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I Slept Alone in an Alcatraz Prison Cell Last Night

December 12, 2011

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Last night was certainly a night to remember.  At 1:45pm, I joined a small group of friends at Pier 33 to embark on an overnight adventure on Alcatraz Island.  I had never been on the island before and had no real idea what to expect.  What I did know was that I’d be sleeping in cell block D – the isolation block on the outside wall of the out of service prison in the middle of the freezing cold San Francisco Bay.

We arrived to a sunny Alcatraz with a few tourists here and there.  The public is welcomed by Rangers from the National Park Service which now manages the island.  Our host and guide was Ranger George Durgerian – a passionate storyteller and lover of history.  He was fantastic.

After Ranger George put us to work clearing brush for an hour he took us to our cells where we go to select a tiny jail cell in the infamous D Block where Al Capone was held at Alcatraz.  I found it a little creepy until later that night at bed time – then I found it a LOT creepy.  More about that later.

Ranger George and Volunteer Jack took us all around the island and the prison, sharing stories of the checkered past of Alcatraz and its willing, as well as no-so-willing, inhabitants.  The image above left is the stairway down to the underground isolation chambers where prisoners were held during WW1 in complete sensory deprivation for extended periods of time.  They turned off the lights while we were down there and we all learned the real meaning of DARK.

As you can see from the images, there are some spectacular things to photograph on Alcatraz.  The dilapidated and crumbling buildings, the creepy cell blocks and the beautiful wildlife and amazing city views are all candy for this kid with a camera.

The weather couldn’t have been better for us.  It was clear, cool and calm with a FULL MOON as well!  The lighthouse in front of the Administration Building looked so cool against the moonlit sky over San Francisco.

Part of our tour was up in the old prison hospital which still has some of the gear used while the prison was still in operation.  There were no lights up there so we found our way with flashlights through the dank corridors of the upper level of the old building.

The views of San Francisco from Alcatraz are so great and last night afforded us the most spectacular scenes.  In the image below, it looks like the city is burning.

I finally crawled into cell #31 around 1:30am exhausted from a very exciting day.  However, sleep wouldn’t come for some time.  I laid down on the old cot and looked out through the bars and began to imagine what it may have been like for the inmates locked away in those tiny rooms day after day and night after night.  I tried to imagine the sounds that would have echoed through that cell block and then I realized I actually could hear it.  At first it was a low rumble and then it became this cacophony of snores booming through the building.  Our group included 32 men and one woman and the roar of the snore was deafening.  Why hadn’t I brought ear plugs??

So anyway, after a creepy night of very little sleep I got up 30 minutes before dawn and grabbed my camera and went outside to greed the rising sun as I began to light the city.

As the sun creeped up on the horizon, this is what I saw from the top of Alcatraz Island.  There was no wind whatsoever.  The flag in front of the building wasn’t moving at all.  The bay looked like glass.

As the sun peaked over the clouds on the horizon, the city began to sparkle and the air began to warm.  What an amazing sunrise this morning.

I walked around the back of the island and climbed a long crumbling staircase up to the back entrance to the old recreation field behind the prison.  This is where well behaved prisoners were treated to fresh air and exercise.  I learned that the game of bridge (played with dominoes instead of cards at Alcatraz) was very popular and many convicts played it for hours out in this cold rec field.  You can see it below right.

Just before we packed up to head back to the mainland, we all gathered for a group photo on the steps in front of the building ahead.  Here we are after our night in D Block.

Many thanks to Dave and Dick who make this trip happen and thanks to all of my cell mates who make this adventure that much more awesome!

Rack ’em!

Here is a link to a great book about the history of Alcatraz at Amazon. Thanks for visiting!

comments +

  1. What a cool adventure! I just visited Alcatraz for the first time earlier this year and was so intrigued by it I kept finding more articles to read online. Your photographs are creepy, cool and gorgeous. Love the cityscapes.

  2. Rod and Barbara says:

    Wow, Jim! Thanks for sharing your adventure and your pictures are stunning!

  3. Greg says:

    Awesome photos and post Jim, thanks for sharing, that was an epic trip 🙂

  4. John Martin says:

    Wow. What a unique experience and perspective on that on-of-a-kind place. I remember touring the island when I was a kid and then started reading all kinds of books about the place. Your photos and descriptions toook me right back. Very cool.

  5. Hatter says:

    You need to write a ghost story about you trip and sell it I think it would be utterly amazing

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