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(No) Escape from Alcatraz

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

December 5, 2011

Legends and Folklore of Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

The shameless tourist to San Francisco buys and even wears the “Psycho Ward” or “Alcatraz Triathlon” T-shirts, boasting that they “escaped Alcatraz.” Through suicide, murder, emancipation, or freedom, did anyone somehow not escape from Alcatraz? Forty-three years after the last prisoners were relocated to other institutions, has anyone—or anything—remained?

Robert StroudRobert Stroud

Yet another claimant to the title of America’s “most haunted” place, Alcatraz certainly reigns as one of the world’s most notorious jails. During its nearly three decades of operation, Alcatraz was the Hollywood of prisons with an infamous cast of high-profile villains, starring tax cheat gang lord Al “Scarface” Capone; murderer Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz”; gang member Alvin “Creepy” Karpis; bank robber and kidnapper George “Machine Gun” Kelly; and Floyd Hamilton, Bonnie and Clyde’s moll and one of the prison’s escape artists.

Now, as an abandoned prison with a colorful history, Alcatraz has become not only the subject of numerous movies but also of numerous myths. Gross inaccuracies and melodramatic accounts are reproduced in books, movies, documentaries, and online. Enshrouded in fog, and in mystery, what is fact and what is fiction about Alcatraz?

An island in the San Francisco Bay, “The Rock” lies less than two miles from the mainland. Isolated, rocky, and whipped by salt-laden cold winds, lore claims that the indigenous people avoided the area and considered it evil and cursed. In contrast, the island probably began its career as a fishing and hunting ground for the Ohlone and Miwok Native American people. While the island is sparse in vegetation, it is a haven for birds. For this reason, when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into the area in 1775, he bestowed the island with its full name, which translates to “Island of the Pelicans.” (Today, there are no pelicans, but the island is home to hawks, ravens, geese, finches, hummingbirds, and seagulls). For the next seventy-five years, the island was noted on maps but otherwise deserted.

This solitude ended when California was annexed by the United States during the Mexican–American war of 1846–1848. However, following the war, the area was bought by the United States as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Northern California was now in the midst of the Gold Rush, and the Bay Area’s population exploded from a sleepy settlement of 300 to a city of over 20,000 people. This spurred the development of Alcatraz as a fortress, all in good time for the Civil War that broke out in 1861 when the city and port became targets for the Confederates. Over time, and with advances in military technology, the island’s defenses became obsolete, and in 1907 the army formally decommissioned Alcatraz as a fortification. So, what do you do with a retired fort on a remote island, complete with a guardhouse, barracks, and other disused infrastructure?

Before Alcatraz became a civilian prison, it was a military prison. During the Civil War era, soldiers were imprisoned for crimes of desertion, theft, assault, rape, and murder. The jail once housed the entire crew of a Confederate ship. The island was further enlisted as a prison for indigenous people captured during the various Indian wars of the mid to late nineteenth century and for military convicts during the 1898 Spanish–American War. Conscientious objectors were jailed during World War I. Undergoing hard labor, such as breaking rocks and performing construction work, these early prisoners built the prison to house themselves. This haphazard history came to an end after the Great Depression. The island was transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice. This began a new chapter in the chronicle of the island.

From 1934 until 1963, Alcatraz served as a civilian prison. This was the end of the road in the federal penitentiary system for America’s most hardened criminals. The Institution Rules and Regulations stated: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege.”

While it is true that this was a maximum security prison for “incorrigible” prisoners, it’s a myth that it was a cruel and brutal Papillon-like jail. Various sources, and especially the Internet, are replete with dramatic depictions of torture, deprivation, and disease. Inaccurate stories have flourished, claiming that the inmates suffered appalling conditions and inhumane treatment: Their cells were overcrowded. They slept on the floor. They lived without heating, light, windows, or water. They ate bread and water. Others were starved altogether. They were denied healthcare in the face of constant sickness. They were routinely harassed, beaten, and forced into hard labor. Speaking was forbidden, and showers were weekly events only. Due to these conditions, these inaccurate stories claim, the prison was known as “Hellcatraz.”

Alcatraz food menu

Alcatraz was no holiday resort—after all, this was a prison—but the rumors are greatly exaggerated. This was a place of discipline and rehabilitation; it wasn’t a barbaric dungeon. In contrast, the inmate’s 5’ × 9’ cells were private, unlike the shared cells of other institutions. These cells were sparsely furnished, but each contained a bed, access to running water, a toilet, shelves, and lighting. Although the cell house is naturally cold, in the past it had central heating, and its windows allow in light and sun. Alcatraz was not overcrowded; the prison was comparatively small, and the 336 cells were never filled to capacity. The prison fare was surprisingly good, with high-quality food and even a menu allowing for choice. This practice was reputedly to avert the riots that were commonly started in other prisons because of poor prison food. Rather than denying medical care to the inmates, the prison had its own hospital. In the event that a condition was serious, inmates were sent to the mainland for specialized care; this was the case for Al Capone, who was relocated from the island following his diagnosis of syphilis.

