American Siberia:
The Purpose of Alcatraz

by Joel GAzis-SAx

Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

I believe there is a treasure in the heart of every man if we can find it --
if we can help him find it.

James V. Bennett

Like so many other extreme penological experiments, Alcatraz failed as a deterrent. As forbidding as Alcatraz appeared to those standing on Fisherman's Wharf, the threat of exile to the Rock did not stop men breaking the law. Nor did years of banishment and ill treatment move the inmates to repent: Alvin Karpis, for example, was adamant that all the pressures brought to bear on him by the guardians of the Rock did not cause him to regret his crimes. What did lower the recidivism rate throughout the Federal Prison System was allowing even these most desperate of men opportunities to learn new skills.(1) As British prison reformer and historian George Ives observed earlier in the century: "[T]he real offense has never been stopped, never will be, merely by punishments. For strife and evil have their roots in bad social systems, and are not to be removed by anything so simple as cruelty."(2) Alcatraz denied to the public enemies the freedom to pursue their lives of crime, but, in its best moments, it gave them the means to self-reform and recovery from the worst abuses of the free and the caged life.

In 1933, Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Sanford Bates called the country's attention to "The...bold and ruthless depredations of a small group of desperate criminals" whose prominence in the media undermined the public's trust in the Federal Prison System. The Bureau had devised a progressive answer to penology, one which infuriated those harpies who felt that men and women driven to rob a bank or steal a car or forge checks by the necessity of survival during a harsh economic crisis should be punished with long sentences, mandatory minimums, the death penalty, corporal punishment, and other varieties of cruelty. Bates, his assistant James V. Bennett, Attorney General Homer Cummings, and President Franklin Roosevelt saw how prisons acted as crime factories and thought there might be better ways to protect the nation against the mistakes of "the man who is a criminal by force of circumstances, the accidental offender, the feeble-minded, the under-privileged and the sorely tempted."(3)

Federal prison officials had not distinguished between these types of criminal up until the 1930 creation of the Bureau of Prisons by an act of Congress. The Bureau was the product of reformers who were intent on ending political patronage in the administration of prisons, curbing unnecessary cruelty, and dealing with the nation's crime problem rationally. During the 1920s, James V. Bennett toured American prisons on behalf of the Bureau of Efficiency. These "vast, idle houses", Bennett and others observed, did more to create more experienced and determined criminals than to protect the public from crime through the deterent they purported to provide. Convicts filled the empty hours with talk, mostly about the crimes they'd committed and ways they could beat the law. Narcotics addicts and other petty offenders were mixed with killers and robbers. Young felons, who'd taken to crime for nothing more than a thrill or the preservation of their pride against a dare, came out with no marketable job skills but plenty of handy advice from more experienced criminals. Prison officials made sure that their charges had work to do, but often, Bennett found, the labor was pointless:

Some of the more ingenious wardens were devising new ways of keeping their men busy. One warden put a man to work maintaining an electric motor that needed a drop of oil a day. Another assigned a prisoner to keeping salt shakers in straight lines down the rows of tables in the mess hall. Small wonder we were plagued during the Depression by outbreaks of minor, meaningless prison riots.(4)

With President Herbert Hoover's blessing, the Bureau staff set itself the task of humanizing prisons; giving the inmates opportunities for education, job training, and guidance that would allow them to return to open society. The Democratic landslide in the 1932 elections saw the reformers' vision incorporated into a economic and political renaissance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that prisoners, like other victims of America's unplanned economy, should obtain new entitlements. New Deal prisons were not to be places where men and women were to be cast away, forgotten by the outside world, and tormented with filthiness, brutality, and despair. Bureaucrats would possess the means to treat criminals as individuals and help them plan for their release.

