The History of Alcatraz: Q&A

Michael Esslinger is a historical researcher whose acclaimed work has appeared in numerous books, film and television documentaries worldwide.


Esslinger is the author of two books chronicling the history of Alcatraz; Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years. His second work entitled, Letters from Alcatraz, is a collection of letters and views from Alcatraz inmates, family members and prison officials both in and outside of the infamous prison.

Alcatraz Q&A

How was the food for the guards and prisoners transported to the Island – are there any statistics on how much (tons, cans etc.) went over each week? Was any food grown on the island?

All of the food provided to inmates and 'on-duty' officers were brought to the island in bulk lots and prepared fresh daily. Foods were brought to the island via a supply barge. The inmates typically did not eat canned goods and the island also employed culinary specialists to oversee the kitchen operations of the prison. Meats were also purchased in slab bulk and inmates were trained in formal specialities like butchers, bakers and cooks. The officer’s families shopped on the mainland like any normal family and brought their groceries back to the island via the prison ferry.

How many cells are there on the island and was it usually at maximum capacity?

Alcatraz had the ability to hold 336 inmates. There were 336 cells in B and C Blocks and each block spanned 150 feet in length. There had originally been 348 cells, but twelve were removed when stairways were installed at the end of each cellblock. Two cells at the end of C Block were used as restrooms for the guard staff. There were also 42 cells in the solitary confinement unit, but the staff always maintained a cell in general population for that inmate to return to, thus it was considered that 336 was the maximum number of cells.

What was the average size of a cell (and is there a descriptive equivalent – such as ‘half the size of an average cubicle space in a US office’)?

Each cell block tier contained twenty-eight cells that were nine feet long and five feet wide, with a ceiling height of just over seven feet. This was approximately the size of a walk-in closet. The solitary confinement cells were considerably larger, but inmates were housed in those cells 24/7, with even their meals served to them while in their cells. Inmates in the solitary confinement unit were permitted one visit to the recreation each week and two showers.

What personal effects were the prisoners allowed to keep in their cells?

The only items permitted in the early years were personal letters and family photographs. This was relaxed in later years, and personal items were submitted to approval by the Associate Warden and were required to be documented in a personal property card. Missing items were handled through disciplinary action.

Who was the longest serving governor of the Island?

Warden James A. Johnston served from 1934 until 1948. He served 14 years which was nearly half the prison’s tenure as a federal penitentiary.

What was the longest sentence of any Alcatraz inmate (and what was the shortest)?

Not sure of the shortest sentence, but I expect it could have been as brief as 90-days.

Who, in your opinion, was the most notorious Alcatraz inmate and why?

A tie between Charles Berta and Jimmy Groves. Berta was somewhat feared by the officers since he was a fierce fighter and officers often got bruised and beaten during altercations, but Groves held the record for time spent in Solitary Confinement and fought constantly with fellow inmates. Other notorious inmates were Rufus Franklin, Miran Thompson and Sam Shockley. These inmates murdered guards during aborted escape attempts on Alcatraz. The most notorious as considered by the public were inmates Alvin Karpis, Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, though they were fairly docile during their years on Alcatraz.

What did they serve for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

The menu changed constantly. Here is one day’s menu in 1934:

Breakfast: Oatmeal, milk, fried bologna sausage, cottage fried potatoes, toast, oleomargarine and coffee.

Lunch: Bean soup, roast beef, gravy, string-less beans, mashed potatoes and coffee.

Supper: Pork and beans, cornbread, potato salad, apricots, bread, oleomargarine and coffee.