Alcatraz. The Rock. The most infamous prison in America.
Ask anyone about it, and almost everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about. Even though Alcatraz only operated for twenty-nine years, its impact on the popular consciousness is legendary. It’s inspired many films, most notably the 1979 classic Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, and the 1995 classic The Rock, starring Nicholas Cage.
It even had a TV show, Alcatraz, a few years ago (my personal favorite, due in no small part to the amazing Sam Neil).
The story of the prison looms large in our collective history, an archetypal prison made real. We’ve heard about the freezing, shark-infested waters surrounding the island. We’ve heard that the United States Prison System ran the prison with an iron fist. We’ve heard about the men who stayed there—Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr., to name a few. We’ve heard that it was a “super prison,” an inescapable, impenetrable fortress. We’ve heard about the failed escape attempts, including the six men who broke out and were never seen again. Did they drown in the frigid, black waters? Or did they make it the Mexico after all?
And we’ve also heard that the prison is haunted.
The ghost stories of Alcatraz contain common elements. Night watchmen hear inexplicable sounds long after all the tourists have left for the day. Metal clangs against metal, the footsteps of men reverberate around corners, voices echo down corridors, and blood-curdling screams erupt in empty rooms. During the operation of the prison, prison guards reported strange smells, sounds, and apparitions of former prisoners. The laundry room would fill with the smell of smoke, but nothing was burning. Phantom gunshots boomed through hallways, but no guard had discharged his weapon, nor had any prisoner obtained a weapon. Even one of the wardens, Warden Johnston, once experienced strange sounds and an inexplicable gust of icy wind while escorting visitors on a tour of the prison.
One story in particular really gave me the chills, however. The solitary confinement cells are generally ominous, but cell Hole 14D is always cold, no matter what the weather outside is like. Tourists and guides alike have reported feelings of sudden intensity and overwhelming anxiety upon entering Hole 14D.
Supposedly, when the prison was still operating, a prisoner was sent to Hole 14D. Almost as soon as he was shut inside, he began screaming at the top of his lungs. He insisted a beast with blazing eyes was in the hole with him, growling, circling him, stalking him. Of course the guards didn’t believe him. For hours the prisoner screamed for help. He screamed all night.
Suddenly, he stopped.
The next morning, the prisoner was found dead. Someone or something had strangled him. Many believed a guard had killed the man to shut him up, but others believed something more sinister had happened.
After that, no prisoner would go into the cell, and no guard would force a prisoner into the cell.
On my recent trip to San Francisco, I was lucky enough to visit Alcatraz. It was an unbelievably cool experience, seeing as how Alcatraz Island has such a rich history and storied reputation. I learned a lot, and I got to visit this “haunted” prison for myself. So I decided the whole experience would make for an excellent installment in my series of posts on haunted locales.
My initial reaction upon arriving to the island was that it was extremely beautiful. The ferry ride from San Francisco had been nothing short of lovely, with a crisp wind pushing us along. The city’s skyline looked like some kind of perfect postcard. The surrounding scenery was equally picturesque. The sun shone brilliantly. The sky was a clear, electric blue and feathery clouds layered themselves on the horizon. Once there, I was amazed at the amount of lush, green foliage and colorful blossoms that covered the island. The buildings themselves were beautiful in a way only slowly decaying buildings can be. They all have slightly softened edges, eroded from spending years in the sun, weathering the salty air. If there is paint, it is chipped and faded. Bricks are stained. Pipes are rusted. Windows are broken.
The island is gorgeous.
To be honest, I was slightly disappointed by how gorgeous it was because it kind of killed the mood. Nothing was obviously spooky or foreboding. Where was the cold, misty drizzle? What about the gray skies? This place is supposed to be haunted, right?
And then I realized how absurd those thoughts were, because prisoners aren’t imprisoned for stormy days only. They were prisoners for the nice days, the breezy days, the crisp fall days, the hot summer days. It would be easy to picture myself as a prisoner if the day is rainy and cold and the sky is a dreary gray. It would be something else entirely to walk through the prison corridors, stand in the cells, and imagine myself as a prisoner while pure, brilliant sunshine streamed through the barred windows and splashed on the dirty concrete floors.
It was eye-opening to say the least, to imagine myself staring at the skyline of San Francisco and smelling the air and feeling the sun on you, all from behind the prison walls. The beauty actually made it easier to see the prisoners sitting in their cells, browsing the prison library, and exercising in the yard under the watchful eyes of the guards. Every week they traveled in a loop, going from a small space to a slightly bigger space to a wide expanse of concrete until the day their sentences were served.
I spent a long time wandering around and listening to the audio tour. As I walked the grounds, soaking in the voices of the former guards and prisoners alike, I was moved by the candidness of the testimonials. I, like many before me, heard these men recount their time at Alcatraz as I retraced their footsteps, touched the bars that they touched, and sat on the benches where they used to sit.