Alcatraz cells

In the early years, Alcatraz did have a silence policy, although it was not a rigorous rule and was later relaxed even further. Typically, the inmates had good relations with the wardens, who knew each man by name. Prisoners were more at risk from other prisoners, and brawls were common. Work was neither demanding nor enforced; rather, it was considered a privilege that offered inmates relief from the monotony of their sentences. Inmates could work in the kitchen, the laundry, the garden, or the library. Except for in the kitchen, where contraband moonshine was made furtively, the work was paid, albeit meagerly. All in all, rather than being poor, the conditions were comparatively good. In fact, former inmate Willie Radkay considered his time at Alcatraz to be “better than at any other penitentiary.”1

According to records, 1,545 prisoners “did time” within Alcatraz’s walls. The prisoners were all male because females weren’t deemed to be “incorrigible” until 1969. The average stay was eight to ten years, although “Creepy” Karpis served twenty-five years in total, the longest stretch on the Island. These prisoners were long-term trouble makers. No man was directly sent to Alcatraz, and only two were ever paroled from there. Many had continued their life of crime behind bars and were therefore deemed violent and uncontrollable.

Some prisoners had indulged in corruption while previously incarcerated at minimum security jails. At Leavenworth in Kansas Robert Stroud had murdered a warden, yet over time he enjoyed astonishing privileges; he was allowed to breed and study birds and to maintain a lab inside two additional cells. Stroud also enjoyed frequent contact with other fanciers and even used his laboratory equipment to distill alcohol. Al Capone virtually had the wardens working for him during his time at Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, enjoying a flood of visitors and a comparatively opulent cell. (His friends and family kept residence in a nearby hotel.) Initially, Capone had repeatedly attempted to also gain special privileges in Alcatraz, such as more flashy facilities and more regular visits, which were only allowed monthly. All of his bribery attempts were unsuccessful, prompting the true Godfather’s resigned remark, “It looks like Alcatraz has me licked.”2

Alcatraz hallway

The cell house is the apex of the island. There are four cellblocks in total, each separated by hallways, known in prison jargon as Broadway, Times Square, Park Avenue, and Michigan Avenue. The “Sunset Strip,” the walkway in front of D Block, was the “Segregation” or “Treatment” unit. Author Mike Marinacci claims that “Rule infractions meant confinement in the ‘Hole,’ one of four tiny, lightless cells furnished only with straw mattresses; there naked, starving inmates were regularly beaten. Some men went insane or died after months-long stays in the Hole.”3

The only factual statement there is that D Block was indeed known to the inmates as “The Hole.” Rather than being “tiny,” these cells are larger than the regular cells. There are thirty-six segregation cells, and six (not four) solitary confinement cells. The latter cells were lightless, although all cells contained beds. Prisoners in the Hole were not deprived of food or clothing, nor were they beaten. So, you may ask, what was the punishment? Being sent to the D Block meant a loss of privileges—the opportunity to work, exercise, and socialize. Stroud occupied a segregation cell for six years of his stay on the island (and then he spent eleven years in a hospital cell). Some inmates were probably insane to begin with, but none went insane or died simply from being housed in D Block.

So, just how many deaths were there on Alcatraz? There were no executions on the Island, although there were five suicides and eight murders. Most of these murders took place during what is known as the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz, conspired by six inmates. This was the most violent and deadly escape attempt, a three day uprising that ended in the deaths of three inmates and two guards, while fourteen guards and one inmate were left injured. The Marine Corps was eventually called in to end the clash with a bombardment of gunfire, mortar, and teargas. Curiously, Stroud even played a part in attempting to end the hostilities and protect his fellow inmates from the conflict that ensued. Of the three conspirers who survived the uprising, two were then executed at the nearby San Quentin Jail. The final nineteen-year-old surviving inmate had an additional life sentence tacked on to sentence.

Alcatraz was the Titanic of prisons; it was an inescapable prison from which prisoners escaped. In the days of the military prison, escapes were common and usually successful. With the advent of the civilian jail with its high warden to prisoner ratio, improved security features, and deliberately planted rumors of “man-eating sharks,” escape attempts were far less common. The main deterrents and obstacles were the cold water, the strong currents, and the long distance to the shore. The civilian penitentiary never recorded any attempts as “successful.” For some quick statistics, thirty-seven men were involved in fourteen separate attempts; twenty-three were recaptured, seven were shot and killed, two drowned, and five were declared missing and are presumed to have drowned in the icy Bay waters.

Decoy head from Frank Morris's cellDecoy head from Frank Morris's cell

The real mystery of Alcatraz is the escape attempt popularized by the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, Clarence and John, devised an elaborate escape attempt in 1962 with decoy bodies, fake walls, and homemade drills. (Allen West helped with the planning, but he was unable to escape his cell when the time came.) The men were never found, and no one has ever claimed their identities. Did they drown? Subsequent tests by the US Army Corp of Engineers and the team from the television show MythBusters have demonstrated that escape from Alcatraz, and even survival, would have indeed been possible.4

Following this incident, the prison came under scrutiny for the deteriorating condition of the facilities and their increasing maintenance and operating costs. (Although prisoner numbers were small, 300 civilians lived on the island at any given time.) Budget cuts had resulted in diminished security measures, and restoration was estimated to cost five million dollars. In 1963, after twenty-nine years of operation, Alcatraz was closed by US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The remaining prisoners were transferred to other jails, and Alcatraz was left to the care of a lone custodian.

