The Truth About The Absolute Silence In Alcatraz

Alcatraz Prison became a maximum security federal penitentiary in 1934. The facility held some of the country's most notorious mobsters, murderers, and criminals. Set on a 12-acre island just off the coast of San Francisco, "The Rock" soon became almost as notorious as its residents for the cold and often brutal treatment endured by the prisoners housed behind its walls.

When the prison first opened, it was under the direction of Warden James A. Johnston, a tough and strict supervisor who believed that prison should be a place for punishment, not rehabilitation. As such, he made sure life at Alcatraz was as harsh and uncomfortable as possible for the prisoners, going so far as to deny them simple comforts like basic privacy and the use of hot water for shaving. He even utilized a set of segregation cells underneath the A-Block, known as the Spanish Dungeon, where prisoners were held in isolation as a form of additional punishment, per Alcatraz History.

But perhaps the harshest rule Warden Johnston implemented was the mandate of almost total silence throughout the prison. Prisoners were not permitted to talk at all, with the exception of meal times and recreation periods, according to Alcatraz History. If inmates broke the imposed silence, they would be subject to strict punishments.

Prisoners secretly communicated via the plumbing system

The silence was so oppressive and unbearable that prisoners would go to great lengths to communicate with each other. They would get around the imposed silence by fashioning makeshift telephones through the pipes that ran through their cell toilets, which enabled them to speak through the plumbing.

Not only was the rule of silence impossible to completely enforce, it was harmful to prisoners' mental health and completely antithetical to prisoner rehabilitation. In the late 1930s, the public became more aware of the brutal treatment inmates endured, including the enforced silence rule. Many people began to call for more humane treatment at the prison.The U.S. Attorney General Frank Murphy stated, "the whole institution is conducive to psychology that builds up a sinister and vicious attitude among the prisoners," and advocated for the prison's closure, says Alcatraz 101.

Rather than close the prison doors, Warden Johnston reluctantly agreed to implement changes to make prison life slightly more bearable. Among these changes was removing the mandate of silence, which was one of the few policies that was reversed at Alcatraz, because it was considered so detrimental to inmates' well-being. By 1940, prisoners were permitted to "hold quiet conversations," marking the first step in the very gradual process of improving prison life at Alcatraz, per Alcatraz 101.