The Golden Gate National Recreation Area includes Alcatraz Island, a name that conjures up images of infamous inmates such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, two of the more noted inmates to be housed there during the 1930s. No prisoners ever escaped from “the Rock,” though thirty-four inmates did try. In the most violent escape attempt, in 1946, two guards were killed.
During the early years of Alcatraz, the warden maintained a strict policy of silence that was said to be slowly driving some of the inmates insane. There was also a place called the Strip Cell; there was no sink or toilet, only a hole in the ground that got “flushed” at the guards’ discretion. Inmates were placed into this hole naked and given limited quantities of food. When the solid steel outer door closed, the inmates were left in complete darkness.
Despite its horrifying realities, Alcatraz prison has become legendary in the public imagination thanks to its appearances in many popular movies. The better-known titles include Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster, Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood, Murder in the First with Kevin Bacon, The Rock with Sean Connery, and X-Men: The Last Stand, where it hosts the final battle between Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants and Professor Xavier’s X-Men.
The federal penitentiary has been closed to visitors for some time, but you can take self-guided tours, including a cell house audio tour that’s included in the price of your ferry ticket from the mainland. The ferry ride can be as interesting as Alcatraz Island, with the boat circling the Rock and including a narrated history about the island and prison.
Alcatraz Prison History and Facts
Once considered the prison of American prisons, the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay has been an asset to the U.S. Army, the federal prison system, jailhouse folklore, and the historic evolution of the West Coast. Despite its reputation as a cold and unforgiving penitentiary, Alcatraz is now one of the most prominent tourist magnets in San Francisco.
In 1775, Spanish ‘explorer’ Juan Manuel de Ayala chartered what is now San Francisco Bay. He called the 22 acre rocky island “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, meaning “Island of the Pelicans”. With no vegetation or habitation, Alcatraz was little more than a desolate islet occupied by the occasional swarm of birds. Under English-speaking influence, the name “Alcatraces” became Alcatraz.
Alcatraz was reserved for military use under President Millard Fillmore in 1850. Meanwhile, the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains brought growth and prosperity to San Francisco. The lure of the Gold Rush demanded the protection of California as gold seekers flooded the San Francisco Bay. In response, the U.S. Army built a fortress on the rocky face of Alcatraz. They made plans to install more than 100 cannons, making Alcatraz the most heavily armed entity on the West Coast. The first functional lighthouse on the West Coast was built on Alcatraz Island as well. Once fully equipped with weaponry in 1859, the island was deemed Fort Alcatraz.
Having never fired its own weapons in combat, Fort Alcatraz quickly evolved from an island of defense to an island of detention. In the early 1860s, civilians arrested for treason during the Civil War were housed on the island. With the influx of prisoners, additional living quarters were built to house 500 men. Alcatraz as a jail would continue for 100 years. Throughout history, the average population of the island hovered between 200 and 300 people, never at maximum capacity.
After the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, inmates from nearby prisons were transferred to the infallible Alcatraz. Over the next five years, prisoners built a new jail, designated “Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, Alcatraz Island”. Popularly known as “The Rock”, Alcatraz served as an army disciplinary barracks until 1933. Prisoners were educated and received military and vocational training.
Alcatraz of the early 20th century was a minimum security prison. Prisoners spent their days working and learning. Some were even employed as babysitters for the families of prison officers. They eventually built a baseball field and inmates fashioned their own baseball uniforms. Boxing matches among inmates known as “Alcatraz Fights” were hosted on Friday nights. Prison life played a role in the changing landscape of the island. The military transported soil to Alcatraz from nearby Angel Island, and many prisoners were trained as gardeners. They planted roses, bluegrass, poppies and lilies on the eastern side. Under the order of the U.S. Army, Alcatraz was a fairly mild institution and its accommodations were favorable.
The geographic location of Alcatraz was the undoing of U.S. Army occupation. Importing food and supplies to island was much too expensive. The Great Depression of the 1930s forced the army off the island, and the prisoners were transferred to institutes in Kansas and New Jersey.
Alcatraz as Federal Penitentiary: “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island”
Alcatraz was obtained by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1934. The former military detention center became America’s first maximum security civilian penitentiary. This “prison system’s prison” was specifically designed to house the most horrendous prisoners, the troublemakers that other federal prisons could not successfully detain. Its isolated location made it ideal for the exile of hardened criminals, and a strict daily routine taught inmates to follow prison rule and regulation.
The Great Depression witnessed some of the most heinous criminal activity in modern American history, and Alcatraz’ severity was well suited to its time. Alcatraz was home to notorious criminals including Al “Scarface” Capone, who was convicted of tax evasion and spent five years on the island. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, the FBI’s first “Public Enemy” was a 28 year resident of Alcatraz. The most famous prisoner was Alaskan murderer Robert “Birdman” Stroud, who spent 17 years on Alcatraz. Over its 29 years of operation, the federal prison housed more than 1,500 convicts.
