Alcatraz Torture & Punishment - The Known Facts





The sinister mythology surrounding life on Alcatraz was created primarily out of a lack of reliable information, and because of the negative publicity, Alcatraz became known to the public as "Devil's Island." Warden Johnston had done a good job of keeping the media at a distance, and this resulted in the publication of several misleading stories. The fact that inmates were never directly paroled from Alcatraz only added to the mystique. The media had a difficult time finding men who had lived on the inside, because when they were released from Alcatraz, they were sent on to other prisons to finish out their sentences. When the press would talk with former inmates, the ex-prisoners usually told horrific stories about the brutalities they had experienced while incarcerated there. Most of these depictions were flawed, but the stories of horrid beatings, rigid disciplinary measures, and extreme isolation nevertheless fueled the public's interest.

The single Strip Cell, otherwise known as the "Oriental," was a dark steel-encased cell with no toilet or sink. There was only a hole in the floor for the inhabitant to relieve himself, and even the ability to flush the contents was controlled by a guard. Inmates were placed in the cell without clothing, and were put on severely restricted diets. The cell had a standard set of bars with an expanded opening through which to pass food, and a solid steel outer door that remained closed, leaving the inmate in pitch-black darkness. Inmates were usually subjected to this degree of punishment for periods of only one to two days. The cell was cold, and the sleeping mattress was only allowed during the night, and was taken away during the daylight hours. This was considered the most invasive type of punishment for severe violations and misconduct, and it was genuinely feared by the general population inmates.

The Hole “The Hole" was the nickname given to a similar cell-type that made up the remaining five dual-door cells on the bottom tier. The "Hole" cells contained a sink and a toilet as well as a low-wattage light bulb. Inmates could spend up to nineteen days in this level of isolation, which was also considered to be a severe form of punishment by general population inmates. The mattresses were taken away during the day, and the inmates were left in a state of constant boredom and severe isolation. Guards would sometimes open the small window in the solid steel outer door, to allow in a little light for inmates who were serving their time in solitary peacefully.

Alimentary Rape

Also called "force-feeding". This involved forcing a rubber tube down the throat of a convict on hunger fast and forcing him to ingest a mixture of milk, sugar and eggs. To do this, staff would have to strap the inmate down very securely, open the mouth with a lever, and put the tube in, a painful process for the inmate.

The most notable instance of this happened in 1936 after several prisoners went on a hunger fast. Ten prisoners in all were made to take the tube on this occasion.

During the 1950's, the Rock's Catholic priest had to intervene on behalf of a Puerto Rican prisoner who was fasting for Lent, so that this would not be done to him.


Warden Johnston insisted that this did not happen in his prison.

Convict testimony on the other hand, told of a few instances when prisoners were beaten. Among them were Henri Young and Harmon Waley.

Guard Frank Heaney (who worked after the Warden Johnston years) says in his personal memoir of life as an Alcatraz guard that some senior officers carried blackjacks. A blackjack is a small rubber-covered, lead club. Their possession and use is illegal. Nevertheless, senior officers used these at times to knock prisoners unconscious.

Environmental Torture

Alcatraz was chosen for its isolation amid the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. Cold winds blew off the Pacific Ocean and into the cell house. The dungeon rooms employed old ventilators which let the cold air right into the chamber.

Some guards could be cruel. Alvin Karpis tells the story of one who used to turn on the air conditioning at night in Isolation. Prisoners tried to protect themselves by covering the vents with toilet paper. This guard would clean the paper out with a special hook.

The old Army cisterns near the dungeons probably leaked, giving rise to a prisoner belief that these rooms were below the water line (which they were not).

Sometimes guards turned the hose on a prisoner in the dungeons or The Hole, leaving them to lay in it until the end of their stay or until it evaporated.

Executions, Formal

No prisoners were executed as a court-ordered punishment at Alcatraz. When Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson were convicted of mutiny in the Blast-Out trial, they were sent to San Quentin's death row to be executed in the gas chamber.

Most federal prisons conducted their executions using state facilities. A notable exception occurred when Carl Panzram was executed at Leavenworth. Kansas was, at that time, an anti-capital punishment state. A hangman was brought in from Missouri and a scaffold built in the penitentiary. The same was done for Robert Stroud, but the scaffold was never used because he'd been pardoned by President Wilson.

Executions, Informal

Prisoners believed that guards shot to kill during escape attempts. Eyewitness accounts of Joe Bower's death seem to substantiate this unwritten policy.

Prisoners also sought to avenge themselves on guards and other prisoners. The 1938 murder of Guard Royal Cline might be described as an informal execution, carried out against him for his alleged harsh treatment of prisoners. Likewise, prison gangs sometimes carried out stabbings in the yard and the shops against persons suspected to be snitches.

Forfeiture of Good Time

Every prisoner received 2400 days of statutory good time. "Good time" was time knocked off from one's sentence for good behavior. One could lose it for many things including attempting to escape, fighting, and other disruptions.

A special board was convened and the prisoner interviewed. At this time, the board decided whether to take away any of the good time and the amount.

A prisoner could earn back this good time or earn additional good time by working in the prison industries. Prisoners in isolation (who'd often lost all their good time) could not work in the prison industries.

Forfeiture of Privileges

This usually accompanied a stint in The Hole or Isolation. The decision to prevent a prisoner from sending and receiving mail, having visitors, going out into the yard, enjoying books, and eating in the dining hall was made by the Associate Warden.

Sensory Deprivation

The most common form of extreme torture at Alcatraz was the use of the dungeons or The Hole. Considered safe because they were bruise less, these punishments had been shown harmful to prisoners' mental health by their use in the infamous "Pennsylvania System" during the previous century.

During one's stay in the dungeons or The Hole, one could expect to see no light, hear no sounds, and see no person except for a brief glimpse at a guard twice a day. Inmates given this treatment experienced hallucinations and extreme sensory disorientation. Some were driven to the edge of psychosis and many became depressed and suicidal.

At first, prisoners received bread and water twice a day with a full meal every third day. Later, Johnston amended the rule to allow prisoners to get a bowl of soup each day with a full meal every second day in addition to the bread and water. After the 1936 general strike, it was claimed that the prisoners marched into isolation did not receive any food for two days.

Federal law mandated that no prisoner could spend more than 19 days in solitary confinement.

What was not done

There were no special facilities for physical tortures at Alcatraz. The hooks, the electric shock treatments, the medical experiments, and other horrors found in other world prisons of the time (and, sadly, still to this day) were abhorred by Warden Johnston and the BOP. Johnston is rightly credited with eliminating these punishments in the California prison system. He did not stand for them at Alcatraz.