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Alcatraz

Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

David Ward
WITH GENE KASSEBAUM
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 584
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pn7bp
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  • Book Info
    Alcatraz
    Book Description:

    Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin Karpis, "Dock" Barker-these were just a few of the legendary "public enemies" for whom America's first supermax prison was created. InAlcatraz: The Gangster Years,David Ward brings their stories to life, along with vivid accounts of the lives of other infamous criminals who passed through the penitentiary from 1934 to 1948. Ward, who enjoyed unprecedented access to FBI, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Federal Parole records, conducted interviews with one hundred former Alcatraz convicts, guards, and administrators to produce this definitive history of "The Rock."Alcatrazis the only book with authoritative answers to questions that have swirled about the prison: How did prisoners cope psychologically with the harsh regime? What provoked the protests and strikes? How did security flaws lead to the sensational escape attempts? And what happened when these "habitual, incorrigible" convicts were finally released? By shining a light on the most famous prison in the world, Ward also raises timely questions about today's supermax prisons.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94298-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xxi-xxviii)
  5. Introduction: RECONSTRUCTING THE LIFE OF A PRISON
    (pp. 1-10)

    Few periods in U.S. history have been without infamous criminals—those murderers, assassins, traitors, robbers, or outlaws whose unlawful acts, real or alleged, have inspired some combination of fear and outrage among Americans. While these lawbreakers often had sensational and well-publicized captures, trials, and executions, if they landed in prison they served their time along with more ordinary inmates in ordinary prisons—that is, until Alcatraz. When this federal penitentiary began operations in the summer of 1934 on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, it opened a new chapter in American penal history as a prison...

  6. PART I ALCATRAZ FROM 1934 TO 1948

    • 1 THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S WAR ON “PUBLIC ENEMIES”
      (pp. 13-48)

      On April 27, 1926, Illinois Assistant State’s Attorney William H. Mc-Swiggin was in a Cicero saloon drinking beer with five other men—a former police officer and four gangsters, one of them a man he had unsuccessfully prosecuted for murder a few months earlier. As McSwiggin and the others walked out of the bar, Al Capone and his men opened up with machine guns. Several members of the group jumped to safety behind an automobile but three men, including McSwiggin, were hit. As Capone and his henchmen roared away, the survivors placed the wounded men in an automobile and drove...

    • 2 A NEW FORM OF IMPRISONMENT
      (pp. 49-69)

      On October 12, 1933, Americans listening to the Flag Association’s radio series heard U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings announce that the federal government was building a new prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for convicts with “advanced degrees in crime.” The prison, he explained, would symbolize the federal government’s determination to reestablish law and order in American society. “Here may be isolated the criminals of the vicious and irredeemable type,” said Cummings, “so that their evil influence may not be extended to other prisoners who are disposed to rehabilitate themselves.” Among the prison’s first inmates, he promised, would...

    • 3 SELECTING THE “WORST OF THE WORST”
      (pp. 70-96)

      It was one thing to design a new federal prison for the likes of Machine Gun Kelly and Harvey Bailey and another to fill the 270 cells on Alcatraz with inmates appropriate to the prison’s mission. Bureau of Prisons officials knew from the beginning that once all the Kellys, Baileys, Capones, and other “public enemies” in the federal prison system—men federal officials many years later called the “worst of the worst”—were designated as Alcatraz transferees, there would still be room for a large number of prisoners of lesser notoriety. Therefore, in the autumn of 1933, about the same...

    • 4 THE PROGRAM
      (pp. 97-119)

      Since Alcatraz opened to the public in 1973 as an attraction managed by the National Park Service, millions of visitors have walked through the cell house, looked into the small cells for a few moments, and viewed the mess hall and yard, all the while trying to imagine the experience of doing time on the Rock. Visiting the prison is one way to obtain some insight into what it was like to be an Alcatraz prisoner; another is to read the words of former Alcatraz inmates and guards as they describe life on the island. Although nearly all the inmates...

    • 5 ORGANIZED RESISTANCE: A Regime Tested
      (pp. 120-149)

      The answer came early to the question of whether a large custodial force could control a small group of trouble-prone prisoners confined to single cells with every element of daily life carefully regulated. The first shipments of prisoners from Leavenworth and Atlanta arrived on the island at the end of August and in early September 1934; organized inmate resistance came less than one month later, on October 1.

      The protest began in the laundry, where inmates complained about the limitations on their privileges, particularly the denial of radio, movies, and newspapers. Warden Johnston received word that “the agitators would slug...

    • 6 FINDING A HOLE IN THE ROCK: The First Escape Attempts
      (pp. 150-180)

      The fog on the morning of December 16, 1937, was so heavy that the work crews were held in the yard for twenty minutes while the gun tower guards tried to determine how much visibility they had from their vantage points. The reports were negative and the inmates were sent back to their cells. After the noon meal, however, the fog appeared to thin out and the work crews were sent out to the industries area.

      Ted Cole and Ralph Roe reported to their jobs in the model building (in full, the Model Industries Building; the first floor was called...

