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Is Alcatraz Haunted?

Sally Painter
Alcatraz Island

According to various eye-witnesses, Alcatraz is haunted. Once the most feared places to be incarcerated, the island prison had several terrifying places within its walls used for punishing prisoners. Those desperate spirits haunt Alcatraz where insanity, murder, and suicide occurred on a regular basis. With its complex and horrifying history, it isn't surprising ghosts wander the abandoned prison that's now one of California's tourist attractions.

Reported Hauntings at Alcatraz

There have been many reports of paranormal activity over the decades. Since the prison was closed and officially opened under the US National Parks Service, many people conduct informal investigations during regular tourist hours. Others seek special permission to conduct a night-time paranormal investigation. In 2017, the prison offered sleepovers for October 30 and 31 for $666. There is clearly an interest in potential paranormal activity and much of that begins with a night tour of the former prison.

The Battle of Alcatraz

In May 1946, a two-day battle ensued between the prisoners and the US miliary. Before the uprising was subdued, two officers and three prisoners were dead. The Battle of Alcatraz left 17 officers and one prisoner wounded. Two prisoners were later executed for inciting the riot.

  • Gunfire and screams: Guards and visitors have reported hearing cannon and gunfire followed by screams. On a few occasions, the sounds were so real guards were deployed to investigate, fearing the prisoners had staged another uprising only to find nothing out of normal.
  • Apparitions: Apparitions of prisoners and soldiers dressed in period style uniforms as well as those from later eras have been reported.

Inmate Strangled in Cell Block D-14

The most prominent area of Alcatraz where people experience paranormal activity include Cell Block D. During the time it operated, the prison was rampant with stories of ghosts, so it was no surprise prisoners tried to take advantage by claiming they were under duress by a ghost. Understandably, when reports of Cell D-14 being haunted were spread, the guards shrugged them off and ignored inmates when they complained or became frightened.

One case sticks out among the others and occurred sometime during the mid-1940s. The guards locked an inmate in Cell D-14, but he immediately began screaming there was a glowing-eyed creature in the cell with him. The man screamed the creature was attacking him, but the guards turned a deaf ear to the man's terrified cries. Even though he called out all night, none of the guards bothered to investigate. Eventually, the man stopped screaming and when the guards opened his cell the next day, they discovered he was dead.

It was reported the inmate's face was contorted into a terrified expression and a pair of handprints bruising wrapped around his throat. The autopsy is said to have revealed death by strangulation, but supposedly stated it was not self-inflicted. Rumors spread through the prison that one of the guards had strangled the inmate after hours of enduring his screams. The following day during the morning lineup, guards counted one too many inmates. It's reported that everyone witnessed an apparition of a convict vaporize into thin air.

Cell Block D seems to have the most paranormal activity. In fact, out of the 42 cells located in this section, four are said to be where the majority of activity takes place. Specifically, cell numbers 11, 12, 13, and 14 are the most investigated for paranormal activity. Cell 14-D is said to be consistently 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the other cells in the vicinity. The cell has been reported to be icy cold during the height of summer.

Prison Guards See and Hear Ghosts

Many of the prison guards (1946-1963) reported various paranormal encounters. Some of these include:

  • Warden Johnston: It was reported that while conducting a prison tour, Warden Johnston and his guests heard the sobs of a woman that sounded from inside the dungeon.
  • Smoke: The guards reported the smell of smoke and often saw black smoke that forced them to flee the room only for the smoke to dissipate almost immediately.
  • Christmas party confessions: While attending the warden's Christmas party, several of his guards admitted to seeing an ethereal being with muttonchop sideburns and dressed in a gray suit and cap. Upon materializing, the guards claimed the room grew bitter cold and the fire in the stove went out.
  • Unexplained sounds: Guards and visitors often heard wailing, sobs, and moaning.
  • Old lighthouse reappears: Some guards, as well as visitors, report seeing the old lighthouse emerge momentarily within the fog at night with its green light flashing followed by a whistling sound.
    Prison At Alcatraz

Ghostly Sounds at Alcatraz

Visitors and paranormal investigators share many reports of strange sounds. Some of these include:

  • Disembodied voices: Shadowlands reports visitors have claimed to hear disembodied voices in the cafeteria and cell blocks. Other ghostly sounds include footsteps and cell doors clanging shut, creating real life echoing.
  • Unexplained sounds and movement: There have been reports of whispering, smells, and sounds in prisoner cells. Other reports include hearing cell doors open then slam shut when they are known to be locked.