After a period of theme park proposals and Native American occupation, Alcatraz Island is now administered by the US National Park Service and is visited by over one million people each year. There are ferry services operated daily from Fisherman’s Wharf, and these are combined with both guided and audio tours of the island. The island is listed as a National Historic Landmark; not because it was a prison but because the 1857 guardhouse is a heritage building.

With Alcatraz’s mythical pedigree, stories of the unnatural have naturally followed. Staff and visitors report a wide array of paranormal phenomena on the island. But with a little commonsense and logic, many Alcatraz stories debunk themselves. For example, tales of the metallic sound of “jingling cell keys” that echo through the chambers neglect to reveal that the cell doors were lockless and operated by levers. The Hole is another target for ghost stories; one site states: “In the Hole, especially cells 12 and 14 house the most intense feelings of panic. The moment you walk in, you can feel it almost choking you with fear, hate and palpable tension.”5 This wasn’t the reaction that I had, nor did the tens of visitors streaming through these cells at the same time seem to have it. There are also many accounts of “cold spots” in the cell house, but anyone who has ever been there at night knows that the entire island is one big cold spot!

Cell 14D was apparently the scene of a puzzling murder. It is rumored that during the days of the military prison an inmate was locked into this cell, whereupon he began screaming that something with glowing red eyes was locked in with him. According to legend, the terrified prisoner screamed uncontrollably for hours, until an eerie silence befell the cell. Strangely, the wardens never checked in on him until morning, when he was discovered dead. An autopsy revealed strangulation marks around the victim’s neck, but this was no suicide. In a paranormal postscript, the murdered prisoner still appeared in the line-up for the next morning’s call before disappearing into thin air.6 No prison records of this incident exist, but the following fact is recorded: No autopsies were ever performed in the prison morgue. The morgue is a fertile ground for stories of the resurrection of murdered prisoners and vengeful ghosts.

Then there are the haunted sounds of Alcatraz; visitors and staff claim to hear inexplicable crying, disembodied voices, laughing, and bloodcurdling screams. The audio guide refers to sounds traveling in from the mainland, especially the revelers at New Year’s Eve. Moreover, there are the sounds made by thousands of daily visitors to Alcatraz, the audio tours and tour guides, and a continuously screening documentary; any or all of these could be one of these “baffling” sounds. There is also the story of the strains of Al Capone’s banjo playing, haunting the cell believed to once have been his. However, it is not known precisely which cell was Capone’s, and this story conflicts with the silence theory—and the prison rules. It is true that Capone played banjo in the prison band, but he was not allowed to do so in the cell house.

Another source claims that Alcatraz is “a portal to another dimension” that is “filled with the energy of those who came to the Rock and seemingly never left.”7 There are stories of phantom footsteps (other visitors?), gun and cannon shots (the documentary shown during the tour?), the clanging and echoes of cell doors being slammed shut (the live demonstrations?), malodorous smells (the Bay?), a sense of being watched and the sight of Civil War soldiers (overactive imaginations?). Alcatraz has attracted Sylvia Brown and a host of other psychic mediums who have held séances onsite and reported lost souls and lingering spirits.

Why is the history of Alcatraz distorted and sensationalized? The National Park Service visitor guide proposes an answer: “For security purposes, visits to the island were restricted; this apparent secrecy and the remoteness of the prison may have fueled these rumors.” The true history of Alcatraz is further obscured by its fictional portrayals in movies, stylistic stories in books, and fabrications of urban lore online.

Alcatraz doesn’t need the myths to present a tragic tale. This is a true story of crimes and punishment, of segregation and dehumanization. During the tour I listened to the sobering interviews of former prisoners. They repeatedly speak of the real, psychological punishment of Alcatraz. Some of these men were never socialized properly; they had lived in the prison system for so long that relationships, careers, and the everyday activities that we take for granted were alien to them. Staring out through the barred windows, the inmates had majestic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, the headlands, and the beaches; constant reminders of the life they couldn’t have.

References

1. Alcatraz History. www.alcatrazhistory.com Accessed October 6, 2011.

2. Johnston, James. 1949. Alcatraz Island Prison: And the Men who Live There. C. Scribner’s Sons.

3. Marinacci, M. 1988. Mysterious California: Strange Places and Eerie Phenomena in the Golden State. Panpipes Press, p.38.

4. Wikipedia. MythBusters (2003 season). Escape from Alcatraz. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MythBusters_%282003­_season%29#Episode_8_.E2.80.93_.22­Escape_From_Alcatraz.2C_Duck_­Quack.2C_Stud_Finder.22 Accessed 11/18/2011

5. Haunted Dog House. www.haunteddoghouse.com Accessed March 10, 2006.

6. Ibid.

7. Legends of America. www.legendsofamerica.com Accessed November 18, 2011.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.