    • 7 ALCATRAZ ON TRIAL
      (pp. 181-204)

      Held out as the answer to one of the nation’s major social problems, Alcatraz had quickly compiled a profoundly negative image. By the end of 1937 most Americans had read accounts of life on the Rock—“Uncle Sam’s ‘Devil’s Island’”—from ex-prisoners Harry Johnson and Al “Sailor” Loomis, heard rumors about inmates being locked up in a dark dungeon, and seen stories about the desperate acts of Joe Bowers and Rufe Persful. On November 29 thePhiladelphia Inquirerbegan a three-part series about Alcatraz that further reinforced the notion that the prison was psychologically brutalizing its inmates. Based on interviews...

    • 8 THE WAR YEARS
      (pp. 205-237)

      After the Henry Young trial, Alcatraz was more controversial than ever. The public, always schizophrenic about penal policy, perceived the regime at Alcatraz as both too harsh and just right for the nation’s most notorious lawbreakers. The FBI and the attorney general considered the prison poorly (even incompetently) managed, and Bureau of Prisons headquarters openly questioned the warden’s policies and procedures. Over the next four and a half years, five more escape attempts confirmed the accuracy of these views. But despite these accusations, criticisms, and FBI investigations, neither the prison’s existence nor the jobs of its top administrators were seriously...

    • 9 THE BATTLE OF ALCATRAZ
      (pp. 238-280)

      On the afternoon of May 2, 1946, one of the most dramatic prison escape plots in American penal history began to unfold on Alcatraz Island. In this bold attempt, a group of prisoners planned to achieve what was said to be impossible: obtain guns behind prison walls, take guards hostage with the weapons, and capture the prison launch to get to the mainland. It was an ingenious but very dangerous plan, requiring precision, luck, daring—and, most of all, speed—if it was to succeed. Instead, the attempt triggered a two-day military siege of the island, with automatic weapons and...

  7. PART II LIFE ON THE ROCK FOR RESISTERS AND PUBLIC ENEMIES

    • 10 RESISTANCE AND ADAPTATION
      (pp. 283-303)

      The daily existence of Alcatraz inmates as it was designed for them by the Bureau of Prisons, and as it was managed and enforced by the prison administration and custodial staff was discussed in earlier chapters. Here we turn to the related topic of how inmates reacted to and coped with the regime that was intended to regulate every aspect of their lives. Given the actions of Alcatraz convicts in chapters 4 through 9, it is easy to come away with the impression that some of these men were desperate and violent, and a few, mentally unbalanced. But in fact...

    • 11 OUTLAWS AMONG OUTLAWS
      (pp. 304-337)

      An inmate at Alcatraz who acted alone, on his own initiative, to disobey rules or defy authority was an individual resister. While many inmates engaged in individual resistance at a low level to derive its psychological advantages without accruing the disciplinary costs, only a relative few resisted regardless of the costs. Still fewer practiced this kind of resistance over long periods of time. Here the focus is on these persistent individual resisters, a small group of men who carried on prolonged battles with the staff and against the regime. These prisoners accumulated twenty, thirty, forty, or more misconduct reports each...

    • 12 CELEBRITY PRISONERS
      (pp. 338-382)

      Of the 1,547 felons sent to Alcatraz during its thirty-year existence, three names stand out above all others: Al Capone, George Kelly, and Alvin Karpis.¹ Every television documentary, every article and book written about the prison and its inmates has featured these men. Their status in American criminal history and in popular folklore, however, is based on their exploits before they went off to federal prison, not on what happened during their years on the Rock. Hollywood movies about them, includingMachine Gun Kelly, The Alvin Karpis Story,and several about Capone, centered entirely on their criminal careers.

      When they...

  8. PART III ALCATRAZ AS AN EXPERIMENT IN PENAL POLICY

    • 13 RETURN TO THE FREE WORLD
      (pp. 385-444)

      While Alcatraz was not intended to rehabilitate its hardcore offenders, neither was it meant to hold them forever. Over the three-decade span of Alcatraz history, prisoners remained on the Rock for an average of four to five years before the staff and Bureau headquarters considered them ready to be transferred to Leavenworth, Atlanta, or McNeil Island. At these prisons, they served an average of two years before being released to civil society.

      What happened to Alcatraz inmates after they left the Rock? That is the question the longtime Bureau of Prisons director James V. Bennett urged me to answer after...

    • 14 LESSONS FROM ALCATRAZ FOR SUPERMAX PRISONS
      (pp. 445-460)

      During the three decades Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, and in the years following its closing, many claims have been made about the effects of the harsh regime on the men imprisoned there. Since operations ceased in 1963, most of these ideas have remained unquestioned, becoming part of the conventional wisdom about this special American prison. Many critics and even some BOP officials expected that the restrictive conditions would psychologically damage many of the inmates, leaving them incapable of functioning in civil society. Yet, prison and parole officials also insisted, the violation of these restrictions—misconduct—was an important...

  9. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 461-466)

    WorldWar II initiated a period of enormous social change in America. A rush of new developments from the war experience along with the economic and demographic shifts resulting from the return of millions of demobilized military personnel and the conversion of industries to peacetime production infused virtually every intellectual current in the society.

    Along with many other aspects of government policy, established thinking about imprisonment and criminal sentencing came in for reconsideration and alteration. The policies embodied in the big house penitentiary with its focus on deterrence and control, of which Alcatraz was the prime example, began to be influenced...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 467-518)
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHIC COMMENTARY
    (pp. 519-522)
  12. ABOUT THE AUTHORS
    (pp. 523-524)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 525-548)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 549-549)