It was eerie.
I felt a strange sense of self-awareness, like I was not supposed to be there. I did not belong there. As a stranger, I felt a duty to be reverent and respectful, which struck me as a weird thing to feel about a prison, especially one where some of the worst criminals were incarcerated.
But I wasn’t scared. Nothing gave me the willies except the solitary confinement cells. Those were spooky because I was allowed to walk inside one (not Hole 14D however) and spend some time there. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to get shut inside one of these for as long as the guards wanted. There was no bed, no toilet, nothing, just a low hanging ceiling and concrete walls. And a door that could only be opened from the outside, and I would have been entirely dependent on the person outside. The whole thing made me queasy.
The tour also included a trip down the sunny part of the cellblock, a place illuminated by the white morning sunlight. It was a coveted place to have a cell. It was also a good place see fireworks on New Year’s Eve and catch clearer radio frequencies. All of these things I take for granted, rendered priceless by the stone building that contained stacks of cages for human habitation.
This experience underscored the inherent tension in my status as a visitor—I could leave. My being inside the prison would have no more of an effect on me than what I allowed. I had control over what happened to me.
Learning about these prisoners and the men who guarded them cast my own notions of personal control in a strange light. It seemed unnatural to exist as a free person in such a place. I’m in no way saying that prisons are bad or that prisoners don’t deserve their punishment for their crimes, just that the experience made me stop and reflect on the nature of prisons especially the relationship resulting from a prisoner-guard relationship.
As I peered into a prisoner cell, standing in the same place guards had stood before, I imagined what it would feel like to be a guard on this beautiful but lonely island. I might have lived on the island—there was housing for guards and their families there, even a schoolhouse. Even being “free,” I might not leave the island most days. I would be tied to this place, not the same way that the prisoners were. But I would be bound to the prison.
A prison guard must control and manage the prisoners to an almost obsessive degree. I stood in the showers, which consisted of a large, room-length basin in the floor and hanging pipes above from which showerheads sprouted. There were no stalls. No curtains. I stood outside of the basin, like a guard would have done. I walked down the corridors and lost count of the amount of stalls I passed, not to mention the stalls on the second and third levels. Each new cell was a face I did not know, I name I would not learn, and yet, as a guard, it would have been my job to know all of the prisoners. I walk past and see their belongings on the shelves. The corridors are not terribly wide and it would be very hard to ignore the scores of human beings locked up only feet away from me.
The physical proximity must be extraordinarily difficult to handle not only in risking bodily danger, but in compromising the necessary emotional and psychological distance. Compounding that problem is the fact that a guard must think constantly about the prisoner. A guard’s whole job is to be near to and understand a prisoner. What he’s thinking. What he’s feeling. How is his mood today? What could set him off? What could subdue him?
And I thought of the time the prisoners and guards shared together. A guard must steel himself before leaving the relative safety of the control room and entering the cell blocks, despite the bars supposedly protect him from some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. A prisoner would carefully manage his behavior in order to keep the guards happy, and then in turn gain privileges to exercise in the yard, outside. Both groups were together in the cafeteria when the prisoners came for meals, and the prisoners far outnumbered the guards. Additionally, the prisoners would have access to cutlery and heavy wooden benches. A guard and a prisoner would walk together through the corridors to visitation, where the prisoner would peer through a small square window at a loved one and the guard would watch, and then together they would leave that loved one and take the same long path back to the prisoner’s cell.
It does not surprise me to hear that guards experienced ghostly phenomena after the death of a prisoner, who was, after all, another human being they had spent hours, days, and months looking after. How hard it must be to fill the absence left by a person you interacted with in such a forced and intimate setting, separated by bars or the length of a baton.
I’m not sure if Alcatraz is haunted. It very well might be. I didn’t experience anything supernatural, though that doesn’t mean anything. A National Park Service employee told me she had never experienced anything strange on the island, though at night the place gave her the creeps. But she was careful to chock that up to the “atmosphere” of the island and the “character” of the prison.
At the very least, I agree with her there. Alcatraz is haunted by memories. There’s something in the air, a stillness. It’s in the way the light seems heavy, as if it possessed substance. It is the same substance that permeates the solitary confinement cells and in the dark corners of the prison. And as I walked the halls, passing through the light and the shadows, you feel the variations in the atmosphere, the subtle change in the ether, and you know both the prisoners and the guards felt the same thing.
Even now, months after my visit, I contemplate the emptiness of the prison. Even with scores of tourists and guides visiting, Alcatraz is empty. We do not fill it. We do not inhabit it. Only the stories and memories and the voices of old men exist there, gently swirling in the abandoned corridors and cells.
This is the character of a place once occupied, a place that will never be occupied by people again. All that remains are the rooms were guards and prisoners were forced to be together.