The BOP adopted a classification scheme. A review board interviewed each new prisoner and studied his records. The committee then recommended a suitable institution and program of rehabilitation for the convict. Young malfeasants went to reformatories where they were taught trades, free of the influence of hardened cons. Petty offenders spent their terms at minimum security conservation camps. A new Federal Medical Center was established for sick and mentally ill delinquents. Harder cases went to penitentiaries; even in these, however, the Bureau offered opportunities for reform such as prison industries, schools, and a parole board so that malefactors could be afforded all they needed to be self-sufficient in a world filled with unthinking and unforgiving police, politicians, journalists, and vigilantes. Convicts received work assignments and learned skills which they could use to get jobs on the outside. Instead of releasing unsupervised men at the end of a lengthy prison term, the reformers created probation, conditional release, and parole. These gave offenders a chance to become reconciled with the communities they had wronged while remaining under Federal supervision until the end of their maximum sentence. Through the programs of the BOP, New Dealers sought to grant social outcasts hope in a time of all-consuming poverty and paranoia. These penal programs also protected law-abiding citizens by releasing people who wanted to make an honest living rather than easy money. The drop in recidivism meant safer communities.

Not every American was pleased with the new compassion for criminals. The idea of the reformatory disgusted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who believed that convicts should be made to suffer for their felonies. To appease Hoover and to ensure the success of the Bureau's classification program, the BOP opened a new super-prison on Alcatraz Island, in the San Francisco Bay. The BOP took over custody of few dozen murderers, robbers, rapists, and homosexuals from the Army and brought some of its most difficult racketeers, agitators, psychopaths, and prison gangsters. Progressives believed that these men had been ruined by bad conditions in pre-New Deal prisons and wanted them separated from naive first offenders. The BOP wanted to be sure that it controlled the kind of job training young inmates received in its institutions.

Hoover personally recommended several star hoodlums and thieves for incarceration on the Rock. The FBI Chief wanted those who had made themselves famous through thuggery and banditry to disappear from the front pages of newspapers, their names and faces erased and replaced in the general imagination by the grey summit of a submerged mountain. Alcatraz was where the public enemies went to be forgotten.

"They cannot be reformed!" So went the cry for Alcatraz. When local civic groups and politicians balked at the conversion of an Army Disciplinary barracks into an American Devil's Island, the Department of Justice exhorted San Francisco's citizens as "patriotic Americans" to support this "necessary part of the Government's campaign against predatory crime".(5)

To oversee this most unforgiving of penitentiaries, the BOP chose a man who combined strict discipline with a zeal for progressive reform. James A. Johnston, a local Republican banker, had been warden of the maximum security institutions at San Quentin and Folsom. Here he had taken a strong stand against torture, ending the use of the hooks, the Oregon boot, and other maiming devices. Johnston promised the Justice Department that the "confirmed criminals" of Alcatraz would not be allowed to commit more crimes and that "nothing would be done to coddle" such men. To those convened for a special "crime clinic" in Washington, the warden said:

Insistence on absolute obedience to regulations and the orders of those in authority is essential. I would not make a fetish of rules. I prefer reason. But there are rules of reason and reasonable rules, and prisoners should be compelled to obey them; otherwise no progress can be made toward reformation, because chief of the criminal's faults is disobedience.(6)

Johnston distinguished between men who were trying to go straight and those who had made crime their profession. He employed slight hyperbole when he said:

When a man is known to have committed a dozen or more serious crimes and to have been properly convicted and imprisoned three or four times, it would seem as if he had demonstrated unwillingness or inability to earn a living honestly and to respect the rights of others.(7)

