Alcatraz holds a very special place in the minds of the US public. It has a certain image that has been carefully fostered by Hollywood films and more recently, by tourists’ visits to the site. It has a popular-culture reputation as an island prison designed to hold the most infamous and notorious of the nation's criminals. In the mind's eye, thugs and hooligans sit behind stone walls and plot various schemes for escape. And while all of this is accurate to a certain degree, there is so much more to the history of Alcatraz than this two-dimensional image. Across the water and behind the walls, this prison held secrets that known only to those who lived and worked there, who spent days and weeks and years upon the stony piece of land known as “The Rock”.
These men—tasked with guarding other men who were deemed dangerous to society—grew to know Alcatraz in ways that no one else could. They saw how hardened criminals reacted to harsh living conditions. They devised ways to keep order among the most unruly elements of society. They utilized the environment as a barrier between the convicts and the public. Some of what they learned and experienced is detailed in the following list.
25 Tiny cells
Everyone knows that prison isn't supposed to provide a life of luxury for the people on the inside, but only they and the guards can really appreciate how little living space was provided for the inmates at Alcatraz. Fact Retriever reports that some of the cells were only five feet wide by nine feet long. To put that in perspective, it means that many of the men held there wouldn't be able to lie crossways in their cells without scrunching up, and this space also included a sink and toilet.
24 Guards and their families lived there
Alcatraz was not just home to people behind bars and guards. The families of the staff at Alcatraz also lived on the island, including their children. It only makes sense that there would be other people at the site besides just the inmates and the prison employees—after all, guards have families, too—but it is a detail that didn't receive attention from the public. Fact Retriever even notes that there is an organization for the kids who lived there that is called the Alcatraz Alumni Association.
23 Silence Is Golden
There were several rules and policies in place at Alcatraz that contributed to its reputation of being a harsh and strict facility. One of these was the rule that the people housed there couldn't talk to each other outside of very specific times. According to Loews Hotels, inmates could speak at mealtime and during recreation time, but during the rest of the day, they had to maintain silence. It seems this restriction was too much even for Alcatraz and the rule was changed in the 1930s.
22 Making The Grade
Guards at Alcatraz identified the different sections of the prison by alphabetic identifiers. American-Historama notes that A block was the area where the offices of the prison staff were to be found. Blocks B and C were the portions of Alcatraz that most people think about, the cells for the general inmate population. But D block is also infamous as being the home to the cells used for punishment. D block was where trouble-makers were put when the guards deemed that they were to experience solitary confinement.
21 Al Capone Jail house singer
Al Capone was a name known to the entire county. He was an early inmate of Alcatraz and is perhaps one of the facility's most infamous residents. But what outsiders aren't likely to know is that while he was housed here—after being transferred in from Atlanta—he actually played in the institution's house band. History notes that Capone played banjo in the group that performed regularly for the other inmates. They were known as the Rock Islanders and played on Sundays.
20 hidden escape attempts
A large part of the Alcatraz legend centers around the idea that the facility was impossible to escape, not the least of which because of the dangerous and chilly waters surrounding the island. This didn't mean, however, that escape attempts didn't take place. One such attempt, as reported by PBS, involved an attempt to deceive the guards. A pair of prisoners created fake heads out of cement, paint and hair that were placed on their cots as if they were still asleep in their cells.
19 short stints to straighten them out
The island prison had a reputation for housing big-name and infamous folks such as Al Capone and the Birdman of Alcatraz. But for most of the inmates, this was not the only penitentiary in which they spent time. Fact Retriever says that when prisoners caused problems at other facilities, many were sent to Alcatraz until they learned their lesson—usually about six, seven or eight years—and then returned back to their original home prisons to serve out the remainder of their sentence.
18 There were different levels of punishment
Alcatraz was sectioned into a number of different blocks, and D block was where the prisoners were put when they needed to be segregated or even put into solitary confinement. 36 of the cells in this part of Alcatraz were designated as segregation cells, and six of them were intended for what was considered to be one of the harshest punishments, being totally isolated from all other people. But according to American-Historama, D block was also where the library for the prison was located.
17 Be My Guest
The people housed at Alcatraz were not kept entirely separated from the rest of the world. They were allowed to have people come to see them, but these visits were very strictly regulated. Alcatraz History notes that the conversations between the inmates and the guests were prohibited to be about either news of the day in the outside world or about conditions within the prison facility. They communicated with each other through an intercom, and if rules were broken, the individual might have their visitation rights revoked.
16 Strange Doings Underground
Like many other islands in bays along the coasts of America, Alcatraz was at one point a fort designed to defend against attack by water from enemies in other nations. As time passed and priorities changed, the remote and isolated island was designated as a federal prison. But beneath the floors of the prison are the remains of this national fortification, according to the BBC, including tunnels that were probably intended to provide safe passage during times when the island might have been under fire.
15 A Fish Out Of Water
The guards at Alcatraz spent a good portion of their time moving prisoners from place to place, such as when an inmate might earn a punishment and be assigned to segregation or solitary confinement cell. American-Historama reports that newly arrived prisoners also had a special place assigned for them as when they first came to Alcatraz. They were placed in cells that were on the ground-floor level, cells that were nicknamed “the flats” and were in a section known as “Fish Row.”
14 Getting Into Hot Water
Despite its reputation for being one of the country's tougher facilities, those incarcerated at Alcatraz enjoyed a luxury not often granted to inmates in the federal system. According to Wired, the prisoners here actually got to have hot showers, instead of being limited strictly to cold water. The reasoning was that if they were used to the hot water, it would be that much harder for them to brave the frigid water surrounding the island if they were to attempt to escape by swimming to the mainland.
