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Murder in the First and the U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz

Alcatraz Penitentiary


Murder in the First claims that Young was a teenage orphan who was sentenced to Alcatraz for stealing $5 from a grocery store in order to feed his starving sister, and that he "never harmed or attempted to harm anyone" before entering Alcatraz. The true story is that he was a bank robber who had taken and brutalized a hostage on at least one occasion and committed murder in 1933--some 3 years before being incarcerated at Alcatraz. He had served time in State prisons in Montana and Washington before entering Federal prison for the first time in 1935 at the U.S. Penitentiary on McNeil Island, Washington (which is now a State prison).

Although Young did participate in a January 1939 escape attempt, he was not kept naked in a dark dungeon for 3 years as punishment, as the movie indicates. Instead, he was held in the disciplinary segregation unit in the main cellhouse as punishment for the escape attempt. He was confined to a normal cell--not a dungeon--with plumbing, an electric light, a cot, and other appropriate cell furnishings. Various events in the movie set in a dungeon--such as scenes where the associate warden slashes Young's Achilles tendon to prevent future escapes--are fabrications.

The events surrounding Young's fatal attack on Rufus McCain are also portrayed inaccurately. In the movie, Young becomes a madman after 3 years in the dungeon, is then taken directly from the dungeon to the dining hall, and, moments later, stabs McCain to death with a spoon handle. The implication is that Young's homicidal behavior was a direct result of his inhumane confinement and that he had no control over his actions.

In reality, Young was released from his cell in segregation after only a few months. He was returned to the general population no later than autumn 1939. More than a year after that--in December 1940--he killed McCain in the industries building.

The movie also implies that Young died on Alcatraz in 1942, evidently committing suicide after scrawling the word "victory" on the wall or floor of his cell. This is not true, either. Young remained at Alcatraz until 1948, when he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri. When his Federal sentence expired in 1954, he was turned over to the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla to begin a life sentence for an earlier murder conviction. In 1972, he was released from Washington State Penitentiary, but he jumped parole and, according to Washington State authorities, his whereabouts are unknown. Far from committing suicide 53 years ago, therefore, Young might still be alive.

Many of the depictions of Alcatraz and its staff are completely inaccurate. Murder in the First portrays the warden as managing three prisons simultaneously: USP Alcatraz, and the California State prisons at Folsom and San Quentin. The movie further states that the warden visited Alcatraz only 24 times over a 3-year period. In fact, no one has been warden of a Federal prison and a State prison simultaneously.

James A. Johnston, the actual warden at Alcatraz and one of the most respected prison administrators of his generation, was warden at Folsom in 1912 and San Quentin from 1913 to 1924; he did not become warden at Alcatraz until 1934, and served in that position full-time. He lived right on the island, in a house just a few yards from the front door of the cellhouse.

Nor is there any validity to claims that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover selected Johnston to be warden at Alcatraz, that Hoover and the Alcatraz management intimidated prospective witnesses in Young's trial, that inmates were being driven insane at Alcatraz, and that 32 were removed from the island in straitjackets during a period of only a few years leading up to Young's trial. Equally groundless and unfair is the depiction of officers at Alcatraz as sadistic brutes. The evil prison officer is one of the oldest and least imaginative movie cliches, and one of the most misleading. 

I am firmly convinced that the jury which tried Henri Young for murder of another inmate in the Alcatraz Penitentiary has been misled about conditions at the prison. It has been impressed by tactics which sought to free Young through disparaging and attacking a public institution performing humanely and intelligently a most difficult task of protecting the public from hardened and unregenerate criminals. Young has been described by former United States Attorney Simpson and Federal Judge Stanley Webster of Spokane, Washington, as "the worst and most dangerous criminal with whom they ever dealt" and as "one who would not hesitate to kill anybody who crossed his path." He has been permitted to go virtually unpunished on the basis of inferences and innuendoes made by inmates whose criminal records and life histories show them to be wholly unreliable and who were able to commit deliberate perjury with impunity since they could not be reached by any effective legal process. From such information as I have about the trial, it is apparent that the Jury had before it no first-hand information or reliable evidence as to the policies or methods followed in the management of the most difficult and desperate group of prisoners ever assembled.

Alcatraz is now and always has been open to inspection and investigation by any qualified or properly commissioned person or groups. It has been inspected by Judges, Congressmen, penologists and qualified private citizens and has been approved as a modern and intelligent method of protecting the public from those desperate criminals who have proved themselves to be wholly intractable.

