The Alcatraz Revolt

by James V. Bennett
Director, Bureau of Prisons

The most serious escape attempt in this Bureau's 16-year history occurred this year at Alcatraz. No prisoners escaped but two officers, William A. Miller and Harold P. Stites, lost their lives, and 17 others officers were injured.

The revolt was engineered by six of the most dangerous and desparate of the institution's most intractable inmates, and seems to have been led by a former bank robber and [19] dishonorably discharged soldier who was serving a 25 year sentence. This individual by means of a diabolically clever combination of toilet fixtures and a pair of pipe pincers succeeded in widening the space between two of the bars which protected the "gun gallery." Gaining access to this protected passageway which ran through and above the various cell housing units, the prisoner was able to slug and disarm the officer on duty as he passed from one unit to another. With the firearms thus obtained the prisoners forced unarmed officers to turn over keys with which they released other prisoners and locked up a number of officers as hostages. The escape plot was frustrated at the outset because the prisoners could not obtain the keys to the door leading to the outside yard. But they nevertheless refused to surrender or give up their arms. Thus the mass escape attempt became a revolt and a gun battle between inmates inside and prison officers and law-enforcement authorities outside the main cell block. This ended, as it had to, by the surrender of the prisoners, but only after nearly two days of serious rioting. Three prisoners were killed, including the one who had originally gained access to the gun gallery, and a number were injured.

The "Battle of Alcatraz" strengthened our resolution to be realistic about our job and about the character of the men with whom we deal. However, we are firmly resolved that this experience shall lead to no modification of practices keyed to our basic philosophy of hope and rehabilitation. While some prisoners are desparate and ruthless men who will stop at nothing, not even murder, this small group can not be permitted to impair or handicap programs designed to rehabilitate the more hopeful offenders.

[FEDERAL OFFENDERS 1946: pp. 18-19]