Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx
Q. What is your purpose in providing this site?
A. To make original documents and research based on those documents available to students, scholars, genealogists, reporters, casual browsers, and others interested in Alcatraz and general prison history.
Q. Where did you get all the materials for this project?
A. Most of what you see here came from the National Archives in San Bruno, California, Record Group 129. Over the last few years, the Bureau of Prisons has released these records to the general public. I've been going through these files, selecting well-known or otherwise interesting prisoners, and preparing their stories for publication here. The task hasn't been entirely easy. Some files were stolen by BOP officials or staff. Others were burned by Native American activists. Still others -- including the records of many famous convicts -- are being hoarded by a single academic. Some documents which do exist are in bad condition.
I've also included materials gathered from court records, General Services Administration files, newspaper accounts, other local archives, and from the Bureau of Prisons itself. [For more information on the sources, click here]
Q. Why did you choose to cover the years from 1933 through 1948?
A. The Warden Johnston years attracted me for several reasons. First, Johnston's tenure marked the formative years of the prison when many things were tried out. We must remember that, despite the numerous reports of abuse that came out of the prison, that Johnston was a reformer who'd eliminated many physical tortures during his management of San Quentin. It interests me to look at the record as it stands and mark both his contributions to more humane treatment of prisoners and his short-sightedness. Johnston was not a simple man nor did he face simple problems. As the site grows, you'll get a picture of how he shaped Alcatraz and how the Rock shaped him. I hope you will also ask if this was the best way to deal with the crime problem of the 1930s.
Second, it was during these years that many of the big events happened: the general strikes of 1936 and 1937; escape attempts by Arthur "Doc" Barker and his many confederates; the Henri Young trial; the sensational reports of abuse by prison guards; and the 1946 Blast-Out are a few of the incidents that led me to look deeper into this time period.
Third, I wanted to set the record straight about certain things regarding the prison. I was very moved by the film Murder in the First, for example, but then I learned the real Henri Young story and wanted to tell it like it was. Hollywood made Henri into a saint, which he was not. I think the true story of Henri Young remains a powerful case for preserving human dignity, though I would add in haste that he was not, by any means, an easy person to show patience towards.
Fourth, the period wasn't unlike the one we live in now in that the solution to the nation's crime problem was thought to be "build more prisons". Alcatraz was designed to be a super prison for the BOP's toughest cases. Why some men ended up there remains an interesting question. I don't claim that the individuals I've picked are representative, just that they raise interesting questions about how we treat inmates.
Finally, we can't forget that this was the "Golden Age" when Alcatraz held most of the big names of crime: Al "Scarface" Capone, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, "Machine Gun" Kelly, Arthur "Doc" Barker, Robert Stroud, and Henri Young are just a few of the names we remember from this period. Others were famous in their time and some obscure people, like Bernard Paul Coy, broke into our consciousness when they tried to escape. Warden Johnston strived to make Alcatraz an island of forgotten men. Having served time on Alcatraz became a mark of distinction, however, and the whole public consciousness of the Rock at the time and now ensures that those who went there will not be forgotten.
Q. What is the future of this site?
A. I intend to keep delving into the files. The lives of many of the big names remain obscure and their records scattered in institutions across the country. It would be nice if all the prisoner files, including the military ones, could be consolidated at NARA San Bruno.
It's my goal to tell the prison stories of all the "public enemies" who were kept on the Rock, of the strikes, of the escapes, of the trials, and of the little men who tell us something about the way we saw (and still do see) those who violate society's rules and those who guard us from them. You'll have a deep understanding of the Rock by the time you finish reading this site for the first time. And I promise to keep bringing you records, photographs, and other fruits of my research which will inform you and make you think.
And I hope this site will inspire others to look into their own local histories and share them on the Web.