Weird History

What It Was Like To Be An Inmate At Alcatraz  

Melissa Sartore
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The federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, located off the coast of San Francisco, CA, opened in 1934. Until it closed nearly three decades later, Alcatraz was reserved for some of the most ruthless criminals. Life at Alcatraz was not just about confinement and punishment but discipline and routine. Not everything about Alcatraz was considered undesirable; in fact, some convicts even requested doing time at "The Rock."

Alcatraz's most famous inhabitants included Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud - the so-called "Birdman of Alcatraz" - all men who endured tough conditions, rigorous discipline, and extreme isolation. To be an inmate in Alcatraz meant your days were regimented, your cell was tidy, and you had very few opportunities to interact with others, much less the outside world.  

By the time the prison closed in 1963, conditions had improved a bit, but Alcatraz never lost its reputation as the strictest prison ever operated in the United States.

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There Was A One-Inmate-Per-Cell Rule

Inmates at Alcatraz, which had a capacity of roughly 330 men, had individual cells. This allowed for safety and privacy - inasmuch as one could have them in prison - and some federal prisoners actually requested incarceration at Alcatraz as a result. William "Willie" Radkay, who occupied a cell next to friend and colleague George "Machine Gun" Kelly at Alcatraz, saw having single cells as an advantage, one that prevented unwanted advances.

Cells were divided into blocks, with blocks B and C housing 336 cells that measured 5 feet by 9 feet. Cell block D was reserved for inmates in solitary confinement; while those cells were a bit bigger, prisoners spent 24 hours a day there. The only times cell block D inmates left their cells were for weekly visits to the recreation yard. Cell block A, the most broken-down part of the facility, was never used to house inmates for any significant length of time.

Landing in solitary confinement resulted from breaking rules and could last anywhere from a few days to multiple weeks. According to former inmate Jim Quillen, "A day in the hole was like an eternity."

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Prisoners Had 'Four Rights' - Food, Clothing, Shelter, And Medical Care

Rights and privileges at Alcatraz were very different things. All prisoners had four rights: clothing, food, shelter, and medical care. Anything beyond that had to be earned. 

When a prisoner arrived at Alcatraz, he was sent to the clothing room. Once there, he was stripped of what he was wearing and sent to the showers, then received a standard-issue, stamped uniform. While in the clothing room, prisoners also underwent a cursory medical exam and were strip searched

Prisoners got three meals a day, a roof over their heads, and visited the hospital when needed. Al Capone, for example, spent time in the hospital for symptoms related to syphilis. In addition to first aid and other medical care, the hospital at Alcatraz provided dental and psychiatric services. Until the 1950s, there was a physician-in-residence at Alcatraz, but budget cuts led to the use of contracted doctors during the final years the prison was open. 

The hospital at Alcatraz also served as a permanent home to some prisoners. The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, spent 11 of his 17 years at Alcatraz in the hospital. This was, in part, because he had a kidney condition, but he was also dangerous and needed to be kept away from other prisoners.

Prisoners Could Earn Access To The Library And Other Activities

The library at Alcatraz was located in D-Block and housed roughly 10,000 books. Access to the library was something prisoners earned and, as a result, the privilege could be taken away at any time.  

Getting a book didn't involve visiting the library, however. Each morning, prisoners with library privileges filled out a card requesting items. According to former inmate Floyd Harrell, "Every prisoner had a catalog listing of books that were supposed to be in the library." Books, magazines, and the like were delivered to the prisoner's cell. All crime-related content was removed ahead of time.

Because reading was one of the few escapes afforded to prisoners, some took full advantage of what the library had to offer. Robert Stroud studied law and reportedly learned several languages, while other inmates took correspondence classes offered through the University of California, Berkeley

In addition to the library, prisoners also earned access to recreational activities like chess or softball, visits with family members, and work duty. During the 1950s, prisoners could listen to the radio via headsets and watch movies in the prison auditorium.

Just like the library, any of these privileges could be taken away if an inmate didn't follow the rules.

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Prisoners Had The Opportunity To Play In The Inmate Band

The Alcatraz band, called the Rock Islanders, was made up of inmates who had earned the privilege to play. There were numerous Rock Islanders over time - including Al Capone, who begged to join and eventually earned a spot. According to a letter Capone wrote to his son while serving time at Alcatraz, he "learned a Tenor Guitar and then a Tenor Banjo, and now the Mandola," and could play more than 500 songs.

The band itself was, in the words of former guard George Gregory, "only a cut above a fourth- or fifth-grade band, but it did wonders for their self-esteem." The band played on holidays in the dining hall with Sunday and special-event performances as well. 

Prisoners could buy musical instruments but, in accordance with the regulations issued in 1956, could only practice "between the hours of 5:30 pm and 7 pm. No singing or whistling accompaniments will be tolerated. Any instrument which is played in an unauthorized place, manner, or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report." Guitar strings were regulated and "an old set of strings" had to "be turned in to the cellhouse officer to draw a new set."