Sunday, April 3, 2016

Where Was Al Capone’s Alcatraz Cell?

Visitors to Alcatraz are often confused about where Al Capone’s cell was located.

When an inmate wanted to speak to a prison official, see a doctor, or make a request, they had to fill out a form. Today, these forms are the only documents we have that show where and when inmates were confined. But once you knew the cell number, there was still the problem of figuring out what cell had what number.

When the National Park Service took control of Alcatraz Island in 1972, no one knew what the cell numbers were. Two researchers, Jolene Babyak and John Martini, investigated the problem. They found that, over time, there had been three different numbering systems for Alcatraz’s cell house.

The United States Army, which built the cell house in 1909 (according to the cornerstone), put in place the first numbering system. 

After the Bureau of Prisons took over in 1934, a new numbering system was created. That’s because the first Alcatraz warden, James A. Johnston, didn’t like the spiral stairs (similar to lighthouse stairs) at the ends of the cell blocks, and had them removed. He installed traditional stairs to more easily move prisoners from one cell-block level to another, but because they took up more space, he also had to remove several cells. Removing the cells eliminated numbers in the Army’s cell numbering system, so Warden Johnston invented his own system.

In 1948, the new warden, Edwin B. Swope, didn’t like warden Johnston’s system, so he made his own.

Luckily, the researchers found that the maintenance workers at Alcatraz were also confused as to what the numbers of the cells were, but for different reasons. When the workers needed to make repairs to a cell’s plumbing or other systems they had to use the utility corridor that ran between the cell blocks. Inside the corridor, it was hard for them to know which cell they were supposed to work on, so they painted the cell numbers on the wall. From the Army maintenance workers to the Bureau of Prison maintenance workers, all the cell numbers were painted on the backs of the cells in the utility corridors, each corresponding to the numbering system in use at the time. 

The information was confirmed by recording the utility corridor numbers and then checking with former inmates and correctional officers. Those numbers were then checked against the dates on prison request forms. As a result, we now know which cell had which number using any of the three Alcatraz cell numbering systems. The sheets below show the three different systems.

So where was Capone’s cell? He came to Alcatraz in August, 1934, which was when Warden Johnston’s numbering system was in place. At first, he was in cell 433, and then moved to cell 181 on the other side of the cell house. From there, he had a view of San Francisco Bay. Both were on the second tier of the cell house. You can find Capone’s cell on the charts below (2nd Tier, Warden Johnston).


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