Is Alcatraz Haunted? The Ghostly History of an Infamous Prison

Updated June 25, 2021
Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz is one of the most notorious haunted prisons in the United States. Located on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, this former prison sits in full view of the city while never being part of it. The prison was considered virtually impossible to escape from, and even today this seems to be the case. For, as visitors to the island will tell you, there are many inmates who still haven't managed to escape from Alcatraz, even decades after their deaths.

Even Ghosts Can't Escape From Alcatraz

Criminals used to want to avoid being sent to Alcatraz, but now tourists can't get enough of it. It's one of the ironies of Alcatraz Island, a former prison turned tourist attraction owned and managed by the National Park Service. And while many visit simply to understand the history of the fabled prison, others go because they're hoping to experience something else: the ghosts of the prisoners who were once interned there.

Visitors to the Alcatraz Island arrive on tourist boats and take the 13-story climb up to the prison complex, which sits atop a gigantic rock overlooking the city of San Francisco. Along with the sprawling main prison building, visitors will find other crumbling outbuildings that were part of the complex used to house some of America's most violent offenders. Once there, tourists don headphones and take self-guided tours. Many encounter ghosts as they do.

Punishment Spawned Insanity, Murder, and Suicide

It's not unusual that abandoned prisons and jails are haunted. These are places of violence, rage, and despair with violent uprisings, riots, murders, abuse, suicide, and more. Alcatraz is no different. It has a dark history that is the likely cause of much of the ghostly activity that remains. From 1850 to 1933, Alcatraz was a military post originally created to defend the bay, but it 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.

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.

Prison At Alcatraz

The Battle of Alcatraz

In May 1946, a two-day battle ensued between the prisoners and the US military. 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.

Visitors report this violent uprising has left behind a ghostly residue. 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 abnormal. Apparitions of prisoners and soldiers dressed in period style uniforms as well as those from later eras have also been reported.

Ghosts 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.

Cell in Alcatraz

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 that 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 his 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.

Guards Report Ghosts

Even the guards, toughened by working with hardened criminals, reported eerie encounters that left them shaken. For example, the prison warden was conducting a prison tour when he and his guests heard the sobs of a woman inside the dungeon. Other 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.

Once while attending the warden's Christmas party, several guards admitted to seeing an ethereal being with muttonchop sideburns and dressed in a gray suit and cap. When the apparition materialized, the guards claimed the room grew bitter cold, and the fire in the stove went out. Guards and visitors also often heard wailing, sobs, and moaning.

Frightening Sounds, Sights, and Smells

Tourists, staff, and paranormal investigators share many reports of strange sounds with no apparent living source. 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. There have also been reports of whispering and sounds and unpleasant smells coming from prisoner cells. Other reports include hearing cell doors open and slam shut when they are known to be locked.

Front facade at Alcatraz

Others report hearing and seeing phantom figures moving in corridors, in and out of cells, in the hospital, and other areas of the prison. The sound of a harmonica and a banjo playing have been reported as well. 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.

Crumbling outbuilding on Alcatraz Island

Filming at Alcatraz With Psychic Medium Daena Smoller

In 2000, a production company working on an Alcatraz-focused episode of a three-season series airing on the Travel Channel, contacted parapsychologist Larry Montz for his participation along with one of his ISPR Team investigators, Daena Smoller. She shares what really happened there during the filming of that fated Travel Channel episode.

She states, "We reached the island while it was still dark and accompanied by a ranger, we walked uphill to the prison." Deana explains her role as part of the ISPR Investigative Team, "I was an additional psychic tool in the areas of empathy and physical mediumship."

With her psychic mediumship abilities, Daena began to sense the presence of an entity. She says, "In my case, my empathic episodes manifested in feeling physically or emotionally or both simultaneously, something that someone currently alive or deceased, experienced." For field work, she explains, "I was used as a psychic tool and there were never any guarantees and never did I pretend for the cameras and not stand in my own light of honesty."

Cells inside Alcatraz prison

The powerful negative energy of Alcatraz was something Daena felt during the entire investigation. She explains, "It made me ill to feel what it would have felt like to me to be trapped in such a small and gross space. This was not surprising at all, nor did I consider that a psychic experience."

Daena describes how she recalled entering the block of solitary isolation cells. She says, "I remember walking with Larry and the film crew was right with us. The next thing I was cognizant of was being in a dark area with Larry talking to me with a bit of urgency to his voice and trying to get me to stand up and walk out of the cell."

Finding herself crouched down in the back corner of a cell, Daena describes, "I felt like I was rocking back and forth ... and smiling. As I became more aware of my own existence, I felt like I knew I was insane and that I was actually happy to be where I was and that I belonged where I was." Time escaped Daena. She had no idea how long she'd been there.

Alcatraz Michigan Avenue sign

Larry quickly filled her in. Fortunately for Daena, Larry recognized the foreshadowing of an entity stepping in and taking control of Daena. "It was a male that stepped in," she explains, "Larry said that I threatened the cameraman with physical harm." Larry proceeded to question the entity and discovered the spirit had been a male prisoner at Alcatraz.

The spirit inmate revealed there were five other entities present and asked Larry if he'd ever been in a fight. Larry admitted that he had and asked if spirit wanted to fight him. Daena says the spirit responded, "I don't want to hurt the little girl," referring to her.

Daena shares that once the crew left the prison, they ventured into the Industrial Building. Immediately, she had contact with a spirit and an accompanying physical reaction, "I had an incredible pain above my shoulders and in my head." She also sensed the presence of a little girl. This confused Daena, until she later discovered the families of the island lighthouse keepers, prison guards, and soldiers lived with them on the island including their children.

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.

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. If these stories pique your curiosity, Alcatraz is run as a park and is open to the public. You can make a reservation aboard one of the boats that take you to the island and see what you can experience when you get there.

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Is Alcatraz Haunted? The Ghostly History of an Infamous Prison