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Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

By David Ward with Gene Kassebaum, University of California Press 576 pp., $34.95

Early on the morning of August 19, 1934, a special train—call it the Damned Soul Train—left Atlanta carrying Al Capone and much of America’s criminal elite. Among the passenger amenities were free meals, individual seat chains and cages with tommy-gun toting guards in each car. As the armed locomotive moved west through the searing heat of the Dust Bowl drought, career gangsters, bank robbers and kidnappers mulled over rumors about their destination, a minute craggy island within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge known as Alcatraz. Was this new maximum-security facility, as the press proclaimed, the American Devil’s Island, using demonic means to break incorrigibles other prisons couldn’t control? For reasons of security and public relations, the Bureau of Prisons hung a nearly impenetrable veil of secrecy around the fog-bound Rock. Throughout its 30- year history and after, this secrecy allowed the legend of an abusive, insanity producing California Bastille to grow, siring books and films on oppressed birdmen and escapees that were, well, imaginative fiction.

Through unprecedented documentation, including a hundred interviews with inmates and guards, David Ward, a veteran consultant on penology, shows that in Alcatraz’s first decade, which marked its most severe regime and most notorious prisoners, the Rock was actually deadly boring. Prisoners were isolated in their cells, had no radio or newspapers and, in the beginning, had to refrain from talking even at mealtimes. Control was complete, enforced by gunnery catwalks, teargas canisters hanging at the ready, and loss of scant privileges for even the slightest mug-talk. Punishment could involve pitch-dark dungeons under the remains of the Spanish fortress first built on the spot. On the other hand, there was little inmate-on-inmate violence, guard-on-inmate beating or gang activity. And though the intent was old-school discipline-and-punish with no thought of rehabilitation, an amazing two-thirds of Alcatraz graduates went on to lead what Ward calls “constructive, law-abiding lives.” His goal is to explain this result.

Unfortunately, that thread gets tangled in his wealth of material on strikes and escape attempts, exceptions to the Rock’s monastic routine that are—let’s face it—more exciting than finding out what worked well. Even Scarface and Machine Gun Kelly disappear for a few hundred pages because Alcatraz saps their spunk. Hopefully Ward’s second volume, on the prison’s later history, will line its conceptual ducks up better. Nevertheless, his first is an invaluable, if disjointed, compendium.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here