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Alcatraz Screw: My Years as a Guard in America's Most Notorious Prison

Alcatraz Screw: My Years as a Guard in America's Most Notorious Prison

by George H. Gregory, John W. Roberts (Introduction)

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Alcatraz Screw is a firsthand account from a prison guard’s perspective of some of the most storied years at the infamous U.S. Penitentiary at Alcatraz. George Gregory began his career as a guard for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1940. Following his training, he was sent to the federal prison at Sandstone, Minnesota. A few years later he enlisted in


Alcatraz Screw is a firsthand account from a prison guard’s perspective of some of the most storied years at the infamous U.S. Penitentiary at Alcatraz. George Gregory began his career as a guard for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1940. Following his training, he was sent to the federal prison at Sandstone, Minnesota. A few years later he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Badly wounded at Iwo Jima, he returned to Sandstone after a long rehabilitation. When the Bureau of Prisons closed Sandstone in 1947, Gregory was transferred to Alcatraz, which had been a federal penitentiary since 1934.

For the next fifteen years, Gregory worked on “The Rock.” He takes the reader along on a correctional officer’s tour of duty, showing what it was like to pull a lonely, tedious night of sentry duty in the Road Tower, or witness illicit transactions in the clothing room, or forcibly quell a riot in the cell blocks. Gregory provides an insider’s account of the tenures of all four of Alcatraz’s wardens and their sometimes contradictory approaches to administering the institution. He knew and regularly interacted with such legendary inmates as Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

Without glamorizing or demonizing either the staff or the convicts, Alcatraz Screw provides a candid portrayal of corruption, drug abuse, and sexual practices, as well as efforts at reform and unrecorded acts of kindness. Various incidents in the memoir convey the fear, hatred, frustration, boredom, and unavoidable tension of being incarcerated. With the inclusion of maps and diagrams of Alcatraz Island, as well as photographs of inmates, officers, and the prison itself, this book offers insight into life at the notorious Alcatraz from an unprecedented perspective.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"George Gregory arrived at Alcatraz during a critical juncture in the institution's history. Only a year earlier, two officers and three inmates had been killed in the island prison's most violent upheaval—an escape gone awry, known as the Alcatraz Blastout.' Then, one year after Gregory's arrival, the first warden at Alcatraz—the legendary James Salt Water' Johnston—retired. And he was there at the end, as Alcatraz began the process of shutting down. In short, he saw it all—and he remembered it all."—John W. Roberts, from the Introduction

Publishers Weekly
The 15 years Gregory spent guarding The Rock are distilled into blunt prose and telling anecdotes in his matter-of-fact memoir (though Gregory died in 1996, his widow, Velma, shepherded his manuscript to publication). In 1947, Gregory, a Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) officer, was transferred to Alcatraz, the precursor of today's "super maximum" prisons. In cool, detailed recollections, Gregory, a trusted officer under four wardens, focuses on the nitty-gritty of Alcatraz management. His ex-marine toughness (he was nearly killed at Iwo Jima) helped him deal fairly if severely with inmates, even as unrest, fueled by drugs and legal challenges, swept through the prison in the 1950s. Gregory's narrative recalls a time when men wore fedoras and spoke in clipped sentences, and his evocation of Alcatraz has the austerity of classic prison films: "I got my usual headlock on the convict, pulled him out and steered him into the Hole." He has an eye for important details, from the blackjacks (small lead clubs) carried by guards that were banned elsewhere to the subtleties of prison race relations in the pre-civil rights era. He's unsympathetic to the inmates' crooked ways, and yet he struggles to believe that they're redeemable men. Factual and disciplined, this is a valuable bit of history, and FBP archivist Roberts's helpful introduction tackles the myths about Alcatraz, and how the FBP's "media blackout" policy regarding its famous inmates, such as "Machine Gun" Kelly, helped fuel them. Illus. (July) Forecast: Unlike Ted Conover's Newjack, this isn't for the literary; but hard-core true-crime and prison buffs will find it offers a rare look inside The Rock. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
There has been a resurgence of interest in Alcatraz. In The Great Escape (2001), Jolene Babyak gives her version of the only successful escape from the Rock, and in Alcatraz Justice (2002), Earnest Lageson rehashes a long-forgotten trail of three inmates involved in a hostage situation. Now, Gregory, a former prison guard, has written his memoir of 15 years at Alcatraz. Given his background as a marine in World War II, it is no surprise that Gregory was a hard-nosed officer who stressed his ability to keep a dangerous population in line. Yet he also includes in the memoir some priceless prison vignettes. For example, he describes a fracas in the yard between a young officer and some seasoned cons, a confrontation between a doctor and his patients, and the poignant story of a mentally deranged inmate whom he saved from the abuse of the other officers. Although Alcatraz was unique because of its remote location, readers may be surprised to learn that the conditions at the prison, and the characteristics of its inmates, were not so different from those that exist today. For comparison, try Ted Conover's Newjack (2001), the memoirs of an officer in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the 21st century. Alcatraz Screw will probably not appeal to the general reader, but it will certainly appeal to readers interested in prison life and those who have a special interest in Alcatraz. Recommended for crime collections in public libraries.-Frances Sandiford, formerly with Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