  • Phantom figures: There are many reports of phantom figures moving in corridors, in and out of cells, in the the hospital, and other areas of the prison.

  • Musical instruments: The sound of a harmonica and a banjo playing have been reported. Al Capone played his banjo in the shower room, and visitors have reported hearing strumming coming from the area.

Evidence of Alcatraz Hauntings?

While there have been countless claims of people being touched, hearing ghostly sounds, and seeing apparitions, there's only a handful of evidence substantiating these claims. Over the past couple of decades, paranormal investigators have set out to gather such evidence. Some have captured what they believe to be proof with EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), photos, and other equipment confirmations. A few visitors have taken videos and photos they believe are proof of ghostly activity.

New Industries Building

When psychic Daena Smoller and psychologist Larry Montz set out to investigate the haunting of Alcatraz, they came up empty-handed at the usual haunts, such as D Block and the hospital. Instead, they uncovered activity in the New Industries Building. This was where inmates used sewing machines. Smoller heard the loud sound of sewing machines buzzing. Aside from an intense pain in her neck, nothing else happened. The two investigators were unaware a murder had taken place in the building. Rufus McCain was murdered in the area when Henri Young attacked and stabbed him in the neck.

Tourists Capture Photo of Ghost

In 2014, the Daily Mail reported, "Tourists spooked by photograph of young woman waiting in the notorious prison's visitation block." The couple were on vacation and decided to visit Alcatraz. Sheila Sillery-Walsh held her iPhone 5c up to the window in the door of the inmates' visitation waiting room and snapped a photo. At first, her companion Paul Rice thought it was just Sheila's reflection until he noticed the woman in the photo wore clothing and a hairdo from the 1930s or 1940s. Did she capture a photo of a spirit woman who had visited an inmate at Alcatraz?

Ghost Hunters' 100 Episode

The SyFy channel's show Ghost Hunters celebrated its 100th episode with a live broadcast from Alcatraz. Some of the evidence captured during the show included the disembodied woman's voice saying either no or hello. One cast member came face to face with a dark shadow.

Ghost Lab

In December 2009, Ghost Lab conducted an investigation at Alcatraz for one of its episodes. One of the EVPs captured during the investigation proved very disturbing to one investigator.

The team recorded another attempt to contact spirits in The Dungeon.

Collection of EVPs Captured by Anthony P Anderson at Alcatraz

Author of Alcatraz History True Or False, Anthony P Anderson shares several of his 2010 EVPs sesssion at Alcatraz captured during an overnight paranormal investigation at the prison.

The hospital EVP session with fellow ghost hunters features highly clear EVPs.

Alcatraz 2014 EVP session covers the dentist office, hospital, morgue, and New Industries Building.

Other Captured EVPs

Becky Vickers captured some impressive EVPs during a day trip. The EVPs begin around 8:32.

Bob Davis participated in an overnight investigation and capture this ghost just wanting to say, "Hey!"

Orange County Soul Searchers captured this pleas for help while investigating solitary confinement cell #13.

Punishment Spawned Insanity, Murder, and Suicide

From 1850 to 1933, Alcatraz was a military post originally created to defend the bay but quickly began the dual purpose of a military prison. When it was turned over to the US Department of Justice, the prison became a maximum-security with minimum-privilege penitentiary. The most notorious criminals were sent to the prison island. Many people believe the forms of punishment carried out within the walls of Alcatraz contributed to the massive number of reported hauntings.

Inhumane Conditions at Alcatraz

Prisoners at Alcatraz were placed inside windowless, cold cells for punishments that could last from one day to weeks. Prisoners often emerged from the "Strip Cell" a.k.a. Oriental, the Hole, and the Dungeons, insane. These men endured great physical and psychological torture from living in the dark and cold surviving on small amounts of bread and water. Suicide rates were high. Murders were committed in the prison, and mental illness resulted from the living and punishment conditions.

Deciding if Alcatraz Is Haunted

With so many eyewitness accounts of strange happenings inside the walls of Alcatraz, it is difficult to discount all of them. When decades of ghostly reports are added together, the evidence seems to point to paranormal activity in the former prison. At the very least, something unexplained is taking place. Whether it is residual, intelligent/interactive, demonic, what's known as shadow people or poltergeist activity, or a combination, people can investigate and find out for themselves.

Is Alcatraz Haunted?