Morris and his brother who attempted to escape from there. Alcatraz must have been an amazingly dark, dank, spartan place in which to be imprisoned.

  3. […] Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom […]

  4. […] Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom […]

  5. […] Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom […]

  6. […] Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom […]

  7. FallingBrick says:

    $62,000,000 would be $835 MILLION, not BILLION as stated in the story.

    $100,000 in 1924-1929 would indeed be about $1.3 MILLION as shown in the story.

    $62,000,000 is 620x $100,000

    620x $1.3 MILLION ~ $825 MILLION

  8. […] Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom […]

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