California Road Trip: Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary


In my last post, I explored the history of Alcatraz Island prior to its time as a federal maximum security prison.  But no visit to The Rock would be complete without seeing the prison building.  The cell block that visitors see today was constructed between 1909 and 1912, and became home to federal prisoners in 1933 when the Army Fortress was deactivated and transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Alcatraz Island Penitentiary Sign

Alcatraz Island Penitentiary Sign

When you visit, you receive an audio tour (available in several languages) with headphones to wander around the prison and hear about the various areas of the prison. The audio tour also gives you information about some of the prisoners that were housed at Alcatraz, their daily lives in captivity, and details about the building itself.  The tour is narrated by several of the former guards and inmates, and informational posters give you some details on these men.

A Few of the General Population Cells

A Few of the General Population Cells

Me During My Incarceration

Me During My Incarceration

The prison had over 600 cells during its military prison days, but during its time as a federal prison there were 336 regular cells, 36 segregation cells and 6 solitary confinement cells in use. The rest were used as storage. The regular cells were 9 ft. by 5 ft.; smaller than the segregation cells which were 9 ft. by 7 ft.  The general population lived in cells along two main corridors, and there were 3 stories of cells looking out onto each corridor.  At one end was a gun gallery where guards had a clear view of the corridors and the fronts of the cells.

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz - 5 Feet by 9 Feet

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz – 5 Feet by 9 Feet

We got to see “The Hole” – the solitary confinement cells where prisoners were housed when they got unruly. In the hole, you were alone and confined in the dark for 24 hours each day – no exercise, no entertainment, no nothing.  You didn’t even get a toilet or a sink – just a hole in the floor – YUCK…  It was different than I expected though – I thought those cells would be in a basement or dungeon. Instead, they were right on the main floor with all the other cells – it only got dreary once they put you in that room and closed the window in the door.

The tour doesn’t talk about this, but legend has it that a malevolent presence with glowing red eyes terrorized prisoners in “The Hole” – supposedly one man screamed throughout the night about this entity, but when guards checked to see if he was alone they found nothing with him. However, in the morning the man had stopped screaming and was found dead, with hand marks around his neck. Guards are said to have counted an extra inmate that morning at role call; the dead man was seen in the lineup and then disappeared.

"The Hole" Cells in Cell Block D - the Treatment Unit.  No Inmate Could Be Assigned to The Hole for More Than 19 Days

“The Hole” Cells in Cell Block D – the Treatment Unit. No Inmate Could Be Assigned to The Hole for More Than 19 Days

And of course, the tour details the escape attempts. During the life of the federal prison, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 prisoners. Of these prisoners; 23 were recaptured, 6 were shot and killed, 2 drowned and 5 are missing and presumed dead.  Three of these men dug out of their cells using homemade tools and spoons, climbed up the pipes through the utility corridors to the roof, made it down to the ground, and set out in homemade rafts and were never seen nor heard from again.

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962.  He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962. He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

The most famous of the escape attempts is called the Battle of Alcatraz, and it occurred in 1946.  A group of 6 prisoners (there were 3 ringleaders), managed to overpower a guard while he was searching an inmate who was returning to his cell.  They then used a homemade bar spreader to spread the bars that protected the gun gallery (the thinnest inmate starved himself so he could fit between the bars).  At this point, they were armed and thought they had the keys to let themselves out.  However, a brave guard had handed over all the keys, except the one they needed.  He had hidden that one key in the toilet of the cell where he was being held hostage.  They were trapped.

The Actual Bars and Bar Spreader From the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946

The Actual Bars and Bar Spreader From the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946

Meanwhile, other guards were returning to the cell block from duties guarding the prisoners working during the day, and they were captured one by one as they returned.  When they didn’t check in, another guard was sent to check… and another… and another…  After some time, the inmates had nine guards held hostage.  The inmates were frustrated at this point because without the key to the door, there was no escape, so they decided to kill the guards who could testify against them.  They fired into the cells were the guards were being held.  Five were wounded, three seriously, and one guard, Bill Miller, later died of his wounds.  At that point, 3 of the inmates figured they should distance themselves from the situation and returned to their cells; the other three decided they wouldn’t surrender.  They got up on top of the cell block to fight it out.

The other guards had figured out what was going on by this point, and entered the gun gallery – a massive firefight occurred – one guard was killed and four others were wounded.  Prison officials then cut the electricity and waited for night to fall.  Guards went back into the gun gallery to provide cover for several other guards who entered the cell block unarmed in order to free the captive guards.  The guards in the gun gallery couldn’t get a clean shot at the inmates perched on top of the cell block though, so after the captive guards were freed and evacuated, they called in some heavier firepower – The Marines.  The Marines shelled the prison, and drilled holes in the roof and dropped grenades in to corner the inmates.  They were eventually trapped in a utility corridor.

The Gun Gallery at the End of the Cell Block - Where Armed Guards Kept an Eye on Inmates

The Gun Gallery at the End of the Cell Block – Where Armed Guards Kept an Eye on Inmates

The Marines entered the building and fired into the utility corridor at intervals throughout the day – the three inmates were killed in the corridor.  The three other inmates who had returned to their cells had been identified by the guards, and were tried for their roles in the escape attempt and the murder of the two guards – two were executed and the third received an additional life sentence.  As a result of the Battle of Alcatraz, security was increased and there was not another escape attempt until 1956.

The prison was closed in 1963, because operating costs on Alcatraz were more than three times what it cost at other federal prisons in the country (more than $10 per prisoner per day vs. $3 elsewhere).  Additionally, residents of San Francisco were becoming increasingly frustrated with the sewage being discharged in the bay from the prisoners and the guards and families that lived there. The last prisoners were moved to other correctional facilities around the country.

All in all, Alcatraz is a very lonely place.  Inmates in the early years were not allowed to talk, and throughout the prison years, inmates could have one visit from family once a month.  Inmates typically worked during the day, but outside of work, inmates were only allowed one hour each day of recreation.  The day we were there, it was very cold, and that was on an unseasonably warm, sunny March day in San Francisco.  It must have been brutally cold there in winter.  During the history of the federal prison, 15 prisoners died of natural causes, 5 committed suicide and 8 were murdered. 3 guards were also murdered during escape attempts.

Even though there are tons of people everywhere inside the prison, the tour is pretty good at moving you through efficiently, so it isn’t as claustrophobic as you might imagine. Jon is frequently annoyed around crowds, and Alcatraz didn’t bother him at all. And of course the other areas of the island are not crowded at all, because people really just want to see the prison.  We really enjoyed our visit and it was well worth getting up so early in the morning.  If you have the opportunity – GO!  But do buy your tickets online, well before your visit!

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6 thoughts on “California Road Trip: Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary

    • It was cold! No, I didn’t take notes while we were there, but I did bring a notebook and took notes once we were heading back – waiting for the ferry and on the ferry ride back. Plus they have a little brochure that you can purchase for $1 that gives some information about the history of the buildings. And… ssshhh… don’t tell anyone, but I filled in the gaps with the internet… 🙂

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