The institution, for instance, was recently inspected by experts of the Osborne Association of New York, a private philanthropic organization devoted primarily to the investigation of prisons, and was pronounced by them as well managed and operated and as using no improper system of discipline. Members of the Appropriations Committee of Congress in the course of their examination of our estimates also recently inspected the institution and made no criticism of its methods or operations.

I have visited Alcatraz frequently as have various members of our staff and know personally most of the inmates, including Young. As a matter of fact, I have on several occasions personally interviewed Young and done everything possible to obtain his cooperation. I have never found or had called to my attention any authentic case of brutality or inhumanity at Alcatraz.

Corporal punishment is prohibited in all the Federal penal institutions including Alcatraz. We stand on our record as the most modern and humane penal system in the world. I have every confidence in Warden Johnston. He is a just, humane, and intelligent prison warden capably performing the most difficult job any warden was ever asked to assume. The entire institutional staff has consistently displayed their courage, patience, and devotion to the public service. They deserve the support of every fair-minded citizen whose homes and safety they have helped to protect.

The statements made by the prisoners so far called to my attention have already been carefully investigated by the Department [of Justice] and found to be wholly unfounded. When, however, a transcript of the testimony has been received, it will be carefully gone over as in every other case, and if any evidence or facts are found showing brutal or inhuman treatment, vigorous corrective measures will be taken

A Brief History of Alcatraz

Before the Prison
The name Alcatraz is derived from the Spanish "Alcatraces." In 1775, the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first to sail into what is now known as San Francisco Bay - his expedition mapped the bay and named one of the three islands Alcatraces. Over time, the name was Anglicized to Alcatraz. While the exact meaning is still debated, Alcatraz is usually defined as meaning "pelican" or "strange bird."

In 1850, a presidential order set aside the island for possible use as a United States military reservation. The California Gold Rush, the resulting boom in the growth of San Francisco, and the need to protect San Francisco Bay led the U.S. Army to build a Citadel, or fortress, at the top of the island in the early 1850s. The Army also made plans to install more than 100 cannons on the island, making Alcatraz the most heavily fortified military site on the West Coast. Together with Fort Point and Lime Point, Alcatraz formed a "triangle of defense" designed to protect the entrance to the bay. The island was also the site of the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States.

By the late 1850s, the first military prisoners were being housed on the island. While the defensive necessity of Alcatraz diminished over time (the island never fired its guns in battle), its role as a prison would continue for more than 100 years. In 1909, the Army tore down the Citadel, leaving its basement level to serve as the foundation for a new military prison. From 1909 through 1911, the military prisoners on Alcatraz built the new prison, which was designated the Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks for the U.S. Army. It was this prison building that later became famous as "The Rock."

The Rock
The U.S. Army used the island for more than 80 years--from 1850 until 1933, when the island was transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice for use by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Federal Government had decided to open a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary to deal with the most incorrigible inmates in Federal prisons, and to show the law-abiding public that the Federal Government was serious about stopping the rampant crime of the 1920s and 1930s.

USP Alcatraz was not the "America's Devil's Island" that many books and movies portray. The average population was only about 260-275 (the prison never once reached its capacity of 336 - at any given time, Alcatraz held less than 1 percent of the total Federal prison population). Many prisoners actually considered the living conditions (for instance, always one man to a cell) at Alcatraz to be better than other Federal prisons, and several inmates actually requested a transfer to Alcatraz.

The island's most famous prisoner was probably Robert Stroud, the so-called "Birdman of Alcatraz." In reality, Stroud never had any birds at Alcatraz, nor was he the grandfatherly person portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the well-known movie. In 1909, Stroud was convicted of manslaughter; while serving his prison sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary (USP), McNeil Island, Washington, he viciously attacked another inmate. This resulted in his transfer to USP Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1916, he murdered a Leavenworth guard, was convicted of first-degree murder, and received a death sentence. His mother pleaded for his life, and in 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment.

It was Stroud's violent behavior that earned him time in segregation. During his 30 years at Leavenworth, he developed his interest in birds and eventually wrote two books about canaries and their diseases. Initially, prison officials allowed Stroud's bird studies because it was seen as a constructive use of his time. However, contraband items were often found hidden in the bird cages, and prison officials discovered that equipment Stroud had requested for his "scientific" studies had actually been used to construct a still for "home-brew." Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, where he spent the next 17 years (6 years in segregation in "D Block" and 11 years in the prison hospital). In 1959, he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he died on November 21, 1963.

Prison Life
While several well-known criminals, such as Al Capone, George "Machine-Gun" Kelly, Alvin Karpis (the first "Public Enemy #1"), and Arthur "Doc" Barker, did time on Alcatraz, most of the 1,576 prisoners incarcerated there were not well-known gangsters, but prisoners who refused to conform to the rules and regulations at other Federal institutions, who were considered violent and dangerous, or who were considered escape risks. Alcatraz served as the prison system's prison - if a man did not behave at another institution, he could be sent to Alcatraz, where the highly structured, monotonous daily routine was designed to teach an inmate to follow rules and regulations.

