Friday, July 17, 2009


Alcatraz is one of the most famous prisons in the United States. Al Capone was an inmate here, along with George "Machine-Gun" Kelly. Its isolated location, on an island in San Francisco Bay, helped to keep the prisoners behind bars.

In 1847 the United States military put the island to use. They established a fort, then in 1854, the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast was built. In 1859, the first (military) prisoners were sent to the fort. In 1861, Confederate prisoners began to arrive. Some were soldiers; some merely sympathized with the South. The fort was much smaller in those days, and the men were kept in the guardhouse basement, lying on a stone floor with no heat or running water - and nothing in the form of a latrine. Lice were rampant, and diseases spread easily. The stereotypical prison punishments - being chained to an iron ball, subsisting on bread and water - were common.

In 1904, the prison was updated. The stockade wall was extended; several new buildings were constructed. Surprisingly, the earthquake of 1906 didn't damage any of the buildings, so prisoners from the hard-hit mainland jail were brought to the island as a temporary measure.

In those days, though the rules were strict, the facility was, by and large, minimum-security. Quite a few of the inmates had jobs working for the military families living on the island, and some even took care of officers' children. Some took advantage of the low security to attempt escape, but of those who tried, some had to be rescued, while the rest drowned in the bay.

In 1933, Alcatraz was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to become a model for an "escape-proof" prison. James A. Johnston became the warden. He created rules and regulations for Alcatraz and hired the best men available to work in it. Soon, the appearance of the prison had undergone a dramatic change. Gun towers were built, barbed wire encircled the premises; the cellblock was constructed on the old fort. Inside, the locks were electric, and tear gas could be sprayed from the ceilings. In addition, housing was built for the guards' families and the former lighthouse keeper's residence became the quarters of the new warden.

The worst inmates from prisons around the country were now being sent to "the Rock". Among these were Capone; Kelly; Robert Stroud (the "Birdman" of Alcatraz); Floyd Hamilton (one-time driver for Bonnie and Clyde), and Alvin ("Creepy") Karpis.

It was in August of 1934 that Capone arrived at the prison. Prior to this, he had been an inmate in a federal prison in Atlanta, enjoying special benefits. Alcatraz, though, was an entirely different matter. Johnston recognize Capone quickly, and when speaking to him for the first time, simply issued a prison number.

The "Strip Cell", also called the "Oriental", was used for punishment. It had no toilet and no sink. A hole in the floor, which could be flushed from outside the cell, was used for human waste. Inmates undergoing punishment were put naked in the cell, and received only small portions of food. It had the usual bars, with an opening through which food was passed, but it also had a solid steel door, which left the inmate in blackness. Inmates were usually confined to the cell for a day or two. The only furnishing was a straw mattress, which was removed in the morning. The prisoners dreaded this punishment, which was used only in extreme cases.

Another kind of cell was known as the "Hole". These were found on the bottom tier of the cells, and again, were feared by the prisoners. The mattresses were taken in the mornings and the prisoners received bread and water, with a regular meal every three days. There were the same steel doors, but a (dim) lightbulb hung from the ceiling. Up to 19 days were spent in here, creating a form of psychological torture for the inmates.

When an inmate was forced into the "hole", he was almost always beaten by the guards. D Block contained four such "holes", and the screams of the inmates were heard clearly by the other prisoners in the block. When this happened, the other inmates would make loud noise, which was then heard in the B and C blocks, who would also create a ruckus. Men who spent time in the "hole" often ended up in the prison hospital; some had their health damaged by lying naked on the concrete floor. Some died in the "hole". (Al Capone once went the full 19 days for attempting to bribe a guard.)

In front of A Block there was a staircase leading to a steel door, which in turn led to corridors going to the gun ports from bygone times. Two rooms in this area, which was underground, were used as dungeons. Prisoners who were thrown, naked, into the dungeons were chained to the walls before being locked in; no matter how loudly they screamed, nobody could hear them in the main building. There was no toilet, only a bucket - and it was emptied only once a week. Rations were two cups of water and a piece of bread daily, with (as in the "holes") a larger meal every three days. The wall chains forced them to stand twelve hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. At night, they were provided with a blanket.

