Alcatraz Island: Welcome to Broadway!

We’ve seen Alcatraz from the Bay and toured the island. Today, we’re visiting the cellhouse! Take a look at the diagram for an overview of its layout.

Diagram of Alcatraz Cellhouse

http://www.alcatrazhistory.com/interiorpage.htm, © Ocean View Publishing Company (used with permission)

Shower Room

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).

Alcatraz Shower Room

Clothing Issue

Clothing Issue is at the west end of the shower room. Here, inmates would turn in their soiled clothing for clean clothing.

Alcatraz Clothing Issue 5

Alcatraz Clothing Issue 3

Alcatraz Clothing Issue 2

Alcatraz Clothing Issue 4

Cell House

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.

Broadway

Alcatraz B-C Blocks Broadway

Because I had managed to hoof it up the 1/4 mile hill before the rest of the crowd, I was able to get the shot I was after: Broadway – empty!

Alcatraz Stairs to Upper Cells

Alcatraz Stairs Walkways to Upper Cells

Michigan Avenue
Between A and B Blocks. This is where the audio tour begins.

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Park Avenue
Outer side of C Block.

Alcatraz C Block Park Avenue 3

Sunrise Alley

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.

Alcatraz A Block Sunrise Alley 2

Take note of the green enclosure in the middle of Sunrise Alley. We’ll revisit this in The Citadel, below.

Alcatraz A Block Sunrise Alley 1

The Cells

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.

Alcatraz Prison Cells

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.

Alcatraz D Block Entrance

Alcatraz D Block Solitary

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.

Alcatraz Solitary Confinement 1

Alcatraz Solitary Confinement 2

Barred Window Alcatraz D Block

Library

Over the years, the library grew to 15,000 volumes. Books were delivered to an inmate’s cell during the day.

Alcatraz Library

Times Square

The area between the cell blocks and the dining hall. I’m assuming the inmates chose this name because of the clock.

Alcatraz Times Square

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.

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Barred Window Alcatraz Dining Hall

Kitchen Area

Alcatraz Kitchen

The Citadel

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.

Alcatraz Prison Citadel Entrance

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.

Alcatraz Prison Citadel

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.

Alcatraz Prison Citadel 2

Alcatraz Prison Citadel 7

Alcatraz Prison Citadel 3

Alcatraz Prison Citadel 4

Alcatraz Prison Citadel 5

Alcatraz Prison Citadel 6

Strange to see a bright blue door in this setting.

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.”

In the Dungeons

Two posts left. Next: Alcratraz Hospital, followed by Alcatraz Night Scenes.

49 thoughts on “Alcatraz Island: Welcome to Broadway!

  1. I can’t believe I missed this post Stacy 😦 Terry and I spent four and one half hours exploring Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia so I could see us spending at least a whole day here. Outstanding images and post.

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  2. Glad I missed this when first posted, otherwise I’d have nothing of yours to read and look at. Great photos and description. Can’t wait till I get to go back to San Francisco and see Alcatraz.

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    • Aww, thanks, Emilio. Glad you enjoyed it. I still have two “installments” left, but as you found out, I’ve been somewhat absent from my blog lately. I definitely took advantage of prescheduled posts over the holidays. 🙂

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  3. Outstanding post and images! It’s interesting to see your reaction to being in the underground part with the lights off, how 15 second seems like an eternity. Thanks for sharing that because it’s so hard to imagine how bad it really is. Now I know! Actually I know a lot more about Alcatraz than I did before. Great job.

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    • You’re welcome, Janice! And thank you 🙂 Actually, despite spending so much time there, I still didn’t see and/or photograph everything I wanted to. It really is much bigger than most people expect. I’m hoping for the opportunity to return there next fall.

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  4. Fascinating! But, I’m glad to see someone had a sense of humour (that was probably all that kept them going…) — the Dining Hall (the Gas Chamber) — ha ha ha — a sign of the quality of the food, perhaps?!! LOL.
    Your images give me a sense of coldness and noisiness and numbness…not a place I’d want to be. The way I see it, everyone on that island was a prisoner.
    Yet, you gave me a little giggle with the bemused look on your selfie…those glasses are huge, Stacy!! 😉

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    • Hi, Janina! So, I’m finally back on my blog and playing catchup. Can’t believe how far I’ve fallen behind.

      Alcatraz’s storied history definitely got its hooks into me. I’ve been fascinated to learn about it origins and transformations, and somehow, I feel as if I’m not quite done with it yet. I actually would welcome the opportunity to return.

