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7 Chilling Facts About Alcatraz, the Most Infamous Prison in America

How many eerie facts about Alcatraz do YOU know about?  

Even if this infamous prison closed its doors 60 years ago, it’s still one of the toughest and most notorious prisons in the United States. One of the worst facts about Alcatraz was the punishments: chained-up prisoners, with no food for days, sitting in complete darkness, and constantly receiving beatings.

Alcatraz, arguably the most well-known jail in the whole world, has long attracted interest from viewers as the focus of films like The Rock, starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, and The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. It’s interesting to note that The Great Escape was produced in the same year that the jail closed.

These films in particular provided us with a look inside the prison’s walls, demonstrating how cruelly the inmates were treated and how difficult it was to survive an escape. In this article, here at Mind-Bending Facts, we’re going deeper into the concept of “dark tourism,” so we’ll show you some of the chilling facts about Alcatraz, trivia that will help you improve your general knowledge.

facts about Alcatraz
Photo by Piyavachara Nacchanandana from Shutterstock

1. It was possible to swim to shore

Nobody could escape Alcatraz, they said. Little did the federal officers know because inmates could survive the swim to the mainland. And guess what? It happened one year before the prison would close its doors forever. In 1962, John Paul Scott managed to bend the bars of a window to jump off into the water and then swim to the shore.

He wasn’t able to get away entirely since the Golden Gate Bridge cops discovered him unconscious and in hypothermic shock. This is one of the most interesting facts about Alcatraz because, after all, security wasn’t that secure…and the brave ones could have escaped very easily!

2. Mythic dungeon

For those of you who don’t know, the notorious jail at Alcatraz was constructed above a military fort dating back to the 1850s, and it wasn’t until 1934 that it was converted into a federal prison. Now, it’s interesting to point out that this dungeon, also called “the Spanish Dungeon,” was a place in which all the inmates who did something wrong during their stay in the prison were tortured and beaten very badly.

It was said to have been erected below sea level during the Spanish Inquisition. The dungeon was built in the 20th century, although the ancient masonry and persistent leaks suggested otherwise.

3. Al Capone played banjo in the inmate band of Alcatraz

Al Capone (try saying this with an Italian accent for more fun) was among the first prisoners at Alcatraz. And if you’re a little bit familiar with the history of this notorious gangster, then you’re probably thinking that maybe he was treated like a king during his years in prison. Dang! He wasn’t! Right after he put his feet in the prison, he was treated just like everyone else and, within a year, was called “the model prisoner.”

After Al Capone became one of their favorite inmates, he asked for a single favor: to start a band. The band was called “The Rock Islanders,” and he was the banjo player. Cool, right? He even bragged about this in a letter to his son, saying that he was able to play over 500 songs. There was a clear difference between the mighty Al Capone, who entered prison a few years before this!

4. There was a high probability of going insane in this prison

One of the most unbelievable facts about Alcatraz is that, compared to other prisons here, you could easily go insane. Why? Well, besides being a maximum-security prison with super strict rules to follow daily, the fact that you’re isolated from the rest of the world on an island can contribute to the deterioration of your mental health. For example, at some point, one of the prisoners chopped off his fingers while he was working, while others were just helplessly watching.

According to a lot of ex-prisoners, there was a lack of socialization here, and you’d likely spend most of your time alone. Visits from their families were also rare because of the restrictive rules. The visitor and convict were separated by a window, which was only permitted once a month, and a guard kept a tight eye on both of them.

“Thirsty” for more interesting facts about Alcatraz? If so, you’ll adore this novel authored by Jim Quillen, a former Alcatraz inmate. It’s written from his perspective, detailing every single thing that happened to him during the years he spent there. The book is called Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock, and it’s a biographical, true story published in 1991. You can find it for an extraordinary price of only $4.91 for the paperback edition. Check it out! 

5. Severe methods of torture were applied to the prisoners

If none of these facts about Alcatraz were familiar to you until now, prepare for this one because, honestly, it’s probably the most chilling one! Most of the time, when we’re watching movies about convicts and how harsh life in prison is, we don’t feel very sorry for them. Especially if we know the reason why they are behind bars!

However, punishment at Alcatraz was something else—out of this world. Because their torturing methods were, let’s say, a bit EXTREME. We briefly mentioned a particular dungeon in the prison, but we haven’t talked about how hard it was to survive after a punishment there.

As an inmate, you were kept without food, in complete darkness, and subjected to regular beatings. This “special treatment” lasted around 14 days. Disturbing heh? Well, if this gave you the creeps, what about the fact that these cells measured five feet by nine feet? Sheesh, horrible! Fortunately, the dungeon was closed in 1942 because it was found cruel and useless.

6. Nobody was sent automatically to Alcatraz

Another thing that caught our attention when we were doing our homework about Alcatraz was the fact that there weren’t only notorious killers or those who committed violent crimes. At Alcatraz came those who needed a bit of “adjustment” in their behavior. And everyone who was sent here was supposed to stay indefinitely, but usually after a couple of years, they were sent back as a different person.

While this worked its magic for Al Capon, for example, who became a changed and self-aware person, Alvin Francis Karpis was the only inmate who served the longest sentence at Alcatraz until 1963, when the prison closed its gates forever.

facts about Alcatraz
Photo by LR-PHOTO from Shutterstock

7. Alcatraz is haunted by evil spirits

Last but not least, one of the most unusual facts about Alcatraz is that everybody believes this place is haunted by…evil spirits. Or at least, this is what local Native American tribes said. In our humble opinion, we beg to differ and say that there are no evil spirits; in fact, the ones who are wandering around the walls are the restless souls of the prisoners who were kept there, tortured, and punished for whatever crimes they committed.

But we have never been there to confirm, yet many brave visitors said that they felt a weird presence throughout their visit. It was like they were chased by an invisible force that was stopping them from entering the open cells. Crazy! Furthermore, a lot more people said that they were hearing a banjo playing in the dining room. Spooky! indeed.

Would you dare take a trip to Alcatraz to see the history with your own eyes? Tell us in the comments section!

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Did you enjoy reading this article with facts about Alcatraz? We have a lot more that we recommend checking out! 10 Best Mind-Bending Movies You Have to Watch Twice to Understand 

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