Mesmerized by the prison cells on Alcatraz Island

by Matthew D. Wittmer
Last updated June 2016

Thinking about the Alcatraz cell house has occupied years of my life ever since grade school. The idea of the prison on the island as a young person inspired me to create many images and models of that prison, usually of the cells themselves. Even in sixth grade I mimicked Clint Eastwood, star of the movie “Escape from Alcatraz,” by slowly chiseling a part of my school’s wall away with a spoon handle.

In 2001 I started making a huge miniature replication of the Alcatraz cell house. Specifically of B-Block. B-Block is a doubled faced, three-tiered run of over 170 individual prison cells that are in the heart of the Alcatraz cell house. The scale of this miniature is 1” = 1’. That miniature is based on my direct face-to-face measurements and photographs created during various trips I had made to the cell house. I photographed the original escape artifacts from the famed, 1962 escape attempt as well. These artifacts are now archived in the Maritime Museum at Fort Mason across from the island. Those fake portions of the cell walls the prisoners made to conceal the holes they had made in their cell walls helped me ascertain the exact paint color that the prison was painted in 1962. For several years I constructed this model from scratch as a side project to my day job.

In 2014, after several years of not being able to finish this large cell house project, I decided to live with – and share – this particular model differently than exhibiting it as a whole piece. As a result, I began the process of dissecting the model into smaller sections of cells. I started painting these sections and then shared them with others to be used as furniture. I painted several of these sections with lavender and off white color scheme. The original color scheme of the prison was cucumber green and more of a sock white color scheme. These sections of the cell house now are in New York, various locations in California and Missouri.

Some references
Bruce, J. Campbell. Escape from Alcatraz. Sausalito, California: Comstock Editions. 1963. Print.

Babyak, Jolene. Breaking the Rock: The Great Escape from Alcatraz. Berkeley, California: Ariel Vamp Press. 2001. Print.

Siegel, Don, dir. Escape from Alcatraz. Paramount Home Video. 1979. DVD.