University of Missouri Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Alcatraz Screw
My Years as a Guard in America's Most Notorious Prison

By George H. Gregory

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2002 The Curators of the University of Missouri.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0826213960

Chapter One

Destination: Alcatraz

    "U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz," said the voice on the other end of the line.

    "This is George Gregory. I've just arrived from Sandstone," I said.

    "Yeah, got your name here as one of the guys transferring in. Where are you?"

    "I'm in San Francisco at the Ferry Building."

    "Take a cab to Pier Four at Fort Mason. You'll have time to get the last boat coming over tonight."

    After driving a few blocks in silence, the cabdriver asked rather timidly, "Are you a guard out there on Alcatraz?"

    "I will be. I'm a screw."

    "You're a what?"

    "A prison screw."

    "Never heard you guys called that before."

    "It's an old term that refers to the locking system in some prisons. You insert a big, long key into the lock of a cell door and screw it in until the door is secured."

    "I don't envy you. From all I hear, that can be a rough place."

    It was the middle of November 1947, late on a Saturday night. A cold drizzle was falling.

    "This is it," the driver said as he drove out to the end of the pier. He helped me put my footlocker and seabag in the waiting room. I paid him and as he got back in his cab, he said dubiously, "Should I wish you good luck?"

    "So wish me good luck," I said. I stood for a minute looking out at "The Rock," which was just barely visible in the fog. For the first time, I felt a grim chill—a feeling that I would experience regularly throughout my tenure on Alcatraz.

    Several people were already in the waiting room and others trickled in to catch the last boat of the evening to Alcatraz. Since the only reason for being in the room was to go to Alcatraz, there was an immediate connection among us. We exchanged gossip about mutual acquaintances and I was given a lot of advice. One fellow told me very seriously not to unpack my seabag because Alcatraz was sure to close soon.

    I was straining to see Alcatraz through the fog when the prison boat, the Warden Johnston, loomed up out of the mist and bumped gently into the dock. Two of my new friends grabbed my footlocker and headed for the gangplank. I picked up my seabag and followed.

    At the bottom of the gangplank I was met by the boat officer, who said, "Are you Gregory?"

    "Yes, I'm George Gregory," I said, and showed him my identification card.

    "We've been expecting you. Come aboard."

    Most of the passengers went inside the cabin to avoid the cold mist. But in my excitement to see, feel, and hear everything, I stayed outside at the railing. Jim Keller, whom I had known at Leavenworth, joined me and we shivered together.

    Out in front of us a huge ship was plowing its way toward the open sea. The Warden Johnston kept going right on toward it. I looked around nervously toward the operator as we headed straight for the prow of the big ship and asked, "Are we going to hit that ship?"

    "No, we're not going to hit it," Keller laughed. By this time some of the other men had come out to join us.