Daily life in the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was harsh. Prisoners were given four rights. They included medical attention, shelter, food and clothing. Recreational activities and family visits had to be earned through hard work. Punishments for bad behavior included hard labor, wearing a 12 pound ball and chain, and lock-downs where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, restricted to bread and water. There were a total of 14 escape attempts by over 30 prisoners. Most were caught, several were shot, and a few were swallowed by the chilling swells of the San Francisco Bay.
The Closing of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
The prison on Alcatraz Island was expensive to operate, as all supplies had to be brought in by boat. The island had no source of fresh water, and almost one million gallons were shipped in each week. Building a high security prison elsewhere was more affordable for the Federal Government, and as of 1963 “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island” was no more. Today, the equivalent of the infamous federal prison on Alcatraz Island is a maximum security institution in Florence, Colorado. It is nicknamed “Alcatraz of the Rockies”.
Tourism on Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island became a national park in 1972, and was considered part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Open to the public in 1973, Alcatraz sees more than one million visitors from across the globe each year.
Alcatraz is best known as a maximum security prison. Media attention and fantastic stories have exaggerated this image. The San Francisco Bay islet has been much more than this. Alcatraz as a mass of rock named for its birds, an American fort during the Gold Rush, an army barracks, and tourist attraction may be less enticing, but allude to a more dynamic existence. It is one to be embraced by San Francisco and California as a whole.
The Strip Cell – Prisoners refusing to follow prison rules risked being confined to the Strip Cell, located on the lower tier of D Block. It was a dark steel cell, where inmates would be stripped naked and given water and bread once daily, an occasional meal and a mattress at night. The only ‘toilet’ was a hole in the cell floor and there was no sink. While there, convicts had no contact with others, spending their time in pitch-dark solitude.
The Hole on D Block – Similar to the strip cell, there were five ‘hole’ cells also on the lower tier, where prisoners were kept in isolation for up to 19 days. The cells had a toilet, sink, lightbulb and a mattress provided during the night only.
Because of the huge cost to refurbish the prison it was closed in 1963. Later the island and parts of the prison were reopened by the Parks Services for daily public tours.
The Ghost Stories of Alcatraz
The fact that Alcatraz was built on an island and kept so isolated from public view, tales of inmates being tortured and of their bitter spirits coming back to haunt the halls of Alcatraz began to circulate.
In the late 1850s, the first inmates to occupy Alcatraz were military prisoners who were put to work building a new prison that later became known as “The Rock.” The U.S. Army used the island until 1933, at which time the Federal Government decided to open a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary to deal with the most incorrigible inmates.
Alcatraz was designed to break rebellious prisoners by putting them in a structured, monotonous routine until their release. Prisoners were given four basic things – food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Receiving anything beyond that had to be earned. Famous criminals, such as Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis and Arthur “Doc” Barker, spent time in Alcatraz. Mobsters in other prisons often managed to manipulate special privileges from guards, but not at Alcatraz.
The Utility Corridor
One of the areas which some claim is the most active with paranormal activity is a utility corridor where inmates Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were plummeted with bullets after a failed prison escape. It is there that in 1976 a night security guard reported hearing unexplained eerie clanging sounds coming from inside.
Cell 14D, one of the ‘hole’ cells is believed by some to be very active with spirits. Visitors and employees have reported feeling a raw coldness and at times a sudden ‘intensity’ encompasses the cell.
Tales have been told of an event in the 1940s, when a prisoner locked-in 14D screamed throughout the night that a creature with glowing eyes was killing him. The next day guards found the man strangled to death in the cell. No one ever claimed responsibility for the convict’s death, however the next day when doing head counts, the guards counted one too many prisoners. Some of the guards claimed seeing the dead convict in line with the other inmates, but only for a second before he vanished.
Other stories have circulated that Warden Johnston, nicknamed “The Golden Rule Warden,” also faced a bizarre event while showing some of his guests around the prison. According to the story, Johnston and his group heard someone sobbing from inside the prison walls, and then a cold wind whisked past the group. Johnston could never explain any reason for the occurrences.
Cell blocks A, B, and C
Visitors to cellblocks A and B. claim they have heard crying and moaning. A psychic visiting wrote that while in Block C he came upon a disruptive spirit name Butcher. Prison records show that another inmate in block C murdered Abie Maldowitz, a mob hitman known as Butcher.
The Ghost of Al Capone
Al Capone, who spent his last years at Alcatraz with his health in decline from untreated syphilis, took up playing the banjo with a prison band. Fearing he would be killed if he spent his recreational time in the “yard,” Capone received permission to spend recreation time practicing his banjo in the shower room.
In recent years, a park ranger claimed he heard banjo music coming from the shower room. Not familiar with the history of Alcatraz, the ranger could not find a reason for the sound and documented the strange event. Other visitors and employees have reported hearing the sound of a banjo coming from the prison walls.
More Paranormal Reports
Other odd events experienced over the years include guards smelling smoke, but finding no fire; sounds of unexplained crying and moaning; unexplained cold spots in areas of the prison and claims of seeing ghosts of prisoners or military personnel.
Could it be Alcatraz is haunted? Ghost hunters have said they feel parts of the island and areas of the prison evoke a certain “strangeness.”