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, which was worse.
By comparison with Alcatraz, 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.
The first glimpse of Alcatraz 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 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 strange 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: “O.K., 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.