13 Bad Reputation
Alcatraz had a reputation for imposing strict living conditions upon those housed there—meant to be a fitting punishment for the most notorious offenders in the nation. But as with most reputations, the reality of the situation didn't live up to the full image that was presented to the public at large. According to Exemplore, prisoners who didn't cause problems for the guards were not treated harshly, and some even were allowed to work in the homes of the prison staff or to provide care for their children.
12 Time Out
Different parts of Alcatraz were designated for different uses, such as the kitchen area and the staff and employee housing. One of the sections was primarily used for staff offices and to store various supplies needed for the operation of the facility. But this office and storage space at times did double-duty, according to American-Historama. Sometimes the inmates needed to be separated from the rest of the prison population, and these areas were used to provide a space where they could be held isolated from the other prisoners.
11 The Great Expansion
To the outside world, Alcatraz appeared to be a collection of jail cells set atop a desolate island. To the guards, however, it was much more complicated than what it seemed. As of 1921, according to Fact Retriever, the federal prison added a hospital and a mess hall, as well as other buildings, to the facility, in addition to more cells to house the prisoners. All in all, the Alcatraz that the guards knew was actually the largest concrete building in the world for that time.
10 Look But Don't Touch
Alcatraz Island is desolate but by no means lifeless. Birds and animals live there as well as several types of plants. According to This Boundless World, one plant in particular that grows on Alcatraz is the agave. But this flora is much more than just an attractive feature to the area. These plants also have sharp points that make them a detriment to anyone trying to pass through them, which helped the guards to deter those being housed there from attempting an escape.
9 The Old Ball And Chain
Alcatraz was supposed to be a place that inmates feared. It was supposed to be a harsh punishment for the prisoners who were the at the top of the list among the nation's offenders. Exemplore reports that features and attributes that were added to Alcatraz in order to enhance its ominous reputation included building extra guard towers and using metal for the bars that was specially hardened against being cut. For those who misbehaved, the guards also used the famous punishment of chaining a heavy metal ball to their ankle.
8 Never at full capacity
Guards at Alcatraz had the job of keeping watch on prisoners who were deemed some of the most hardened in the county. They had to maintain a close watch and know how many inmates they were responsible for at all times, so they had to be very aware of the exact population of the facility at all times. According to Gray Line of San Francisco, Alcatraz never was packed to full capacity and the most prisoners ever held there at one time was 320 people.
7 Green Thumbs
Although Alcatraz was nicknamed “The Rock,” it wasn't just barren and stony ground. Many of the residents of the island—not only the inmates but also the prison guards and members of their families—took up the hobby of gardening. Fact Retriever reports that the plants kept growing long after the island ceased operation as a federal facility. In fact, the flora of Alcatraz has since been tended and taken care of in a display to honor the impact that gardening can have.
6 Running Up A Bill
Although Alcatraz served its purpose as a prison for housing the most notorious of offenders, the facility was eventually closed. Salaries of the guards were far from the only costs involved with the running of the facility. Alcatraz History says that this island institution was the most expensive to run of any prison in the country. The infrastructure of Alcatraz was also in need of repair, and it was decided that it wasn't worth the cost to keep it functioning as a prison.
5 Pitch Perfect
Although the popular image of Alcatraz may be that of the inmates confined to their cells or performing labor, the guards knew that there was much more to life within this notorious institution. For example, the prisoners played softball, according to Mental Floss. The recreation area included a ball diamond, and the games included modified rules adapted to the specific requirements of playing within the prison walls. The games may not have always gone smoothly, but they did let the inmates get some physical exercise.
4 A Ghost Of A Chance
Given its history, it would be practically impossible for there not to be stories of hauntings to be associated with Alcatraz. And it wasn't just the prisoners who claimed to have experienced spooky events; according to Vimbly, the guards also reported ghostly goings-on at the federal facility. The story that is one of the most striking of the tales told from within the prison walls is that of a pair of glowing red eyes peering out of the darkness at prisoners.
3 Street Smarts
The prison was divided into sections labeled with letters of the alphabet, such as A block and B block, which isn't uncommon. But the guards at Alcatraz also had other identifying names for different areas. American-Historama says that hallways and corridors were given such titles as Michigan Avenue, Sunset Strip, Park Avenue and more. The space that separated the dining area and the section with the prisoners' cells had the nickname of Times Square, while the main walking area between two cell blocks was known as Broadway.
2 guard-to-prisoner ratio
In keeping with the reputation that Alcatraz had for being the toughest prison in the country, Warden James Johnston was strict with the inmates during his time managing the facility. He wanted everyone to loathe being sent to his prison, and American-Historama lists some of the rules that he imposed, including the fact that he staffed prison to a guard-to-prisoner ratio of one to three, much higher than other prisons, where it was usually one to 12, earning him an uncomplimentary nickname from the inmates.
1 A Chilly Reception
California has a reputation for sunny beaches, but in the region around San Francisco and Alcatraz is known for being chilly. Fact Retriever even notes that Mark Twain visited Alcatraz and made the assessment that even during the summertime, it was a cold place. This climate is one of the factors that help to make the waters that surround the island such an effective deterrent against escape attempts. Even if prisoners could get to the water, odds were against making it across to the mainland.
References: Fact Retriever, Wired History, American-Historama, Fact Retriever, BBC, This Boundless World, Exemplore, Gray Line of San Francisco, PBS, Alcatraz History, Loews Hotels, Mental Floss, Vimbly