At Alcatraz, a prisoner had four rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Everything else was a privilege that had to be earned. Some privileges a prisoner could earn included working, corresponding with and having visits from family members, access to the prison library, and recreational activities such as painting and music. Once prison officials felt a man no longer posed a threat and could follow the rules (usually after an average of five years on Alcatraz), he could then be transferred back to another Federal prison to finish his sentence and be released.

Escape Attempts
There were, however, prisoners who decided not to wait for a transfer to another prison. Over the 29 years (1934-1963) that the Federal prison operated, 36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Of these, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed during their escape, and 2 drowned. Two of the men who were caught were later executed in the gas chamber at the California State Prison at San Quentin for their role in the death of a correctional officer during the famous May 2-4, 1946, "Battle of Alcatraz" escape attempt.

Whether or not anyone succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz depends on the definition of "successful escape." Is it getting out of the cellhouse, reaching the water, making it to land, or reaching land and not getting caught? Officially, no one ever succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz, although to this day there are five prisoners listed as "missing and presumed drowned."

Following are summaries of the 14 escape attempts:

April 27, 1936 - While working his job burning trash at the incinerator, Joe Bowers began climbing up and over the chain link fence at the island's edge. After refusing orders to climb back down, Bowers was shot by a correctional officer stationed in the West road guard tower, then fell about 50-100 feet to the shore below. He died from his injuries.

December 16, 1937 - While working in the mat shop in the model industries building, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe had, over a period of time, filed their way through the flat iron bars on a window. After climbing through the window, they made their way down to the water's edge and disappeared into San Francisco Bay. This attempt occurred during a bad storm and the Bay's currents were especially fast and strong - most people believe Roe and Cole were swept out to sea. Officially, they are listed missing and presumed dead.

May 23, 1938 - While at work in the woodworking shop in the model industries building, James Limerick, Jimmy Lucas, and Rufus Franklin attacked unarmed correctional officer Royal Cline with a hammer (Cline died from his injuries). The three then climbed to the roof in an attempt to disarm the correctional officer in the roof tower. The officer, Harold Stites, shot Limerick and Franklin. Limerick died from his injuries. Lucas and Franklin received life sentences for Cline's murder.

January 13, 1939 - Arthur "Doc" Barker, Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henry Young, and Rufus McCain escaped from the isolation unit in the cellhouse by sawing through the flat iron cell bars and bending tool-proof bars on a window. They then made their way down to the water's edge. Correctional officers found the men at the shoreline on the west side of the island. Martin, Young, and McCain surrendered, while Barker and Stamphill were shot when they refused to surrender. Barker died from his injuries.

May 21, 1941 - Joe Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle, and Lloyd Barkdoll took several correctional officers hostage while working in the industries area. The officers, including Paul Madigan (who later became Alcatraz's third warden), were able to convince the four that they could not escape and they surrendered.

September 15, 1941 - While on garbage detail, John Bayless attempted to escape. He gave up shortly after entering the cold water of San Francisco Bay. Later, while appearing in Federal court in San Francisco, Bayless tried, again unsuccessfully, to escape from the courtroom.

April 14, 1943 - James Boarman, Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter took two officers hostage while at work in the industries area. The four climbed out a window and made their way down to the water's edge. One of the hostages was able to alert other officers to the escape and shots were fired at Boarman, Brest, and Hamilton, who were swimming away from the island. Hunter and Brest were both apprehended. Boarman was hit by gunfire and sank below the water before officers were able to reach him; his body was never recovered. Hamilton was initially presumed drowned. However, after hiding out for two days in a small shoreline cave, Hamilton made his way back up to the industries area, where he was discovered by correctional officers.

August 7, 1943 - Huron "Ted" Walters disappeared from the prison laundry building. He was caught at the shoreline, before he could even attempt to enter San Francisco Bay.

July 31, 1945 - In one of the most ingenious attempts, John Giles was able to take advantage of his job working at the loading dock, where he unloaded army laundry sent to the island to be cleaned - over time, he stole an entire army uniform. Dressed in the uniform, Giles calmly walked aboard an army launch to what he thought was freedom. He was discovered missing almost immediately. Unfortunately for Giles, the launch was headed for Angel Island, not San Francisco as Giles hoped. As Giles set foot on Angel Island, he was met by correctional officers who returned him to Alcatraz.