    "How does the operator see in this fog?" I asked as we rocked in the wake of the outgoing ship.

    "What fog?" was the reply, along with laughter from all.

    "This is nothing," said a gray-headed gentleman. "One time the fog was so thick the boat operator could not find the boat slip. He couldn't see the island until he was right on it. We didn't have radar on the boat then. He would get close enough to see the island but would not be in the right position to dock. So he would go back out, turn, and try again.

    "We finally got everybody down on the dock with anything that could make noise. When we heard the boat coming close, we made as much noise as we could. We hollered, beat dishpans and oil drums, blew whistles, and rang bells until we finally guided the boat into the slip. It sure scared the passengers, but it got them in safely."

    Once on the island, I was directed to the dock office, where I met Lieutenant Johnson, dock-in-charge. The lieutenant rather unenthusiastically coached me in the "signing-in" procedure.

    When I laid down the pen he said dolefully, "George Gregory, huh? I suppose you're new to the service like most of the rest we've been getting lately."

    "Seven years, sir, with a couple of years out for the war."

    The lieutenant's eyebrows went up. "Seven years? Thank God for little favors. We can sure use some experience around here."

    Suddenly I realized how very tired I was, tired to the point of exhaustion. I didn't want any more chatting.

    "I understand you have a great BOQ here. After five days on the train I could sure use a good night's sleep," I said through a deep yawn.

    The lieutenant gave me a brief glance of sympathetic understanding and pointed down the dock—south from the office and on the same level. "They call it the Mule Barn," he said. "That's where most of the unmarried guards live. There are several vacant rooms. Take whichever one you want."

    The Mule Barn. What a name! The story was that it had been a mule barn when the army used the island.

    I pushed open the door and walked down the hall until I found what appeared to be an empty room. Turning on the light, I jerked back. It just couldn't be!

    What a filthy, dirty room—a stained mattress on the bed, newspapers all over the floor, everything coated with thick dust, and no towels or bedding anywhere in sight.

    I looked into another room. It was the same.

    Alcatraz has great bachelor officers' quarters, I had been told. I had expected a neat, clean room all made up and ready for me to rest my weary bones.

    Feeling outrage and insult, I dropped my belongings in the hall, slammed out of the building, and headed back to the dock office with a roar. "Lieutenant!"

    The lieutenant was relaxing in a captain's chair, reading the financial page. When he looked up at me, his face showed serious disapproval.

    "Lieutenant!" At the second roar, the lieutenant's look of disapproval turned into an angry scowl.

    "What kind of a place is this? Those damned rooms aren't fit for a mule. They're not even fit for rats. I want a decent place to sleep and I want it right now!"

    The lieutenant got up and looked as though he were going to give it to me with both barrels. Then he softened up a bit.

    "Now, mister, you just calm down. I'll be expecting an apology when you get squared away. I don't know anything about those quarters. I'm a married man and haven't had any occasion to be in the Mule Barn. Now what can I do to help you?"

    Only slightly mollified, I said, "That place is stinking dirty. No blankets, sheets ..."

    "Bedding and a towel I can get for you. Sit down and I'll be right back." He drove off in a pickup and was back in a few minutes with blankets, sheets, towels, and even a couple of pieces of used soap.

    I grunted a thank-you and walked away. The lieutenant called after me, "By the way, you're due up top for the eight o'clock shift. Got an alarm dock?"

    "On Sunday?"

    "Yes," was the terse reply.

    As I walked back to the Mule Barn, watching the spooky billowing and puffing of the fog in the path of the floodlights and listening to the eerie, loud squalls of the foghorns, I thought, Gad, I haven't even stood my first roll call but I've already got a lieutenant mad at me.

    I made up my bed and flopped on it, as lousy as it was.

    It had taken a few months, but here I was at the U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz. During the May 1946 riot at Alcatraz, I was on a list of three Sandstone officers slated to come out to The Rock, as Alcatraz was called. As the main method of travel at that time was by rail, prison officials decided to "wait and see" before sending officers from the Midwest to the West Coast. The riot ended before it became necessary to send us.

