A secure lump of steel and concrete sat on an island surrounded by unforgiving currents. Home to as many as 300 convicted felons, Alcatraz was coined the highest security prison in America. Day to day, Alcatraz was also the most expensive prison, state or federal, to operate in the nation. The dark hostile image of Alcatraz grew as Hollywood dramatized the brutal conditions and glamorized the inmates who withstood them.
Were the conditions at Alcatraz really any tougher than any of the other state prisons of the era? And did those inmates who attempted to escape the rock succeed? And is it possible to swim from the island of Alcatraz to the San Francisco bay? Today, we’ll go inside one of the world’s most infamous correctional facilities, in this episode of The Infographics Show – What was it like to be jailed at Alcatraz?
The first Alcatraz warden, James Johnston, had a tough reputation and ran the prison with an iron fist. Prisoners weren’t allowed to speak to one another at all, except for brief exchanges at break times. Speaking aloud generally resulted in a trip to the dungeon or an isolation cell. Eventually the inmates realized, however, that there were not enough isolation cells to hold them all simultaneously, so they began to relax and speak en mass.
This eventually resulted in a relaxation of the talking ban. Magazines and newspapers were banned, as the inmates weren’t allowed to read about sex or crime. Contrary to popular belief, the inmates weren’t all hardened criminals. Anyone who had committed a federal offence might have been sent to Alcatraz. Prisoners included shoplifters who had stolen from a store with a post office branch inside, and folks who had carried alcohol across state lines.
A total of 336 cells were in B and C block and a further 36 segregation cells, and 6 solitary in D block. A block was used mostly for storage. The cells in B and C block were 5 feet deep by 9 feet wide, with a small cold water sink. You could extend your arms and touch both sides of the cell, which is something you might get around to trying if you were imprisoned in one for a year or more.
Having your own cell means that there is less chance of being sexually assaulted compared with other prisons, and many prisoners found the privacy beneficial. You would be allowed an approved visit once a month at Alcatraz, but you wouldn’t allowed to touch that visitor nor discuss any current events; conversations were via intercom, and usually monitored. Inmate Willie Radkay, who shared a cell next to Machine Gun Kelly, is on record saying that the food at Alcatraz was better than any other prison he’d been at.
Alcatraz may not of been the brutal hellhole illustrated by many a Hollywood movie, but it was no picnic either. Inmates were marched from place to place, worked under tough conditions, and had a strict daily routine. Each morning at 6.20am, a whistle blew, prisoners rose, made their beds, and generally tidied up their cells, washed and dressed. At a quarter to 7, inmates moved to the mess hall, where guards supervised seating and serving, giving the signal to start and stop eating. Work detail was split into laundry, tailoring, cobbling, modeling, gardening, and other labor details.
At 9.30, there was a rest period in which inmates were allowed to smoke in permitted areas, but not allowed to crowd together. At 9.40, it was back to work until 11.30, when a count was taken and it was back to the mess hall for food, and then back to the cells. 12.30 back to work until 4.15pm, final eating, and 4.50pm final lock-up and a head count. At 9.30pm, the lights were put out. There were three more counts at midnight, 3am and 5am. The prisoners nicknamed the central walkway Broadway, and other walkways were named Park Avenue and Michigan Avenue. The area between cell blocks and the mess hall was named Times Square. At either end was the gun gallery walkway enclosed by bars patrolled by armed guards who from that vantage point had a clear shot at the cell blocks.
A prisoner named Bernard Coy decided to break that routine and attempted one of the most brutal attempts to escape the prison when he hatched up a plan that ended in The Battle of Alcatraz in May 1946. Two guards and three inmates were killed and several were injured in the attempted outbreak. Kentuckian bank robber Coy along with five other inmates dreamed up the escape plan. Coy smeared himself in axel grease and climbed the West End Gun Gallery.
He used some tools crudely fashioned in the prison workshop to manipulate the bars open to a width of ten inches, which due to Coy’s partial starvation of himself, was wide enough to squeeze through. Coy then took on the first guard, and with brute strength knocked him to the ground before strangling him unconscious with his necktie. He then lowered firearms and riot clubs to his accomplices below, who swiftly took 9 unarmed guards hostage.
However, they were unable to locate the key to the recreational yard, as one of the guards had concealed it in the toilet of the cell he was being held hostage in. Three other inmates were released from their cells, but by this time, the breakout was discovered and the distress sirens wailed. San Francisco Coast guard and Marines were alerted, and together they blocked all of the industry working inmates, while inside the prison a battle was raging. Two inmates were shot dead in the battle before the guards took back control of the prison. Other escapes were attempted.
Joseph Bowers was shot and killed climbing a fence in 1936. Two prisoners escaped the prison in 1937, but it is generally understood that they died crossing the water, although their bodies were never discovered. In 1962, brothers Clarence and John Anglin, and Frank Morris (probably the most famous escapees) chipped away with spoons at the concrete around ventilation grates in their cells. They moved through a maintenance area and made a raft with life jackets and raincoats. After that they avoided being detected in the nightly headcount by leaving paper mache heads in their bunks. They hopped a fence to the bay.
Again the trio was considered drowned yet made famous in the Hollywood, Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood. Television show Mythbusters tested a raft across the same stretch of water and found that the escape was technically possible. And for those who think swimming the distance to the mainland undoable, there’s an annual Alcatraz swimming trip open to all open water swimmers willing to tackle the 3.6 miles around the island, or the easier 1.25 miles from the island to the mainland.
So what do you think? Would you be able handle conditions in a state prison? Or would you make a break for it and swim from the island to the mainland? Perhaps you’ve been to the island before? Please enter your comments in the comments section below and join in the discussion. Also, be sure to watch our other video called How Rich was Cleopatra and other Pharaohs? Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe, see you next time