Selected Papers of Homer Cummings, Attorney General of the United States, 1933-1939

By Carl Brent Swisher; Homer S. Cummings | Go to book overview

2. Alcatraz

[The suppression of lawlessness, in so far as the government and the individual criminal are concerned, leads through three, progressively simpler stages: detection and apprehension, trial and conviction, and the execution of imprisonment or other forms of sentence. Even imprisonment, the less arduous phase of law enforcement, faced the possibility of a breakdown in the early 1930's. Prisoners with the capacity for self- dramatization executed bold escapes. Serious prison riots and attempts to break from prison occurred. Prisoners of the prominent gangster type succeeded in gaining influential contacts outside prison walls. The move for relentless coercion of obedience on the part of confirmed and incorrigible criminals clashed with the objective of the reform of other prisoners who, with proper handling, might be made into good citizens.

The federal prison system, barely under way as a result of a reorganization in 1929-1930, might, by example, point the way to a satisfactory solution or become a miserable example of governmental impotency in the attempt to execute the sentences of those who failed to avoid detection and the subsequent steps leading to imprisonment. Accordingly, the federal government sought a model institution for the confinement of such prisoners as inciters of prison riots; of recidivists, "repeaters," and long-termers; incorrigibles, predatory criminals, and those of evil influence; of "escape artists," gangsters with outside contacts; and other vicious and dangerous types of prisoners. Ed.]


An idea; from an office memorandum to Special Assistant Joseph B. Keenan, August 1, 1933:

IN THE agenda of things to be considered, when we get around to it, would it not be well to think of having a special prison for racketeers, kidnapers, and others guilty of predatory crimes, said prison to be in all respects a proper place or confinement. * * * It would be in a remote place--on an island, or in Alaska, so that the persons incarcerated would not be in constant communication with friends outside. * * * Please think these things over.

-29-

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