In just one year - 1937, only a few years after the prison opened - 14 prisoners went insane, such as Rube Persful. Persful, once a gangster who robbed banks on the side, worked in a workshop at the prison. One day, resting his left hand on a piece of wood, he took a hatchet and, laughing, started to chop off his fingers. He then implored a guard to do the same to his right hand. It may be that the number of breakdowns at the "Rock" was higher than at any other federal prison.

In May 1946, Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes took several guards hostage in an attempt to escape. By the end of the attempt, three of the guards were dead and others had been wounded. Two of the guards had been brutally murdered in cells 402 and 403; these cells were later renumbered to C-102 and C-104. The U.S. Marines stormed the island and used heavy weaponry in an assault on the block. The inmates, even knowing that resistance was futile, decided to fight. The warden (not knowing how many were involved in the uprising) called for additional help from other organizations, so that eventually, he received aid not only from the Marines, but from the Coast Guard, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, many guards from nearby prisons, and several police units had been brought in.

Finally, after two days, Cretzer, Coy and Hubbard attempted to take refuge from the gunfire in a utility corridor, only to be killed by bullets and metal fragments from other explosives. The other three, hoping that no one could identify them as being part of the proceedings, went back to their cells. Thompson and Shockley went to the gas chamber at San Quentin; and Carnes was sentenced to life plus 99 years (in consideration of the fact that he had helped some of the hostages when they were wounded).

On March 23, 1963, now falling into disrepair due in large part to the corrosive salt water and air, Alcatraz was closed. Almost ten years later, in 1972, an act of Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Alcatraz, now a tourist attraction, opened to the general public in the autumn of 1973.

Ghosts and unexplained phenomena

When Alcatraz was still a prison, quite a few guards experienced odd occurrences between 1946 and 1963. Strange, unexplained smells were noticed; sounds of sobbing were heard; even specters were seen. Civilians on the island said that they sometimes saw the ghosts of prisoners and soldiers. Warden Johnston, a very down-to-earth man, once heard sobbing as he took a group of guests on a tour of the prison. He believed that the sobbing came from the inside of the dungeon walls. Then, an icy cold draft of air was felt by the group.

One night in 1976, a guard heard strange noises behind a steel door in Block C. This door, funnily enough, is the one leading to the utility corridor where the three inmates were shot to death in the 1946 escape attempt. The guard opened the door and sent the beam of his flashlight down the corridor. Seeing nothing, he closed the door... and the noises began again. He opened the door a second time. He saw nothing. He shut the door again and left.

An employee was walking in front of A Block when she heard a scream coming from the bottom of the stairs. She ran without checking the source of the noise. stated Only the day before another employee heard men's voices in the hospital ward. When he investigated, he found the ward empty.

Cell 14D, one of the infamous "holes", has a very creepy atmosphere. One guide stated that it's always cold, so much that a jacket is necessary if anyone wants to spend more than a few minutes in it. When Alcatraz was still a prison, many guards mentioned frightening occurrences near all of the "holes", but especially, 14D.

In the mid-1940s, an inmate was put in this "hole". The guard later stated that soon after the door was locked, the man began to scream. He shrieked that something was in there with him, something with "glowing eyes". He continued to scream well into the night. Then there was silence. The next day, the inmate was found dead in his cell. His face was frozen in a look of horror, and his throat showed clear marks, made by two hands. The autopsy reported that the cause of death was strangulation, but not self-inflicted. There was a belief that one of the guards had done it, out of an inability to handle any more of the man's screaming. However, some officers believed that the killer was the ghost of a former inmate. On the day after the mysterious death, the guards were doing the regular head count when they noticed one extra person in the lineup. The extra man was the recently-deceased inmate. As the guards stared, he vanished.

Alcatraz is still open to tours by the public - including the legendary, infamous Cell 14D.

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