Alcatraz was first used as a military fortress in the 1850s and became a prison holding captured deserters during the Civil War as well as American Indians. It was J. Edgar Hoover who decided that a maximum security prison was needed to hold some of the most notorious criminals. Under the supervision of Warden James A. Johnston came inmates such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud who was also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. During the time Alcatraz was a prison it survived a siege by the United States Marines, numerous escape attempts, several suicides and numerous acts of violence committed by both guards and inmates. Finally in 1963 Alcatraz closed its doors and ten years later it was opened to the public becoming one of San Francisco’s top tourist attractions.
Its long and bloody history has left behind the souls of the dead. Strange and unexplainable occurrences have been reported by both visitors and employees since the closing and many inmates though dead have not yet let the prison behind. Alcatraz is about a mile away from Fisherman’s Wharf across the San Francisco Bay and ferries transport tourists to the island. There was an escape attempt made in June of 1962 which was immortalized in the film“Escape from Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood. Escapees who really tried to escape from the island most likely drowned in the cold, dark, murky waters of the bay such as Frank Lee Morris (on whom the film was based) or one of the Anglin Brothers, however, no bodies were ever found. So this has become a legend.
As one draws closer to the island one notices the warning sign and the graffiti around it saying “Indians welcome”. This refers to the American Indian occupation of the island in the 1960s as part of an organized political protest that continued for 19 months. The American Indians believed that this was an evil place long before the prison was built and also believed it had a curse on it. Arriving at the island you are greeted by park rangers and behind the landing dock, you can see what used to be the barracks. Above them are another two levels to the island.
At the very top are the cell blocks, next to them the ruined warden’s house and the Alcatraz lighthouse. At dock level, there is also a small museum that displays things like a section about the Alcatraz myths and their reality.
Prisoners were locked in 9ft by 5 ft cells 13 hours at a time with 20-minute lunch breaks and much of the rest of the day was spent working in the prison workshop. The only companions they had were hardened criminals and brutal prison guards. This routine would continue day in and day for years to come with no hope of escape or parole. Now many of the buildings that still stand are used as storage facilities or offices for the island staff. At one time Alcatraz was a city unto itself covering 22 acres that included living quarters for the prison guards and their families, workshops, laundry rooms, a recreation area and a hospital. At one time the landing dock accommodated prisoners arriving by train. Special carriages which carried inmate from other parts of the country were transferred from railway to barge and then towed across the bay to the island.
One of the most haunted parts of the island are the prison shower rooms. The rumors of ghosts go way back to the 1940s when a prisoner locked up in solitary confinement could be heard screaming that something with glowing red eyes was in his cell. They ignored his pleas and the next morning he was found dead. Over the years unexplained gunshots, explosions, and sounds of people screaming have been reported. Dark shapes have been seen and cold spots felt throughout the prison and even the appearance of the original lighthouse which has long been demolished. Some of the best views of the island are from the demolished warden’s house which was once home to the first warden of the prison Warden James A. Johnston. He lived there from the 1930s until his retirement and claimed to have heard the unexplained ghostly sounds of a woman sobbing in the prison dungeons. There has been seen the figure of a man in a grey suit among the ruins. It was Warden Johnston who was responsible for turning Alcatraz from a military prison into a maximum security prison by adding gun towers, upgrading the cell locking systems and ensuring that there was one guard for every three prisoners.
Entering the cell block building one passes the control center which opened and closed the cell doors. In this section is the visiting area as well where prisoners were allowed one visit per month provided they had not broken any rules or regulations. There are 4 cell blocks A, B, C, and D. D block was used to place prisoners in solitary confinement. Signs have been posted where the most famous inmates resided. Al Capone’s cell number was 14B and there are many black and white photos of the inmates throughout the cell block. The first few years the prison was opened there was a strict no talking rule and the few books or magazines that were allowed were censored so that few details of the outside world would be disclosed. Visitors could not discuss current events with the inmates and all contact was strictly controlled.No prisoners were executed on Alcatraz but many committed suicide or were shot by guards during escape attempts or killed in brawls with other inmates.
The center aisle between B and C blocks was known as Broadway by the inmates. Halfway down the aisle is the cell where the islands most famous escape attempt took place immortalized in the Eastwood film “Escape from Alcatraz”. The cell has been recreated to look like what it did on the night of June of 1962. There are dummy paper mache heads used to fool the guards with and the hole which one of the convicts tunneled through. Then walking up along block C is the section of the end wall which revealed the path the convicts took on their way up to the roof. From here they were able to launch themselves into the water using an inflatable life raft made out of raincoats. After the escape was discovered the next day some of their personal effects were found floating in the water but not their bodies.
At the end of cell block C is a large clock in keeping with the Broadway theme this area was referred to as Times Square and three times a day prisoners would assemble here before breakfast, lunch or dinner. One of the original breakfast menus is still on display in the dining room. It reads assorted cereals, steamed whole wheat, scrambled eggs, fresh milk, stewed fruit, toast, butter, and coffee. Coming out of the dining room there are stairs to the prison hospital at the end of cell block C. Nothing much is left of the hospital except for a crumbling wall, a wheelchair and an operating table. It is also one of the areas where haunting is most active. Here many prisoners spent their final months dying of disease or injury.
Inmates were often kept in solitary confinement for up to 2 weeks in the dark, dank cells and allowed out only once a week for a twenty-minute shower. When the mist got really thick around the island the inmates were confined to their cells. The dead are restless here still.