      Glad I gave you a giggle 😄 As for the glasses, overcompensating for my previous very small glasses 😉

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      • Return…Oh, I somehow thought you haven’t finished posting about it, just yet? Or maybe I’ve missed something.
        I’m not ‘into’ jails, having watched enough movies about it; however, Alcatraz’s island state makes it truly unique as a prison (except for Napoleon’s Elba and Australia’s forerunner as a penal colony. I did like The Shawshank Redemption ‘tho, having seen it a few times now. Tim Robbins character, along with Morgan Freeman as his close friend, shows us about hope in a hopeless situation and remaining alert and wise when the opportunities arise. Here’s some more info. about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shawshank_Redemption. The other movie about prison I really like, with Tom Hanks, is The Green Mile. Both Stephen King stories.
        As to your glasses, perhaps it’s time for a new more fashionable pair for the new year. 😉

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        • I loved “Shawsank”! Who can forget the scene of Robbins playing the record over the public address system. “Green Mile,” however, is one I haven’t seen, despite loving Tom Hanks. I should put that on my list for 2016.

          And, nope, you’re not confused. I still have two Alcatraz posts left to write – one on the hospital and one with night exterior shots from around the island. Perhaps I’ll get to them before February!

          Thanks so much, Janina, for always taking the time to comment 🙂 As for the glasses, I think the angle of the selfie accentuated their size 😉

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    • It’s been a fascinating educational journey, Lisa, and one that’s still not over for me. I have to admit that I’m glad I went as I’m not sure I would have delved as deeply into its history otherwise. Thanks about the pictures (and happy new year – I’m quite behind on my blog!)

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  5. Great fun tour Stacy – am I allowed to say that? I mean I know it was a miserable place but I love your gorgeous lines and pools of light in many of the shots. The selfie is the cherry on the cake!!!

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    • Hi, Patti! Sorry for the long overdue reply – I’m just getting back to my blog after a long holiday hiatus and have sooo much catching up to do! As for the tour being “fun,” well, you know how much I looked forward to it. It truly was an exceptional experience from an educational viewpoint, and from a photographic viewpoint, I really did have fun exploring the island, the buildings, and trying to capture the light and shadows as I did and bring the experience to life. So thanks for commenting on that! As for the selfie, definitely not something I like to do, but the hardhat was just to good to pass up 😀

      Happy New Year, by the way!!

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    • Thanks, Raewyn! Happy New Year 🎉 Yes, it is difficult to imagine life in those cells. And it was pretty overwhelming to simply stand in the solitary confinement cells even with the door open. Glad you liked the selfie – I’m not one who likes to take those, but the moment just called out for one. I took it and sent it to my family, but just had to include it here – mostly because of the hardhat 😀

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  6. Reading through your information on Alcatraz, it’s like I’ve never been there yet I have. Perhaps if they’d put more of these details in “The Rock” (Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery) I would have remembered. And maybe if I hadn’t been traveling with a 4 and 6 year old also, lol. Now I’m itching to go back for another visit! 🙂

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    • Happy New Year, Joanne! Finally getting back to my blog (and can’t believe how far behind I am!) LOVE “The Rock” AND Sean Connery! (My middle son is actually named for him 😃) As for your trip to Alcatraz, yup, I think it has everything to do with visiting with your young ones in tow!

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      • And Happy New Year to you… how’s that for being behind, lol? This is SO not the new year I was planning but hopefully by next month I’ll be back into blogging… maybe! 🙂

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        • Or it’s the so-called “move-in-ready” house that needs rooms finished and walls moved so both children and I can have our own spaces. And all this being completed whilst Hubby is overseas on business!😬

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  7. Wow, I had no idea! Great post, Stacy. And 2 good tips for such tours: 1) get ahead of the crowd and 2) ask if you can see what’s behind that door. Was that Dr. Stanley Goodspeed in the far background of the last picture? (movie trivia)

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    • Thanks, Robin. I’m definitely playing a lot of catchup on my blog. Can’t believe I hadn’t responded to these comments before now (yikes!). But, yes, it always pays to ask! As for Stanley Goodspeed, nope – it was John Mason (I wish 😉).

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  8. Thanks for the photographic tour. I’m glad you managed to get so many shots without other people in them. I definitely need to return to Alcatraz now as my tour back in 2000 did not include the basement.

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