    But the abrupt closure of Sandstone Federal Prison, about eighteen months after the Alcatraz riot, necessitated the transfer of officers as well as prisoners to other institutions. Three of us were sent to Alcatraz. It was noised about that I was sent to Alcatraz because I was tough on convicts. Suffice it to say, we went wherever we were assigned.

    In spite of the filthy room and the foghorns, I soon fell asleep.

Chapter Two

The Beginning of an Adventure

    The next morning I was up early. After a shower in a none-too-clean shower room and a feeble attempt at getting the travel wrinkles out of my uniform, I walked up the long steep hill to "up top."

    From the Mule Barn, the most southerly building on the dock, I walked along the water's edge toward the Dock Tower. The drizzle of the night before had stopped, but it was still overcast and cold. The wind blew through the Golden Gate from the Pacific Ocean, causing whitecaps on the bay. The wind also delivered the fresh smell of clean salt air to my appreciative nostrils.

    I looked up at the officer in the Dock Tower as I passed, threw a perfunctory salute in his direction, and went on my way. I wasn't sure of what that way was, but there didn't seem to be any other route to the top of the rock. I went through an underpass and up a switchback road, past occasional brick retaining walls. Many of the plants lining the roadside and clinging to the hill were geraniums, some of which were in bloom. Nasturtiums and ice plants also grew in profusion.

    There were terraced areas where vegetables were growing and more trees than one would expect to see on an island that had no natural soil. Dirt for growing plants had been barged over from the mainland, and shark meat was used for fertilizer.

    Walking up the road, gawking at everything around me, I slipped and almost fell. I had stepped on a deep green, slimy, wormlike animal about four or five inches long with antennae—a slug, but a kind I had never seen before. I kept trying to get the thing off my shoe all the rest of the way up the hill.

    In moments when there was a lull in the wind, I realized how quiet it was. The seagulls seemed content to sit huddled into their feathers. Some ships were moving silently in the bay. I could see land all around except to the west, where there was only the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean beyond.

    This sightseeing trip brought me to the main entrance and the beginning of my third assignment in the Federal Prison Service. In my eagerness to see the inside of Alcatraz, I decided to make a study of the view from the top at a later time.

    I turned and looked at the entrance. The name U.S. Penitentiary didn't seem to match the impressive emblem: a bald eagle with wings spread as if ready to fly away, with lush horns-of-plenty on either side.

    My eagerness was tempered with apprehension as I walked through the door and found myself in a foyer with halls leading off to the right and left. Directly in front of me was a barred gate with a double barred gate beyond it. I stood there taking in the surroundings, the sounds, and the institutional odors. Alcatraz was painted battleship gray outside and inside. The Federal Prison System must surely have an exclusive on this color of paint. I don't suppose it ever drove anybody crazy, but I doubt it ever cheered up anybody, either.

    I wasn't in any hurry. There had to be somebody eyeballing me from somewhere and sooner or later he would tell me what to do next.

    Then someone hollered, "Are you Gregory?"

    "Yes, sir, I'm George Gregory."

    That was the only question or verification of me on my entry into Alcatraz. Alcatraz officers were such a small, close-knit group that the arrival of a new officer was prepared for well in advance by way of the very efficient grapevine. Those on duty that Sunday morning would have heard all the gossip concerning me and my arrival.

    Looking in the direction of the voice, I saw the officer who had addressed me. He was inside an office that had big windows—bulletproof glass, no doubt. That would be the armory or control center. Kind of a small one.

    Talking through an open section of the window, the officer said, "Turn to your right, Mr. Gregory, go straight ahead, and you will find Mr. Miller's office. He's the associate warden."

    I walked past a couple of desks and saw a man standing in an office looking at some papers.

    "Mr. Miller? George Gregory reporting for duty, sir."


Excerpted from Alcatraz Screw by George H. Gregory. Copyright © 2002 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

George H. Gregory was a correctional officer at the U.S. Penitentiary at Alcatraz from 1947 to 1962.

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