Alcatraz Prison - The Purpose

As forbidding as Alcatraz appeared to those standing on Fisherman's Wharf, the threat of exile to the Rock did not stop men breaking the law. Nor did years of banishment and ill treatment move the inmates to repent for their crimes. Alcatraz denied the inmates the freedom to pursue their lives of crime, but, in its best moments, it gave them the means to self-reform and recovery from the worst abuses of the free and the caged life.

The idea of the reformatory disgusted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who believed that convicts should be made to suffer for their felonies. To appease Hoover and to ensure the success of the Bureau's classification program, the bureau of prisons opened a new super-prison on Alcatraz Island, in the San Francisco Bay.

Hoover personally recommended several star hoodlums and thieves for incarceration on the Rock. The FBI Chief wanted those who had made themselves famous through thuggery and banditry to disappear from the front pages of newspapers, their names and faces erased and replaced in the general imagination by the grey summit of a submerged mountain. Alcatraz was where the public enemies went to be forgotten.

To oversee this most unforgiving of penitentiaries, the BOP chose a man who combined strict discipline with a zeal for progressive reform. James A. Johnston, a local Republican banker, had been warden of the maximum security institutions at San Quentin and Folsom. Here he had taken a strong stand against torture, ending the use of the hooks, the Oregon boot, and other maiming devices. Johnston promised the Justice Department that the "confirmed criminals" of Alcatraz would not be allowed to commit more crimes and that "nothing would be done to coddle" such men. To those convened for a special "crime clinic" in Washington, the warden said:

Insistence on absolute obedience to regulations and the orders of those in authority is essential. I would not make a fetish of rules. I prefer reason. But there are rules of reason and reasonable rules, and prisoners should be compelled to obey them; otherwise no progress can be made toward reformation, because chief of the criminal's faults is disobedience.

Johnston distinguished between men who were trying to go straight and those who had made crime their profession. He employed slight hyperbole when he said:

When a man is known to have committed a dozen or more serious crimes and to have been properly convicted and imprisoned three or four times, it would seem as if he had demonstrated unwillingness or inability to earn a living honestly and to respect the rights of others.

Habitual criminals, Johnston felt, were creatures of extreme ego. So Johnston's program for the Alcatraz felons was calculated to chasten them. Big men were to be made small. From the moment an inmate arrived on the Island, it was impressed on him that he was powerless. A show of arms greeted each new arrival. Each man marched into the Main Cell house and stripped as the warden, his guards, and the medical staff appraised him. "There is very little egotism left in a man when you parade him before other men in his birthday suit," Johnston told Alfred P. Reck of the North American Newspaper Alliance.

Warden James A. Johnston

Though beatings were not a part of the Warden's plan and expressly forbidden by order of the BOP's Director, they happened, perhaps without Johnston's knowledge. Those brought to live out a space of their lives on Alcatraz entered a world in which every fixture and every routine humiliated them. Frequent counts and strict procedures made each man findable at any hour of the day. The program instilled in them a tractable spirit. The function of the case-hardened steel bars; of the labyrinth of catwalks and barbed wire crisscrossing the skies over the prisoners' heads; of the dank, brick dungeons underfoot; of the empty Isolation rooms; of the sacrosanct rule of silence; of the mirror sheen of the concrete floors; and of the guards who moved up and down the aisles six times a day, counting each man and not missing a one was to evoke awe: Awe of the penitentiary. Awe of the Bureau of Prisons. Awe of Federal law enforcement which had plucked these recidivists from their lives of exalted desperation and placed them upon this almost barren rock in the middle of a spread of cold water. The Rock was intended to be a place of ignominious anonymity and damnation for the prizes in the war on crime.

Alcatraz stood alone in the San Francisco Bay and alone in the national consciousness. Johnston made his cell house different from every other prison under BOP authority. The men could not speak to each other in the main cell house or in the dining hall. They labored, but received no good time allowance or other payment. The Rock had no commissary where inmates could buy candy bars and other variety foods. As time passed, though the rules softened a little, Alcatraz became an anomaly. Less coercive approaches used at other prisons succeeded in lowering the recidivism rate. Men on the Rock continued to serve hard time, however, and progressives, who were under siege by martinets in the Department of Justice and in the Congress, worried about the kind of icon Alcatraz presented. James V. Bennett, who succeeded Sanford Bates as the Director of the Bureau in 1937, grew increasingly uneasy with this penological anachronism:

The air of a tomb, a place of no return, was settling on the island, and even the fact that no man had ever escaped from Alcatraz was adding to my uneasy sense that I was presiding over an American Siberia. More serious to me was the fact that Alcatraz was now a symbol of retributive justice -- the sort of tough prison that all prisons ought to be, according to many.

James V. Bennett

Bennett quietly exerted his authority over Johnston to give even the ruthless public enemies the chance to redeem themselves. Following his superior's suggestions, Johnston abolished the rule of silence and allowed men to earn good time and a little spending money by working in prison industries, at half the rate granted at other Federal institutions. Many Alcatraz convicts distinguished themselves during the Second World War, making cargo nets, doing the laundry, and performing other important war work. For this, they were rewarded. The chances for reform were few, however, because Alcatraz had not been built to grant individual self-improvement opportunity, but to provide institutional stability.

Alcatraz Timeline

The Rock was there, year after year, doing its job of holding the most desperate of Federal prisoners. If the staff could not suppress stories about the penitentiary and its special inmates; if they could not discourage sight-seeing boats from circling the island just outside the 200 yard limit; if they could not hinder the tourist trade which set up telescopes and did a brisk business in Alcatraz souvenirs which kept the name of the public enemies alive; if they did not always give to the prisoners the treatment that was best for them and for Society, they could boast that the walls and the sea surrounding the penitentiary kept the public enemies under the Bureau's control and out of American Society. Rumors of sighting of Cole, Roe, the Anglins and Frank Morris aside, there is no doubt that it attained this purpose.