My first day I encountered the electric device, commonly known as the “snitch box,” which was designed to detect any metal on the person of prisoners as they pass through it.
The only time I ever saw men laughing at Alcatraz was over these snitch boxes.
One day the snitch box sounded an alarm on every man who came from the laundry.
The guards jerked each man out of line, searched him, and found nothing.
It took hours to locate the trouble, which was merely that the machine was so finely adjusted it was detecting the metal eyelets in the men’s shoes.
A few days later it was silent when two men passed through with knives in their pockets. But the guards don’t trust the “electric eye”; they search every 12th man, whether the alarm has sounded or not.
After we were locked in our cells in the evening, and until “lights out” at about nine o’clock (I wouldn’t swear to the exact time, because there are no clocks for prisoners at Alcatraz), there was plenty of time for reading.
Some magazines are admitted, some are not. The convicts would prefer daily newspapers and detective magazines, which are never allowed.
The most prized possessions in Alcatraz are newspaper clippings, which are passed from hand to hand until worn out. Most of them concern prison breaks and crimes.
We were permitted to write only one letter of not more than two pages each week.
That had to be to a blood relative; no inmate could write to his sweetheart.
We never saw the incoming letters, just copies or rewrites typed at the prison office. Visiting, too, is drastically regulated. No visitor is permitted to shake hands with a prisoner or to touch him.
Between prisoner and visitor is a screen and glass, and conversation is carried on by shouting through a tube, one guard standing behind the visitor and another behind the convict.
Why do men dread Alcatraz?
Because the discipline is as severe as it can possibly be.
Literally, you leave all hope behind, for clemency is all but unknown; only a few short-timers get out.
Men go slowly insane under the exquisite torture of restricted and undeviating routine.
And not so slowly at that, because out of a total of 317 prisoners, 14 went violently insane during my last year on the Rock, and any number of others were what we call “stir crazy,” going about their familiar routine like punch-drunk boxers.