May 2-4, 1946 - During this incident, known as the "Battle of Alcatraz" and the "Alcatraz Blastout," six prisoners were able to overpower cellhouse officers and gain access to weapons and cellhouse keys, in effect taking control of the cellhouse. Their plan began to fall apart when the inmates found they did not have the key to unlock the recreation yard door. Shortly thereafter, prison officials discovered the escape attempt. Instead of giving up, Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes decided to fight. Eventually Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes returned to their cells, but not before the officers taken hostage were shot at point-blank range by Cretzer (encouraged by Shockley and Thompson). One officer, William Miller, died from his injuries. A second officer, Harold Stites (who stopped the third escape attempt), was shot and killed attempting to regain control of the cellhouse. About 18 officers were injured during the escape attempt. The U.S. Marines were eventually called out to assist, and on May 4, the escape attempt ended with the discovery of the bodies of Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard. Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes stood trial for the death of the officers; Shockley and Thompson received the death penalty and were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in December 1948. Carnes, age 19, received a second life sentence.

July 23, 1956 - Floyd Wilson disappeared from his job at the dock. After hiding for several hours among large rocks along the shoreline, he was discovered and surrendered.

September 29, 1958 - While working on the garbage detail, Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson overpowered a correctional officer and attempted to swim from the island. Johnson was caught in the water, but Burgett disappeared. An intensive search turned up nothing. Burgett's body was found floating in the Bay two weeks later.

June 11, 1962 - Made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin vanished from their cells and were never seen again. A fourth man, Allen West, believed by some people to have been the mastermind, was also involved; however, he was still in his cell the next morning when the escape was discovered. An investigation revealed an intricate escape plot that involved homemade drills to enlarge vent holes, false wall segments, and realistic dummy heads (complete with human hair) placed in the beds so the inmates would not be missed during nighttime counts. The three men exited through vent holes located in the rear wall of their cell - they had enlarged the vent holes and made false vent/wall segments to conceal their work. Behind the rear wall of the cells is a utility corridor that had locked steel doors at either end. The three men climbed the utility pipes to the top of the cellblock, and gained access to the roof through an air vent (the men had previously bent the iron bars that blocked the air vent). They then climbed down a drainpipe on the northern end of the cellhouse and made their way to the water. It is believed they left from the northeast side of the island near the powerhouse/quartermaster building. They used prison-issued raincoats to make crude life vests and a pontoon-type raft to assist in their swim. A cellhouse search turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while the water search found two life vests (one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate), oars, and letters and photographs belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be watertight. But no sign of the men was found. Several weeks later, a man's body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the body was too badly deteriorated to be identified. Morris and the Anglins are officially listed as missing and presumed drowned.

December 16, 1962 - John Paul Scott and Darl Parker bent the bars of a kitchen window in the cellhouse basement, climbed out, and made their way down to the water. Parker was discovered on a small outcropping of rock a short distance from the island. Scott attempted to swim towards San Francisco, but the currents began pulling him out to sea. He was found by several teenagers on the rocks near Fort Point (beneath the Golden Gate Bridge) and was taken to the military hospital at the Presidio Army base suffering from shock and hypothermia, before being returned to Alcatraz.

One of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no "man-eating" sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The main obstacles were the cold temperature (averaging 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit), the strong currents, and the distance to shore (at least 1-1/4 miles). Prior to the Federal institution opening in 1934, a teenage girl swam to the island to prove it was possible. Fitness guru Jack LaLanne once swam to the island pulling a rowboat, and several years ago, two 10-year-old children also made the swim.

If a person is well-trained and -conditioned, it is possible to survive the cold waters and fast currents. However, for prisoners - who had no control over their diet, no weightlifting or physical training (other than situps and pushups), and no knowledge of high and low tides - the odds for success were slim.

Alcatraz Closes
On March 21, 1963, USP Alcatraz closed after 29 years of operation. It did not close because of the disappearance of Morris and the Anglins (the decision to close the prison was made long before the three disappeared), but because the institution was too expensive to continue operating. An estimated $3-5 million was needed just for restoration and maintenance work to keep the prison open. That figure did not include daily operating costs - Alcatraz was nearly three times more expensive to operate than any other Federal prison (in 1959 the daily per capita cost at Alcatraz was $10.10 compared with $3.00 at USP Atlanta). The major expense was caused by the physical isolation of the island - the exact reason islands have been used as prisons throughout history. This isolation meant that everything (food, supplies, water, fuel...) had to be brought to Alcatraz by boat. For example, the island had no source of fresh water, so nearly one million gallons of water had to be barged to the island each week. The Federal Government found that it was more cost-effective to build a new institution than to keep Alcatraz open.

