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Did You Know You Could Stay in Alcatraz’s Infamous D-Block?

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I alluded last week to my love for spooky spaces in The Bay. My fascination with these extraordinary locations began in 1999, when I was 19 years old and fortunate enough to have the chance to spend a night sleeping on a cot in Alcatraz’s notorious D-Block. The number of people permitted to stay overnight on The Rock is limited to fewer than 600 individuals per year – I’m sure excluding special groups of folks like those who work on the island. 

Similar to what the cell looked like I stayed in. Photo by Brian Lepley. Original public domain image from Flickr

How can you stay the night on Alcatraz?

As you can imagine, it’s not that easy to “book” a night on Alcatraz. It’s not on Hip Camp, that’s for sure. The honor is reserved for non-profits who are entered into a lottery to see who will be able to come to the island for an over night stay. Also worth mentioning that, even when you do, you’re not allowed to roam around the island unattended. There is a pretty structured schedule.

The overnight program was started with the Boy Scouts of America organization and expanded after that to include other non-profits. Every year, there are a total of 18 overnight stays available on Alcatraz, and a staggering number of 200 to 400 groups compete for the opportunity to secure one of these spots. Of course something like this would be in high demand, which is why only non-profit groups with a 501(c)(3) status are eligible to apply.

When I went, it was in 1999 and I was able to go through The Lions/Leo Club in San Rafael which I’d been a volunteer for several years. It was my first (and only time) going to the island. I can’t remember exactly why my parents hadn’t come with us but my sister, boyfriend and I went on the adventure together. Until then, I didn’t know much about the prison outside of the short lessons we had in high school history class.

We were picked up from right around Pier 39 (at that time, boats didn’t come out of the same pier as they do now). The last boat that leaves to pick up the very last tour group dropped us off. As we disembarked, I couldn’t help but notice the perplexed expressions on the faces of the other tourists. After all, we were all carrying backpacks and gear, fully prepared for a nostalgic slumber party in one of the most infamous prisons in history. I’m certain that someone among them must have wondered how we managed to find a night tour like this. It’s a common question you’ll find on things like Trip Advisor.

Before we sat down for dinner (long before the sun went down), we had a little assignment to complete before the real excitement began. We were actually given the responsibility of picking up trash scattered around the island. Honestly, trash pickup was roaming around with a trash bag, hardly anyone around and 360 views of The Bay.

After that, we brought our trash back to the tour guide and then had a BBQ dinner. Yep! A BBQ on Alcatraz.
Full from dinner, we had a tour guide give us a night tour of the island which included touring off-limits areas. Some of the tour is a little fuzzy in my memory because it was in 1999. However, there are vivid recollections that remain etched in my mind because they were truly unforgettable. During one segment of the tour, our guide enlightened us about the existence of solitary confinement cells situated at the bottom flor of “D” block within the Cellhouse.

Beyond the confines of the Cellhouse, there was an area that surpassed the bleakness of solitary confinement. It was a “cell” that people would be taken to that was tucked away in a sort of bunker, where not a single ray of light penetrated the space. We also got to see some of the areas with antigovernment graffiti which was added to the walls of the prison back in 1969-1971 when Native Americans sailed to Alcatraz and took over the island in protest. This was all information they skipped over in history class. Learning about it all in this way was pretty crazy, to say the least.

A photo of “D” Block in Alcatraz – by wallyg on Flickr

The tour lasted a couple of hours and by that time it was definitely time for bed. Our sleeping arrangements awaited us inside a compact 5×7′ cell located in the infamous “D” Block of Alcatraz. We had the option of staying in the cell of infamous murderer The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud. I opted out – simply spending the night in the prison itself was daunting enough.

What is the Alcatraz Cellhouse “D” Block?

I am pretty sure most of our readers know what D-Block is but it’s worth giving you some additional details just in case you’ve been living in a rock about The Rock’s history. The main part of the prison is three-stories with four cell blocks. 

D-Block, the most notorious cell block in Alcatraz, housed the most dangerous inmates. At the end of D-Block, there were six cells known as “The Hole.” These cells were reserved for prisoners who exhibited behavioral problems and were subjected to harsh and brutal punishments during their time there.

The reason we stayed in this block over others is because it was the only block of cells that had been treated for asbestos. So, the only place safe to sleep was also the most haunted.

Would you spend the night on Alcatraz?

So, was I scared when spending the night in a cot within “D” Block? The most eerie aspect was the scarce presence of people within the premises. The cellhouse, typically packed in with tourists, had near-complete silence. Not to mention the fact that they don’t lock you into the cell and you’re just a few feet from the other people in your group, thankfully. Plus, being 19 years old and having my boyfriend by my side in my cell to “cuddle” with on the cot all night… I had no complaints.

If I was given the opportunity to go back and stay the night again, I wouldn’t say I’d jump at the chance.

Sitting and sleeping inside a prison with so much dark history gave me pause but it also was the most immersive way I could have ever experienced The Rock. I haven’t been back since.

The experience of staying overnight made up for the countless hours I dedicated to volunteering for The Lions Club. It also taught me that volunteering isn’t so bad. Sometimes, it leads to exciting tales like this one, an adventure I’ll never forget.

Alcatraz showersWhile you can only stay overnight via a non-profit lottery drawing, there are night tours sometimes you can go on. For more information on nighttime tours:

I’ve had a hard time finding information on how a non-profit could apply for the lottery. I’m hoping it’s still happening but I’m not as connected to it as I was back then. As far as I can tell, you will need to work with the part’s service to get a special permit & then win that lottery we spoke about. Permit are here. And, if you want to learn about another person’s experience through Friends of The Golden Gate, you can read about their overnight stay here on Vogue during the Ai Weiwei intallation in 2014.

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy is a professional smiling machine raised in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.