The Return Address Controversy

In 1939, the Bureau of Prisons decided to require prisoner mail to be addressed in a special way. Alcatraz prisoners, concerned that their relatives would be ostracized because of the postmark and return address, wrote letters of protest to Attorney General Frank Murphy.

Prison authorities sympathized with the convicts' complaints. Warden Johnston understood the importance of correspondence. Letters gave inmates something to do while they waited for lights out during the long evening and kept relationships with family members alive. (Alcatraz regulations restricted correspondence to members of the immediate family.) Reducing the recidivism rate was extremely important to the BOP's New Deal agenda. The Parole Board counted on interested relatives helping discharged convicts. If a former criminal went out into the world alone and without such support, he'd be more readily tempted to return to old habits.

Both Johnston and his boss, James V. Bennett, looked for ways to avoid branding prisoners with the stigma of the Rock; to protect the dignity of their relatives; and to preserve their family ties. This document collections shows how the BOP found itself struggling with an unlikely adversary: The Post Office Department.

Special Instructions for Addressing Envelopes
Samuel Charles Berlin's Letter of Protest
Herbert Alvin Stanley's Letter of Protest
Johnston Explains the Problem
Johnston Proposes some Solutions
Implementation Difficulties

Return to Chronology