After the Prison
After the prison closed, Alcatraz was basically abandoned. Many ideas were proposed for the island, including a monument to the United Nations, a West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty, and a shopping center/hotel complex. In 1969, the island again made news when a group of Native American Indians claimed Alcatraz as Indian land with the hope of creating a Native American cultural center and education complex on the island. The "Indians of All Tribes" used their act of civil disobedience to illustrate the troubles faced by Native Americans. Initially, public support for the Native Americans' cause was strong, and thousands of people (general public, schoolchildren, celebrities, hippies, Vietnam war protesters, Hells Angels...) came to the island over the next 18 months. Unfortunately, the small Native American leadership group could not control the situation and much damage occurred (graffiti, vandalism, and a fire that destroyed the lighthouse keeper's home, the Warden's home, and the Officers' Club). In June 1971, Federal Marshals removed the remaining Native Americans from the island.

In 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Alcatraz Island was included as part of the new National Park Service unit. The island opened to the public in the fall of 1973 and has become one of the most popular Park Service sites - more than one million visitors from around the world visit the island each year.


Murder in the First

Murder in the First is a 1995 film, directed by Marc Rocco, about a petty criminal named Henri Young (played by Kevin Bacon) who is put on trial for murder in the first degree.

As a 17-year old orphan, Henri Young stole $5.00 from a grocery store/U.S. Post Office to feed himself and his little sister, both of whom are destitute. He is apprehended by the store clerk, and his sister is sent to an orphanage. Although Henri's goal was only to steal $5.00 from the store, it doubled as a US Post Office and he was convicted of robbing a post office, which was a federal offence. Henri never sees his sister again and is sentenced to Leavenworth prison. Young is later transferred to Alcatraz where he participates in a scheme to escape. The plot fails due to the betrayal of a fellow inmate, Rufus McCain, and Young is sent to solitary confinement, where he is left for three years (except 30 minutes at Christmas). During this extraordinary period in solitary confinement (typical confinement lasts no more than 19 days), Young slowly begins to lose his mind. Upon being released from solitary confinement, Henri experiences a psychotic episode in the cafeteria and attacks McCain, who is still in general population, stabbing him to death with a spoon in full view of the prison staff and convict population.

Henri is put on trial for the murder in the first degree, in what is assumed to be an open-and-shut case by both the prosecution and the public defender's office. James Stamphill, a recent law school graduate, is given the case. After discovering the facts behind Henri's case, the young lawyer attempts to put Alcatraz on trial, alleging that the conditions in Alcatraz caused Henry to commit the murder. In a highly politicized and contentious trial, Henri is convicted only of the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter, but later dies after returning to Alcatraz to serve his sentence. After the events of the film, Milton Glenn, the associate warden in charge of day to day activities of Alcatraz, is convicted of mistreatment and is banned from working in the penal system.

Production notes
The producers wanted authenticity so Bacon, Slater and Oldman spent some of their free time locked in jail cells while the movie was being filmed. Kevin Bacon even lost twenty pounds for his role as the Alcatraz inmate.

Filming during one of the courtroom scenes was interrupted by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

Historial accuracy
The movie ends with the fictional Henri Young being returned to the dungeons of Alcatraz in the early 1940s where he dies. In reality these areas were already closed by then.

Neither was the real Henri Young convicted of stealing $5 to save his sister from destitution. He had been a bank robber who had taken a hostage on at least one occasion and committed murder in 1933. Before being incarcerated at Alcatraz in 1936, Young had already served time in State prisons in Montana and Washington entering Federal correctional facilities for the first time in 1935 at the U.S. Penitentiary on McNeil Island, Washington.

He remained at Alcatraz for 12 years before being transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri in 1948. When his Federal sentence expired in 1954 he went to Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla to begin a life sentence for his earlier murder conviction.

In 1972 Young was released from Washington State Penitentiary but he jumped parole. According to Washington State authorities his whereabouts are unknown. Young therefore might still be alive.

Kevin Bacon - Henri Young
Christian Slater - James Stamphill
Gary Oldman - Milton Glenn
Embeth Davidtz - Mary McCasslin
William H. Macy - D.A. William McNeil
Stephen Tobolowsky - Mr. Henkin
Brad Dourif - Byron Stamphill
R. Lee Ermey - Judge Clawson
Mia Kirshner - Adult Rosetta Young
Ben Slack - Jerry Hoolihan
Stefan Gierasch - Warden James Humson
Kyra Sedgwick - Blanche, Hooker
Alex Bookston - Arthur "Doc" Barker

See also
Land of the Free
The Ethics of Capital Punishment
The pink mile: women on death row

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