Former Alcatraz Inmate Reveals What the Prison Was Really Like

This is the real story of a prisoner at the infamous Alcatraz prison, incarcerated at the same time as Al Capone.

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, USA.f11photo/Shutterstock

This article was originally written in 1938 as told by Bryan Conway, No. 293 to T.H. Alexander and appeared in the April 1938 issue of Reader’s Digest.*

One who has just finished, as I have, a 12-year stretch for murder generally tries to soften the facts in his record. Personally, I have no alibi to advance. I killed an Army sergeant to protect my own life. I served ten years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, which was bad enough, and 2.0 months in Alcatraz prison, which was worse.

By comparison with Alcatraz prison, life was soft in Atlanta. The routine was not so deadly, and the men had a chance to make a few dollars in the mills with which to buy candy and cigarettes. If they had more money they could get other privileges, too. Al Capone, for instance, lived like a king in At­lanta, and it was reported among us that he had money brought in from Chicago by the suitcaseful. I saw several $100 bills which convicts told me Capone had given them for favors, and I know that he had a bodyguard composed of convicts. It was right comical to see Capone exercising in the yard surrounded by his guard, every one of whom had a long knife or a blackjack. Such weapons were plentiful in Atlanta at that time.

All my friends had warned me against Capone. He is as unpopular at Alcatraz as he was at Atlanta—not because of the crimes with which he was charged but because he is a weakling and can’t take it.

Some sentimental people like to think that kidnappers and murderers are looked down on by other prisoners. This simply isn’t true. Some of the most popular prisoners at Alcatraz are kidnappers—Alvin Karpis, Doc Barker, and Machine Gun Kelly, for example. Old-time wardens say that murderers are the aristocrats of crime. Speaking by and large, there is no grading of prisoners by any social caste system set up by themselves, with one notable exception. In any American prison, the men committed for sex crimes are not accepted in the company of the so-called decent element of criminals. The reason, however, is not that they have committed revolting crimes but that they are unstable, unreliable, and often actually insane.

From all I can learn, I was transferred from Atlanta because I would not testify as the government wanted me to at the trial of a convict who had stabbed another to death.

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The first glimpse of Alcatraz prison fills a convict with grim forebodings. That bare rock rising out of San Francisco Bay has little vegetation. It is subject to fogs and damp winds. I’ve seen guards wearing overcoats in midsummer. I am certain that part of the convict’s dread of Alcatraz prison is due to adroit propaganda regarding the terrors of “the Rock.”

In my cell block, I was given a warm welcome by the convicts, who seemed to know all about me. When I expressed amazement at their accurate knowledge, a convict in a cell near me whispered: “We knew you were coming last week and we knew you were a right guy, because you wouldn’t squeal on a pal.”

The mysterious grapevine telegraph, which does so many queer things in prisons, works almost entirely through bribery of guards or of convicts who have privileges. At Alcatraz, despite the lack of radio and newspapers, we followed the wars in China and Spain. We learned sometimes of news and changes in American prisons even before they were officially announced.

The first bell rang at 6:00 a.m. If it was your day to shave, you laid a matchbox outside the cell grille and a guard put a razor blade on it. A man had to shave in two or three minutes, for the blade had to be back on the little shelf when the guard returned. The 6:20 bell was the signal for the count of prisoners—a really serious business which is done every 30 minutes. Breakfast at 6:30 usually consists of coffee, coffee cake, and cereal. Food at Alcatraz is much better than usual prison fare. For dinner, there is meat, beans, coffee, bread, celery; for supper, chili, tomatoes, and apples, with hot tea.

Seated at the same table with me were Machine Gun Kelly, Albert Bates, and others well known to the front page. And although talking at meals is prohibited, the men do manage to speak in a grumbling monotone out of the corners of their mouths.

I was assigned to work in the laundry and I received a cordial welcome from the men there when I reported for duty. Al Capone remembered me from Atlanta but I didn’t encourage him. When he tried to give me a magazine I refused it and said: “Dummy up, Al, dummy up.” This is prison slang meaning “Don’t speak to me.”

Capone looked at me for a second and then replied as he turned away: “OK, pal.”

Capone gets lonesome because he doesn’t come in contact with many other men. He has lost weight, is said to be in mortal fear for his life, and is deprived of all the privileges he used to purchase at Atlanta.

Arne Beruldsen/Shutterstock

My first day I encountered the electric device, commonly known as the “snitch box,” which was designed to detect any metal on the person of prisoners as they pass through it. The only time I ever saw men laughing at Alcatraz prison was over these snitch boxes.

One day the snitch box sounded an alarm on every man who came from the laundry. The guards jerked each man out of line, searched him, and found nothing. It took hours to locate the trouble, which was merely that the machine was so finely adjusted it was detecting the metal eyelets in the men’s shoes. A few days later it was silent when two men passed through with knives in their pockets. But the guards don’t trust the “electric eye”; they search every 12th man, whether the alarm has sounded or not.

