Frequently Asked Questions

Are there really dungeons beneath Alcatraz?

The movies The Rock and Murder in the First showed an large underground area on Alcatraz. In The Rock these were quite extensive and ran for miles. There was even a track with mining cars which ran over bottomless chasms. These do not exist. Murder in the First came closer to the truth when it showed a much smaller area with several dark, wet cells. Even this film made a few mistakes, however.

Low on the island was a large room whose only entrance was through the roof. During the Civil War, the Army kept several Confederate sympathizers, many of whom had been caught in an attempt to seize a U.S. warship, in this hole. This could be called Alcatraz's first dungeon, but by the time the Bureau of Prisons took over the island in 1934, it was no longer being used.

The real dungeons were built during the 1860s when Alcatraz was being turned into a military fortification. The Army leveled the top of the Island so that it could build a brick bastion or Citadel. This citadel was three stories high and was surrounded by a dry moat. The moat surrounded the lowest level of the fort. Powerful guns, which had levelled Georgia's similarly built Fort Pulaski during a Civil War siege, proved this building to be obsolete. The military continued to use it as a apartment building where officers and their families lived. Single officers lived in the basement.

The Army had been housing Confederate sympathizers, Indians, and disciplinary problems on Alcatraz through much of the late 19th century. It built a special wooden cell house (which almost burned down one night) which was to be found on the south side of the Island. Around the turn of the century, the Army decided that it didn't need Alcatraz to be a fort anymore and turned it into the disciplinary barracks for the Department of the Pacific. In 1909, prisoners began taking apart the old fortress. They removed the top two levels, but left the bottom floor to serve as the basement of what was then the largest concrete building in the world, the main Cell House.

The moat became an outer passageway around the basement. Old magazines and rooms on the lower level were used by the Army for storage and for punishing unruly prisoners. When the Army loaned Alcatraz to the Bureau of Prisons in 1934, it left these areas. Warden Johnston made use of the old rooms, to punish escapers like John Standig, troublemakers like James Grove and Henry Larry, and the leaders of the 1936 and 1937 general strikes.

U.S. Penitentiary convicts had many theories about the dungeons which they told to eager San Francisco newspapermen as they were discharged. One was that the dungeons had been built by the Spanish, perhaps even by the Inquisition. The truth is that the Spanish left Alcatraz to the pelicans for which it is named and never attempted to build anything on the island. Another story prisoners told the press was that the dungeons were located below the water line. The dungeons were wet -- many prisoners reported them as being so -- but they were located more than a hundred feet above sea level. The dripping which made the dungeons so cold and miserable probably came from underground cisterns built around the outside of the old fortress. These were the island's only source of water and, being made of brick like the rest of the old citadel, they undoubtably leaked. The weather on the Bay probably didn't help, either.

What were the dungeons like? We have a few accounts by prisoners who spent time in them. Though no one spent years in the dungeons (like Murder in the First suggested) there is evidence that some men (like Joe Bowers) spent more than the 19 days allowed by Federal law. The dungeons were cold, dark, and wet. When they put a man in the dungeon, they made him strip first. He entered the cell naked while they searched his clothes. Then they threw these to him.

Once the guards closed the door, the prisoner had no light. The only sounds he heard were the dripping of water from the cisterns, rats scurrying around the floor, guards walking by in the corridor, and, sometimes, the voices of other prisoners who were talking or singing to themselves in the darkness.

It was easy to lose track of the time. When he slept, the convict either propped himself against a wall or lay on the damp floor. Guards disturbed him several times during the day and night, abruptly shining a light in his eyes as they counted him. Another prisoner brought simple meals of bread and water. The confinee got a hot meal, usually soup, every three days if the guards did not forget.

If his keepers felt mean or wanted to punish the entombed inmate, they turned on a hose or threw a bucket of cold water on him. This was called putting the prisoner "on the water". You couldn't stretch out on the floor when they did this because it was wet. Another thing they liked to do to torment their charges was to smoke cigarettes where the inmate could smell them. Whether you were a smoker or a non-smoker, this trick was sure to inflict you either with nicotine cravings or a sore throat.

Did the dungeons drive men crazy? Some men, like James Grove and Joe Bowers, were already insane when they went into the dungeons. It certainly did not make them better. Counterfeiter John Standig, who was sent to the dungeon after heescaped from U.S. Marshals for ten days in 1935, attempted suicide after his stay below. Bureau of Prisons Director James V. Bennett finally decided that this form of punishment was too cruel and forbade further use of the dungeons. After 1942, the biggest troublemakers were sent to the Hole, a sensory-deprivation chamber located above-ground in the newly remodeled D-Block or "Special Treatment Unit". It was a little more humane.

To see some photos of the dungeons and other hidden areas of Alcatraz, click here.

To read about how men were punished, click here.