Frequently Asked Questions

Did Alcatraz work?

Alcatraz was designed to be the nation's most secure prison. When we ask if it was a success or not, we are actually asking several questions:

  1. Was Alcatraz escape-proof?

    No one in the Bureau of Prisons believed that there could be any such thing as a 100% escape proof prison, but in the twenty nine years Alcatraz served as America's Devil's Island, no man escaped from it.

  2. Did it deter criminals from committing crimes?

    By this, we mean did the existence of Alcatraz make men think twice before they broke the law. Some in the Bureau of Prisons thought that it kept prisoners in line: if you are bad, they would say, we'll send you to Alcatraz where life is really hard. The evidence for this is slender and based on faith, however: the Bureau never conducted any studies to see if the threat of removal to the Rock frightened convicts into submission. (How could it?) What we do know is that with or without the super prison, crimes still kept getting committed. Lawbreakers thought more about the possibility of getting away with the rewards of their offenses and very seldom about the penalties.

  3. Did it prevent criminals from committing crimes?

    This is a different question from the last one and the answer is Yes. Prisoners on Alcatraz were thoroughly monitored and regulated every hour of their day. There were the occasional stabbings and other outbreaks of violence. Men stole from the commissary and broke prison rules. But the prison kept them inside, away from Society. They could not rob banks or post offices, steal cars, or assault and kill on the outside.

  4. Did it rehabilate criminals?Sometimes it did. When prisoners had opportunities for learning a useful trade and when they received good support from their parole officers, their friends, and their families on the outside, they could turn their lives around. Sometimes, though, the prisoners had no chance to learn skills. They were beaten and mistreated, instilling in them hatred for the system. When they got out, they took their frustrations out on the people they met.