Alcatraz: Federal Prison 1934-1963
United States Penitentiary Alcatraz represents the federal government's response to post-Prohibition, post-Depression America. Both the institution and the men confined within its walls reflect our society during this era.
The collaborative effort of Attorney General Homer Cummings and Director of the Bureau of Prisons, Sanford Bates, produced a high-profile prison that represented the Justice Department's response to fears around public safety and organized crime.
Officials sought to create a new, unique prison for those deemed difficult to incarcerate elsewhere in the federal prison system. A remote site was sought, one that would prohibit constant communication with the outside world by those confined within its walls. Although land in Alaska was being considered, the availability of Alcatraz Island conveniently coincided with the government's perceived need for a high security prison.
Having taken possession of the former Army prison and having circumvented the San Francisco citizens who were concerned at the prospect of a high security federal prison in the near vicinity, the Bureau of Prisons set about selecting a warden who could do the job. A businessman and prison administrator with twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections, James A. Johnston was to be that man. Johnston had retired at the time of his appointment by the Department of Justice, and its acceptance resulted in his serving as warden of Alcatraz for the next fourteen years.
Classified as a concentration model, where difficult-to-manage prisoners from other institutions would be concentrated under one roof, Alcatraz served as an experiment. Segregation on this scale had not before been practiced, and only time would indicate its success or failure. Warden Johnston and the second Director of the Bureau of Prisons, James V. Bennett were both leaders in the field of penology. The model they developed on Alcatraz would later serve as a blueprint for the high security federal prison located in Marion, Illinois.
Last updated: April 8, 2021