Escape from Alcatraz was a blockbuster film released in 1979 starring Clint Eastwood, and detailing the true escape 3 men planned and were possibly successful in carrying out. It dramatizes the only supposedly successful escape from the maximum security prison on Alcatraz Island. It was closed shortly after the true events on which the film was based. While it is not known whether the three escapees survived, sightings of them over the years provides circumstantial evidence that they may have. The escapes were echoed in the 1994 fiction film The Shawshank Redemption, starring Morgan Freeman (Ellis Red Redding) and Tim Robbins (Andy Dufresne). Andy spends 2 decades digging a hole through the wall at the back of his cell, climbs through it and crawls through the prison sewage pipe to make good his escape (gross). In reality, Andy wouldn’t have made it out, since methane gas would have replaced the oxygen in the atmosphere and Andy would have asphyxiated. (I swear I am not making this up. Check the link.) This gives new meaning to lighting a match after dropping one in the toilet.
Yet another film, entitled Murder in the First, was released in 1995 that starred Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon. The film loosely portrayed an episode between two prisoners named Henri Young and Rufus McCain. In reality, both were sentenced to 22 months in solitary confinement. A year later, Young killed McCain by plunging a spoon into his neck; he never revealed his motive. Due to Young’s long-term confinement in the “hole”, and an allegation that he endured a “cruel and unusual punishment” prior to it in torment by the prison guards, Alcatraz was blamed for the murder. The film inaccurately portrayed Young being sent to Alcatraz as a youth for stealing an apple (yes, that happened all the time), then imprisoned in solitary confinement for over 3 years until he became psychotic. Talk about a bad apple.
Back to Alcatraz Island. The U.S. Army used the island until 1933, at which time the Federal Government decided to open a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary to deal with the most incorrigible inmates. Alcatraz was designed to break rebellious prisoners by putting them in a structured, monotonous routine until their release. Prisoners were given food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Receiving anything beyond that had to be earned. Prisoners refusing to follow prison rules risked being confined to the Strip Cell, located on the lower tier of D Block. It was a dark steel cell where inmates would be stripped naked and given water and bread once daily, an occasional meal and a mattress at night. The only ‘toilet’ was a hole in the cell floor and there was no sink. While there, convicts spent their time in pitch-dark solitude. Sounds like fun.
Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons, a “last resort prison” to hold the worst of the worst criminals who had no hope of rehabilitation. Most of the prisoners were notorious bank robbers and counterfeiters, murderers, or sodomites. Alcatraz gained notoriety from its inception as the toughest prison in America and considered by many to be the world’s most fearsome prison of the time. Former prisoners would frequently report acts of brutality and inhumane conditions which severely tested their sanity. Ed Wutke was the first prisoner to commit suicide in Alcatraz. He fatally sliced through his jugular vein with the blade from a pencil sharpener and was found dead in a pool of blood. Quite a triumph. Rufe Persful chopped off his fingers after grabbing an axe from the fire truck, begging another inmate to do the same to his other hand, a scene that was featured in Escape from Alcatraz. In 1939 the new U.S. Attorney General Frank Murphy attacked the penitentiary, saying “The whole institution is conductive to psychology that builds up a sinister ambitious attitude among prisoners.”
One former employee of the jail likened his prison job to being a zoo keeper or his old farm job, due to the fact that prisoners were not to be rehabilitated or educated and treated like animals, sending them out to “plough the fields” when some of them worked during the day, and then counting them up and feeding them and so on. He referred to those 4 years of his life working in the prison as a “total waste of his life“. Even the employees endured cruel and unusual punishment. You can’t buy memories like that.
Since Alcatraz was built on an island and isolated from public view, tales of inmates being tortured and of their bitter spirits coming back to haunt the halls of Alcatraz have circulated for decades.
- Native American Indians who lived in the region hundreds of years before the prison’s actual construction considered it to be the dwelling place of evil spirits and avoided it entirely out of respect for its inherent “bad medicine.”
- The Utility Corridor One of the areas which some claim is the most active with paranormal activity is a utility corridor where inmates Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were shot to death after a failed prison escape. It is there that in 1976 a night security guard reported hearing unexplained eerie clanging sounds coming from inside.
- Cell 14D
Cell 14D, one of the ‘hole’ cells is believed by some to be very active with spirits. Visitors and employees have reported feeling a raw coldness and at times a sudden ‘intensity’ encompasses the cell. In the 1940s, a prisoner locked-in 14D screamed throughout the night that a creature with glowing eyes was killing him. The next day guards found the man strangled to death in the cell. No one ever claimed responsibility for the convict’s death, however the next day when doing head counts, the guards counted one too many prisoners. Some of the guards claimed seeing the dead convict in line with the other inmates, but only for a second before he vanished.
- Cell blocks A, B, and C
Visitors to cellblocks A and B claim they have heard crying and moaning. A psychic visiting wrote that while in Block C he came upon a disruptive spirit name Butcher. Prison records show that another inmate in block C murdered Abie Maldowitz, a mob hitman known as Butcher.
- The Ghost of Al Capone
Al Capone, who spent his last years at Alcatraz with his health in decline from untreated syphilis, took up playing the banjo with a prison band. Fearing he would be killed if he spent his recreational time in the “yard,” Capone received permission to spend recreation time practicing his banjo in the shower room. In recent years, a park ranger claimed he heard banjo music coming from the shower room. Not familiar with the history of Alcatraz, the ranger could not find a reason for the sound and documented the strange event.
- More Paranormal Reports Other odd events experienced over the years include guards smelling smoke, but finding no fire; sounds of unexplained crying and moaning; unexplained cold spots in areas of the prison and claims of seeing ghosts of prisoners or military personnel.
Because of the huge cost to refurbish the prison it was closed in 1963. Later the island and parts of the prison were reopened by the Parks Services for daily public tours. People peek into corners and glance over their shoulders, chasing shadows. They might have reason. In the movie Escape From Alcatraz, the warden coldly remarks, “some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz alive.” Perhaps some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz dead either.