James A. Johnson, the first warden of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, was a strict disciplinarian. His solution to prison violence was rigid adherence to Golden Rules, including one which dictated, to the inch, the location of shaving brushes within each cell. “Old Saltwater”, as he was known, was popular with the inmates. He ate with them, unguarded.

Alcatraz inherited the library of the military citadel which had formerly stood on the island. In 1937, at Johnson’s instigation, new books were purchased, and a printed catalogue compiled. Each new prisoner received a copy of the catalogue on arrival.

Inmates were not allowed to enter the library. They ordered reading material using request slips placed, at breakfast time, in a box near the dining hall. Three standard books, and up to twelve textbooks, could be borrowed. The library was popular – the average monthly circulation in 1937 was 8.2 books per prisoner. The prison chaplain excised all references to sex, crime, and violence.

Did personal ownership of a catalogue, or selection solely by means of it, make the prisoners keener readers? It’s a quaint idea. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that “these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular.”

That’s the same Hegel who characterized history as a “butcher’s block”. The Schopenhauer who wrote, in detail, about crime and punishment in The World as Will and Idea. And the Kant whose Lectures on Ethics and his Metaphysics of Morals contain discussions of what the philosopher calls “unnatural and unmentionable vices”. Perhaps the chaplain wasn’t too hot on philosophy. Good cataloguing or botched censorship? Or a bit of both? Take your pick.


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