The buildings sit, perched on a rocky island, more than a mile from the closest shore. Angry winds howl around the cliffs, echoed by the wailings of solitary birds. The cold waters are treacherous, concealing hidden currents and dangerous depths. This might sound like the setting for a cheap horror story, but the reality is far darker: this is Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, once considered the most secure, escape-proof prison in the United States.
The facility is located in the waters of the San Francisco Bay, off the coast of California. Famous to the point of legend, a dark cloud of history hangs over this particular spot. Operational from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz housed some of America’s worst criminals, acting as a last resort for the most notorious offenders from the rest of the criminal justice system. Prisoners sent to Alcatraz were those that even other maximum-security facilities just could not handle.
Gangster Al Capone, “the Birdman” Robert Stroud, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis all served time here, cementing the island’s formidable reputation. Fights, murders and escape attempts all feature in the colourful history of these prison walls. There were even, technically, some successful Alcatraz breakouts– although no one is known to have survived the freezing swim to land.
Alcatraz legends abound in popular culture, and not just about its terrifying inmates. Records suggest that Native Americans feared the evil spirits of Alcatraz long before the first prisoners arrived. Even today, visitors regularly report strange sensations and supernatural occurrences. Many have heard unexplained sounds or even seen phantom figures. Such sightings have been officially rebuffed, but it’s not hard to imagine how the eerie surroundings could unnerve even the staunchest cynics. Knowledge about the dark deeds of the island’s past is enough to play powerful tricks on the imagination.
In the prison’s heyday, Alcatraz inmates were allowed one visit per month, and only if approved by the Warden. Even then, no physical contact was permitted, and prison officers listened in on every conversation. Nowadays, the US National Parks Service operates Alcatraz as a tourist attraction, drawing crowds of visitors eager to see the prison for themselves. For those brave enough, Alcatraz tours take place all year round and require a ferry journey from the mainland. Once on the island, you’ll be able to walk into the prison itself, entering just as the many inmates did – although your exit is likely to be a lot simpler.
In popular culture, the mysterious Alcatraz reputation still endures, with a slew of films, television series and video games all revolving around it. Alcatraz films have included tales based on true stories, as well as fictional plots set against the island’s scenery. It’s difficult to say which are more blood-curdling.
More than fifty years after the Federal Penitentiary closed its doors, one thing is certain – the dark story of Alcatraz is as compelling as ever.