As a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz was allegedly one of the toughest. Originally created as a 19th century fort to protect San Francisco Bay, “The Rock” opened to high acclaim as America’s first Super Max prison in 1934.
With 1 guard for every 3 prisoners, and a freedom barrier of cold, choppy, shark infested waters, Alcatraz billed itself as not only the home for the worst of the worst, but also escape proof.
Both claims would later prove somewhat dubious.
Absent former Public Enemy George R. “Machine Gun” Kelly, a man who never fired his weapon in anger, Rock inmates were indeed some of America’s hardest criminals and they did hard time.
The average prisoner spent 23 hours a day alone in his cell under a strict order of silence at all times.
Despite the harsh conditions, a few Alcatraz routines would make the average America envious.
First, the food. While many American’s struggled to feed themselves during the Great Depression, Alcatraz prisoners were fed, on average, 3500 calories per day. While touring the Rock in the late 30’s, one US Senators wife exclaimed to her husband, “My God! These prisoners eat better than us.” She wasn’t far off. Former inmate Willie Radkay recalled Alcatraz cuisine as the best in the entire prison system.
Prisoners generally liked the one inmate per cell policy – it greatly reduced chances of being sexually violated.
Prisoners were also mandated hot water only showers.
The reasoning behind such extravagances was simple. Hot water ensured inmates didn’t get acclimated to the frigid temperatures of San Francisco bay. 3500 calories a day made prisoners less likely to attempt a rigorous one mile swim to shore. Solo cells made it hard to organize a mutiny.
Al Capone did time on the Rock. So did Robert Stroud, a violent killer who was romanticized in a 1962 movie entitled, “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”
What most people don’t know is women and children also claimed the Rock as home. They were family of the staff and they resided in three apartment buildings, one large duplex or four large wooden houses for senior officers. In all, about 300 civilians once lived on Alcatraz at any one time. Official state ID simply listed “Alcatraz” as their address.
The Warden also resided on the Rock in a large home adjacent to the cell house. Trustees provided his cleaning and cooking.
Inmates also provided fresh laundry service at no charge for the residents.
Families enjoyed a private bowling alley, small convenience store and a soda fountain shop.
For those needing to visit San Francisco, the prison boat made twelve daily runs. Since there were no schools on the Rock, children commuted to San Francisco by boat each weekday morning.
Dick Fisher spent part of his childhood on Alcatraz and recalled it as a safe place to grow up. His parents never locked their doors (unless an alarm rang). He recalled, “Moms and dads didn’t worry about burglaries, peeping Toms, gangs, rapes or muggings because all the bad guys were locked up ‘top side.’”
Families and prisoners enjoyed the same movies in the same place – inside a cell house. They just didn’t go at the same time. They also didn’t have access to popcorn or soda.
On Sunday the theatre served as a sanctuary for religious services for inmates and families – again, not at the same time.
Like the inmates, families had rules governing daily life. Children could only keep fish or turtles as pets. They were not allowed to play with knives, bow and arrow sets or toy guns. Many areas were marked off limits and families could not own a camera. Trick-or-treating was also forbidden.
The “escape proof” claim was challenged many times while Alcatraz was open. Among the first occurred in 1937 when two inmates made it to the water the disappeared. They are presumed to have drowned.
On Jan. 13, 1939, Arthur “Doc” Barker, of the infamous “Ma” Barker family, was killed by a prison guard during an escape attempt.
Perhaps the most notorious escape attempt came in June 1962 when inmates Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin, fashioned rubber rafts out of raincoats and ventured into the dark waters never to be seen again. That “escape,” coupled with day to day costs of maintaining a century old fortress/prison, spelled the beginning of the end for Alcatraz. She officially closed as a federal prison on March 21, 1963.