Habitual criminals, Johnston felt, were creatures of extreme ego. So Johnston's program for the Alcatraz felons was calculated to chasten them. Big men were to be made small. From the moment an inmate arrived on the Island, it was impressed on him that he was powerless. A show of arms greeted each new arrival. Each man marched into the Main Cellhouse and stripped as the warden, his guards, and the medical staff appraised him. "There is very little egotism left in a man when you parade him before other men in his birthday suit," Johnston told Alfred P. Reck of the North American Newspaper Alliance.(8) Though beatings were not a part of the Warden's plan and expressly forbidden by order of the BOP's Director, they happened, perhaps without Johnston's knowledge. Those brought to live out a space of their lives on Alcatraz entered a world in which every fixture and every routine humiliated them. Frequent counts and strict procedures made each man findable at any hour of the day. The program instilled in them a tractable spirit. The function of the case-hardened steel bars; of the labyrinth of catwalks and barbed wire crisscrossing the skies over the prisoners' heads; of the dank, brick dungeons underfoot; of the empty Isolation rooms; of the sacrosanct rule of silence; of the mirror sheen of the concrete floors; and of the guards who moved up and down the aisles six times a day, counting each man and not missing a one was to evoke awe: Awe of the penitentiary. Awe of the Bureau of Prisons. Awe of Federal law enforcement which had plucked these recidivists from their lives of exalted desperation and placed them upon this almost barren rock in the middle of a spread of cold water. The Rock was intended to be a place of ignomious anonymity and damnation for the prizes in the war on crime.

Alcatraz stood alone in the San Francisco Bay and alone in the national consciousness. Johnston made his cell house different from every other prison under BOP authority. The men could not speak to each other in the main cell house or in the dining hall. They labored, but received no good time allowance or other payment. The Rock had no commissary where inmates could buy candy bars and other variety foods. As time passed, though the rules softened a little, Alcatraz became an anomaly. Less coercive approaches used at other prisons succeeded in lowering the recidivism rate. Men on the Rock continued to serve hard time, however, and progressives, who were under siege by martinets in the Department of Justice and in the Congress, worried about the kind of icon Alcatraz presented. Bennett, who succeeded Sanford Bates as the Director of the Bureau in 1937, grew increasingly uneasy with this penological anachronism:

The air of a tomb, a place of no return, was settling on the island, and even the fact that no man had ever escaped from Alcatraz was adding to my uneasy sense that I was presiding over an American Siberia. More serious to me was the fact that Alcatraz was now a symbol of retributive justice -- the sort of tough prison that all prisons ought to be, according to many.(9)

Bennett quietly exerted his authority over Johnston to give even the ruthless public enemies the chance to redeem themselves. Following his superior's suggestions, Johnston abolished the rule of silence and allowed men to earn good time and a little spending money by working in prison industries, at half the rate granted at other Federal institutions. Many Alcatraz convicts distinguished themselves during the Second World War, making cargo nets, doing the laundry, and performing other important war work. For this, they were rewarded. The chances for reform were few, however, because Alcatraz had not been built to grant individual self-improvement opportunity, but to provide institutional stability. The Rock was there, year after year, doing its job of holding the most desperate of Federal prisoners. If the staff could not suppress stories about the penitentiary and its special inmates; if they could not discourage sight-seeing boats from circling the island just outside the 200 yard limit; if they could not hinder the tourist trade which set up telescopes and did a brisk business in Alcatraz souvenirs which kept the name of the public enemies alive; if they did not always give to the prisoners the treatment that was best for them and for Society, they could boast that the walls and the sea surrounding the penitentiary kept the public enemies under the Bureau's control and out of American Society. Rumors of sighting of Cole, Roe, the Anglins and Frank Morris aside, there is no doubt that it attained this purpose.


(1)See Karpis, The Rock and Quillen, Alcatraz from the inside. Quillen, who survived the shelling of D-Block during the 1946 Blast-Out, makes a strong case for crediting his reform and eventual pardon by President Carter to the chance given him to become an X-Ray Technician. [Return]

(2)Ives, A History of Penal Methods, Publication No. 124: Patterson Smith Reprint Series in Criminology, Law Enforcement, and Social Problems, Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1970.[Return]

(3)Federal Offenders 1933-34, p. 24. (Click here to view the document) [Return]

(4)Bennett, James V., I Chose Prison, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970, pp. 87-88. [Return]

(5)See Response to San Franciscan Concerns. [Return]

(6)San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1934. [Return]

(7)Ibid. [Return]

(8)San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 1937. [Return]

(9)Bennett, p. 114. [Return]

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