Torture and Punishment
At Alcatraz
A List of Known Facts and Allegations

Use every man after his desert and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.

William Shakespeare
Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Alimentary Rape

Also called "force-feeding". This involved forcing a rubber tube down the throat of a convict on hunger fast and forcing him to ingest a mixture of milk, sugar and eggs. To do this, staff would have to strap the inmate down very securely, open the mouth with a lever, and put the tube in, a painful process for the inmate.

The most notable instance of this happened in 1936 after several prisoners went on a hunger fast. Ten prisoners in all were made to take the tube on this occasion.

During the 1950s, the Rock's Catholic priest had to intervene on behalf of a Puerto Rican prisoner who was fasting for Lent so that this would not be done to him.


Warden Johnston insisted that this did not happen in his prison.

Convict testimony, on the other hand, told of a few instances when prisoners were beaten. Among them were Henri Young and Harmon Waley.

Guard Frank Heaney (who worked after the Warden Johnston years) says in his personal memoir of life as an Alcatraz guard that some senior officers carried blackjacks. A blackjack is a small rubber-covered, lead club. Their possession and use is illegal. Nevertheless, senior officers used these at times to knock prisoners unconscious.

Environmental Torture

Alcatraz was chosen for its isolation amid the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. Cold winds blew off the Pacific Ocean and into the cell house. The dungeon rooms employed old ventilators which let the cold air right into the chamber.

Some guards could be cruel. Alvin Karpis tells the story of one who used to turn on the air conditioning at night in Isolation. Prisoners tried to protect themselves by covering the vents with toilet paper. This guard would clean the paper out with a special hook.

The old Army cisterns near the dungeons probably leaked, giving rise to a prisoner belief that these rooms were below the water line (which they were not).

Sometimes guards turned the hose on a prisoner in the dungeons or The Hole, leaving them to lay in it until the end of their stay or until it evaporated.

Executions, Formal

No prisoners were executed as a court-ordered punishment at Alcatraz. When Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson were convicted of mutiny in the Blast-Out trial, they were sent to San Quentin's death row to be executed in the gas chamber.

Most federal prisons conducted their executions using state facilities. A notable exception occured when Carl Panzram was executed at Leavenworth. Kansas was, at that time, an anti-capital punishment state. A hangman was brought in from Missouri and a scaffold built in the penitentiary. The same was done for Robert Stroud, but the scaffold was never used because he'd been pardoned by President Wilson.

Executions, Informal

Prisoners believed that guards shot to kill during escape attempts. Eyewitness accounts of Joe Bower's death seem to substantiate this unwritten policy.

Prisoners also sought to avenge themselves on guards and other prisoners. The 1938 murder of Guard Royal Cline might be described as an informal execution, carried out against him for his alledged harsh treatment of prisoners. Likewise, prison gangs sometimes carried out stabbings in the yard and the shops against persons suspected to be snitches.

Forfeiture of Good Time

Every prisoner received 2400 days of statutory good time. "Good time" was time knocked off from one's sentence for good behavior. One could lose it for many things including attempting to escape, fighting, and other disruptions.

A special board was convened and the prisoner interviewed. At this time, the board decided whether to take away any of the good time and the amount.

A prisoner could earn back this good time or earn additional good time by working in the prison industries. Prisoners in isolation (who'd often lost all their good time) could not work in the prison industries.

Forfeiture of Privileges

This usually accompanied a stint in The Hole or Isolation. The decision to prevent a prisoner from sending and receiving mail, having visitors, going out into the yard, enjoying books, and eating in the dining hall was made by the Associate Warden.

Sensory Deprivation

The most common form of extreme torture at Alcatraz was the use of the dungeons or The Hole. Considered safe because they were bruiseless, these punishments had been shown harmful to prisoners' mental health by their use in the infamous "Pennsylvania System" during the previous century.

During one's stay in the dungeons or The Hole, one could expect to see no light, hear no sounds, and see no person except for a brief glimpse at a guard twice a day. Inmates given this treatment experienced hallucinations and extreme sensory disorientation. Some were driven to the edge of psychosis and many became depressed and suicidal.

At first, prisoners received bread and water twice a day with a full meal every third day. Later, Johnston amended the rule to allow prisoners to get a bowl of soup each day with a full meal every second day in addition to the bread and water. After the 1936 general strike, it was claimed that the prisoners marched into isolation did not receive any food for two days.

Federal law mandated that no prisoner could spend more than 19 days in solitary confinement.

What was not done

There were no special facilities for physical tortures at Alcatraz. The hooks, the electric shock treatments, the medical experiments, and other horrors found in other world prisons of the time (and, sadly, still to this day) were abhorred by Warden Johnston and the BOP. Johnston is rightly credited with eliminating these punishments in the California prison system. He did not stand for them at Alcatraz.
Return to Alcatraz: The Warden Johnston Years