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by: Kelli Patrick

The Miwok Indians thought evil spirits inhabited the island and never set foot there until 1859 when they arrived in shackles as the island's first prisoners.  By 1912, the army had built the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world (Hauck).  Army prisoners built the prison to house themselves. In the 1930's, the most dangerous criminals were housed here.  They were here till 1963, when it was shut down, prisoner's went to local prisons, such as San Quinten.  

There were talks that the island would become a theme park for space travel, suggested by Lamar Hunt, wealthy Texan and former owner of the KC Royals.  A group of Native American political activists took over the island to make a stand.  The island was occupied three times by Native Americans, until in 1972, the National Park Service took it over.  They are still there today, helping to preserve the prison and island.  For the Alcatraz website  They do accept donations to help preserve the island.

Alcatraz, The Prison

Alcatraz was a prison almost from the very start.  In 1859, 11 soldiers scheduled for confinement in the sally port basement arrived with the fort's first permanent garrison.  During the Civil War, soldiers convicted of rape, assault, murder and other crimes; citizens accused of treason; and the crew of Confederate ship were imprisoned here.  The army also incarcerated several Indian Tribes that were captured during the various Indian wars and for the military convicts during the Spanish-American War (1898). 

When the fort was decommissioned in 1907, regular army troops were replaced by soldiers of the US Military Guard.  Within a year, the army had begun tearing down the citadel and building a huge concrete cellhouse.  In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed "United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch"; it wasn't long before conscientious objectors to World War I joined the Alcatraz inmate population.

During the Great Depression of the 1930's, the newly created Bureau of Prisons became interested in in the island as a place for a high-profile, maximum-security facility.  Transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice, Alcatraz reopened in 1934 as a federal penintentiary.  Of the 1,545 men who did time on Alcatraz, only a handful were notorious-among them Al "Scarface" Capone, "Doc" Barker, Alvin "Creepy" Carpis, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Floyd Hamilton, and Robert Stroud, "the Birdman of Alcatraz" (who actually conducted his famous bird studies when he was imprisoned at Leavenworth).  Most of the inmates were men who had proved to be problems in other prison populations-escape risks and troublemakers.

Of the 14 attempted escapes, the best known was in June 1962, when Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin slipped into the water.  They used raincoats as floatation devices and were presumably bound for San Francisco.  Although their bodies were never found, they are assumed to have drowned.

As part of its security, the Bureau of Prisons deliberately restricted visitors to "The Rock."  It may have been this isolation, this apparent secrecy, that fueled stories of the prison's miserable conditions.  

Increasing maintenance and operating costs led US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to close Alcatraz in 1963.  Prisoners were then transferred.


Al Capone's exact cell location is unknown.  Part of his four and a half years on Alcatraz were spent in a hospital isolation cell.

There were no executions on Alcatraz, but there were five suicides and eight murders.

During the island's federal penitentiary days, the families who lived there rarely locked their doors.

Robert Stroud, "The Birdman of Alcatraz," had canaries at Leavenworth Penitentiary but never had birds at Alcatraz.  His real nickname was "Bird Doctor of Leavenworth."

Prisoners remained on Alcatraz until they were no longer considered to be disruptive or incorrigible-an average of 8-10 years.  (National Park Service)

On to the ghosts!

Clanging sounds, screams, and crying can somtimes be heard in Cell Block B and the dungeon area near Cell Block A. Disturbances in Cell Block C became so frequent that the park service called in a psychic to find out what was happening. This psychic, Sylvia Browne, made contact with the spirit of a man called Butcher, who resisted all her efforts to calm his violent soul.  Prison records confirmed that Abie Maldowitz, a mob hit man with the nickname of Butcher, was killed by another prisoner in the laundry room of the cell block.  In Cell Block D, 4 cells are thought to be haunted.  Strange voices have emanated from cells 11, 12, and 13.  Even in the summer months, Cell 14-D feels ice-cold, and some visitors have been overcome by emotion in one corner of the cell.  This was the tiny cell where killer Rufe McCain was kept in solitary confinement for over three years.  Sometimes sounds of banjo playing are reported coming from the deserted shower room, where Al Capone frequently played the instrument. (Hauck)

When I went there in January, 2005, I only had time for the audio tour (a must to take!)and had to leave after.  In the short time I was there, I didn't feel anything until I got to the last few cells of D Block (solitary or hosptial cells).  I did not know the ghost history till I started researching about what has been heard in D Block.  I was overwhelmed with sadness, fear and rage.  I couldn't stay too long in that area.  I did take some 35 mm pictures and didn't get anything, except for a beautiful building and landscape.  When I arrived on the island, my camera worked until I got half way up the walk and my camera stopped working.  I walked farther and when I got in the cellhouse, my camera started working.  Coincidence?  My camera worked from there on out.  I would like to go back and investigate further.

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