http://www.alcatrazhistory.com/interiorpage.htm, © Ocean View Publishing Company (used with permission)
Visitors begin the cellhouse tour in the shower room, located on the floor beneath the cellblocks. Inmates showered twice a week (those who worked in the kitchen showered three times a week).
Clothing Issue is at the west end of the shower room. Here, inmates would turn in their soiled clothing for clean clothing.
Before leaving the shower room, visitors are issued headsets for the audio portion of the tour and then ascend a set of stairs to the cellhouse.
There are three cell blocks, A, B and C, running parallel to each other. A Block is the shortest, while B and C run the length of most of the main building. Each cell block is three tiers high. Broadway is the main corridor of the cellhouse, dividing B and C Blocks.
Between A and B Blocks. This is where the audio tour begins.
Outer side of C Block.
This is the row of cells on the outer side of A Block. Because the Bureau of Prisons never intended to use A Block for prisoners, they remain as they were when Alcatraz was a military prison, with an original spiral staircase, softer flat iron bars (more easily pried open), and single-key cell door locks. B and C blocks were remodeled with thicker, hardened steel bars and a mechanical locking system that allowed guards to open certain cell doors or groups of cell doors remotely, by pulling levers at a control panel.
Take note of the green enclosure in the middle of Sunrise Alley. We’ll revisit this in The Citadel, below.
Alcatraz, the military prison, was built to accommodate about 600 prisoners, but as a federal prison, it housed inmates in the 336 cells that comprised B and C Blocks. Each cell was 5 feet (1.5 m) wide by 9 feet (2.7 m) deep and contained a bed, a sink with cold running water, a toilet, and a small desk for writing. Two shelves for personal items ran along the back wall. Three of the cell walls were solid concrete, while the front was barred with hardened steel. Only one prisoner lived in each cell.
Inmates were never directly sentenced to Alcatraz; they came from other federal penitentiaries, sent to Alcatraz because they either refused to to conform to the rules at other federal prisons, were considered violent and dangerous, or were considered escape risks. The highest number of prisoners ever recorded was 302; the lowest, 222. The average length of stay was about eight years. The average number of inmates during the 29 years Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary was around 260. There were approximately 1545 total men imprisoned there.
D Block – Segregation Unit
Inmates who broke prison rules could end up in one of 36 segregation cells in D Block, where they spent 24 hours a day in their cell except for one visit per week to the recreation yard.
A prisoner who continued their behavioral problems or one who committed a violent act while part of the general population could end up in one of six “dark cells” on D Block. Each cell had two doors (the inner barred door with a slot for food – like all of the other D Block cells – and an outer solid steel door which, when closed, left the inmate in complete darkness). The first five of these cells had a sink, a toilet, and a mattress (given to the inmate at night, but taken out in the morning); inmates could spend up to 19 consecutive days in these cells. The sixth cell, the “strip cell” at the end, was for the worst of the worst: inmates were stripped naked and the cell only had a hole in the floor that could be flushed by the guard. Two days incarceration was the limit for this cell.
Over the years, the library grew to 15,000 volumes. Books were delivered to an inmate’s cell during the day.
The area between the cell blocks and the dining hall. I’m assuming the inmates chose this name because of the clock.
Dining Hall (Gas House)
Food on Alcatraz was thought to be the best in the prison system. In fact, the guards ate the same food the prisoners did. Inmates could take as much as they wanted but had to finish what they took or were not allowed their next meal. Armed guards stood watch over the hall from caged gun galleries above the hall. In addition, tear gas canisters were installed in the ceiling in case trouble arose, but they were never used.
Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary, was built on top of the basement of The Citadel, the original Alcatraz military fort. I had the opportunity to explore this space with a park guide and two other visitors, simply because I asked!
The entrance to the basement is via this rather spooky-looking staircase in A Block. Seeing this reminded me of a line from National Treasure, a favorite movie: “Who wants to go down the creepy tunnel inside the tomb first?” Our guide, Rose, had to alert staff that she was taking us down there, and we all had to don hardhats as well.
These alcoves (which originally had bars across the front), were used as punishment cells during the army’s time on the island and continued to be used in Alcatraz’s early penitentiary days. They had only a bucket as a toilet and no running water, light fixture, mattress, or furnishings of any kind. Inmates would be handcuffed to the bars in a standing position and given only bread and water. Every third day, they would receive a regular meal. And once the hall light was turned off, the cells were thrown into pitch blackness.
Rose allowed us to experience this blackness when she did, in fact, turn off the lights. What was probably only 15 seconds seemed like an eternity, and had the two other visitors not been with me, I would have totally freaked.
The rest of the basement consists of corridors (rather dimly lit at some points) and stone archways that lead to sealed off gun ports from the days when Alcatraz was a fort.
And that, my friends, brings us to the end of our tour of the prison portion of the cell house. I thought I’d leave you with a chuckle – I’ve never been skilled at taking selfies, and this one is no exception. If you’re wondering about my lips, I was whistling the tune to “The Twilight Zone.”
Two posts left. Next: Alcratraz Hospital, followed by Alcatraz Night Scenes.