After we were locked in our cells in the evening, and until “lights out” at about nine o’clock (I wouldn’t swear to the exact time, because there are no clocks for prisoners at Alcatraz), there was plenty of time for reading. Some magazines are admitted, some are not. The convicts would prefer daily newspapers and detective magazines, which are never allowed. The most prized possessions in Alcatraz prison are newspaper clippings, which are passed from hand to hand until worn out. Most of them concern prison breaks and crimes.

We were permitted to write only one letter of not more than two pages each week. That had to be to a blood relative; no inmate could write to his sweetheart. We never saw the incoming letters, just copies or rewrites typed at the prison office.

Visiting, too, is drastically regulated. No visitor is permitted to shake hands with a prisoner or to touch him. Between prisoner and visitor is a screen and glass, and conversation is carried on by shout­ing through a tube, one guard standing behind the visitor and an­other behind the convict.

Why do men dread Alcatraz? Because the discipline is as severe as it can possibly be. Literally, you leave all hope behind, for clemency is all but unknown; only a few short-timers get out. Men go slowly insane under the exquisite torture of restricted and undeviating routine. And not so slowly at that, because out of a total of 317 prisoners, 14 went violently insane during my last year on the Rock, and any number of others were what we call “stir crazy,” going about their familiar routine like punch-drunk boxers.

Interior views of the Alcatraz IslandOscity/Shutterstock

I saw one instance of violent insanity. A convict working on the dock detail suddenly picked up an ax, laid his left hand on the block, and chopped off every finger. Then he laid his right hand on the block and begged the guard to cut it off, laughing like a demon all the while. This man was still in the hospital when I left.

Next to routine, one of the worst forms of mental torture is the target practice of the guards, carried on right outside the cell house. This is an almost nightly occurrence, after the men are locked in their cells. Men cannot sleep while these bombardments are going on. The guards always shot at dummies made in human likeness, and these were left sprawled along the walkway with bullet holes in vital spots, as silent object lessons to “cons” who might be thinking of a break.

Men cannot be held in check always, and trouble began to brew at Alcatraz in February 1936, and has continued intermittently to the present day. The mutiny last September was preceded by a demand for the same privileges accorded in other federal prisons. The leaders spent weeks picking their men for the outbreak. You can’t trust everybody, and sometimes even the strong weaken and reveal the secrets of their crowd. But almost half the prison population finally joined in.

When the work call was sounded on September 15th, five men refused to come out of their cells to work. They were hustled off to solitary confinement. On the following day, ten men refused to work after they had reached the mat shop, sitting idle at their machines, and 30 men struck in the laundry. By Sunday 139 men were in mutiny and had been locked up on a diet of bread and water.

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The men in the solitary confinement cells groaned and shrieked. Officials who asked them to return to work were howled down. Then the officials cut off the water in those cells, and conditions due to the lack of sanitation were frightful. The place was a perfect bedlam, since the howling, shrieking, and cursing never abated, from night to morning.

They say, in stir, that anyone who lives in solitary longer than the time-tried limit of 19 days is tempting death, but dozens of them stuck it out longer.

The officials were desperately anxious to end the mutiny because at any moment a bloody revolt might break out. One day Warden Johnston was standing in the dining room, talking to us while we ate lunch. As the prisoners started marching out of the mess hall, Whitey Phillips, a kidnapper, darted over to the warden, knocked him down, and kicked him in the face, breaking his nose. If this was a signal for a general uprising, it missed fire. At once the guards were on Phillips, and as the prisoners milled about in confusion, an outside guard broke the window glass and stuck his machine gun into the room. The prisoners, screaming, broke out of line and scurried to cover under tables and chairs. Thus subdued, they were lined up and marched quietly to their cells.

Shortly after that, solitary confinement effectively broke the mutiny. One by one, the men began to abandon the strike, driven out by hunger, despair, and the terrible stench; although when I left the prison in November, five stout souls were still holding out in solitary.

The plan for the next mutiny is clever. The men have decided that the vulnerable spot in Alcatraz prison is the shops, especially those having contract work which must meet a delivery schedule. Hence, they will begin by suddenly wrecking the machinery. They think they can gain concessions by this, and they figure they have nothing to lose. What, for instance, has a man got to look forward to who has three or more life sentences hanging over him? Most of them felt as I did: had I known, 11 years ago, what I know now about prisons, I’d have insisted on the death sentence. Next, learn the incredible story of the only three men to ever escape Alcatraz.

*AUTHOR’S NOTE: I know that Bryan Conway comes [from] an excellent family and that his Army record in France was good. Some of his comrades in the A.E.F. base told me Conway’s reputation was “a dangerous man, but not a liar.” I believe his story of life at Alcatraz prison is true, insomuch as it is possible for any ex-convict to be unbiased about prison life. —T. H. A.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest