Boo! Alcatravis Is Back

Many a surprise lurks this time of year within the walls of old Travis Co. jail

A ghoulish prisoner of Alcatravis
A ghoulish prisoner of Alcatravis (Photo By Jana Birchum)

For about 50 years, the old Travis County jail, on the fifth and sixth floors of the old courthouse at 10th and Guadalupe, housed thousands of inmates awaiting trial or serving out their sentences. It's a dark and dank place: The ceilings are low, the spaces tight – indeed, mere inches separate the wide-barred group cells from the narrow "catwalk" that guards traveled around the jail perimeter in order to conduct head counts of their inmates – and there's no air conditioning or heat. The hand-cranked steel doors, metal bunks – some still sporting their thin mattresses and the smell of mold – meshed-over metal bars on the cells (done in the Seventies, they say, to keep inmates from being able to grab the guards as they walked by), and the windowless "sweat box" cells (where troublemaking inmates would be punished, their only access to fresh air through a series of round holes punched through the very bottom of the cells' doors) have the look and feel of a childhood notion of what a jail looks like – or, perhaps more apropos, a nightmare vision of a life behind bars come to life.

The jail, built in the 1930s, was designed to house just more than 100 inmates, but, at times, says Travis Co. Sheriff's Capt. Peggy Hill, these close confines housed nearly 400 inmates. In fact, the jail was so chronically overcrowded that in the late 1980s the federal court finally ordered that it be shut down and its locks removed so that it never could be used as a jail again. Now it sits – empty but not exactly quiet; although no one at the Sheriff's Office can say for sure that the space is haunted, there are plenty of rumors – and plenty of sheriff's employees who refuse to enter the darkened jail alone.

The place's overall oddness and chest-constricting quality help make it the perfect venue for the TCSO's third annual haunted house – aka Alcatravis. The weird stories help, too. Sheriff's officials say that one time seven inmates escaped from the steel fortress by climbing through the air ducts; several were captured, and a couple were found dead, but one has never been seen again. Could that inmate now haunt the place, which would account for the strange sounds and the odd feeling that someone is watching? Could be, but then again, it might just be a sheriff's deputy lurking behind the corner, waiting to jump out and scare you. The only way to know for sure is to see – and feel – for yourself.

The Alcatravis haunted jail, at the northwest corner of the old courthouse (10th and Guadalupe), is open Friday, Oct. 27, from 11am-2pm, and Saturday, Oct. 28, from 5-9pm. The tour ($5) is not handicap accessible; children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

  • More of the Story

  • Naked City

    News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere

    Death Row Inmate Kills Self, Claimed Innocence

    As his defense attorney worked on a last appeal of his case, 29-year-old Michael Johnson, who was set to become the 376th prisoner executed in Texas since 1976, took a makeshift knife and slashed his own throat
  • Supremes to Examine Death Row Appeals

    Supreme Court agrees to hear three Texas death row appeals during its new term

    Seaholm: The railroad conundrum

    Two pieces of long-neglected and barely salvageable railroad track along and on the Seaholm Power Plant site could hold the key to whether the city has a commuter rail system limited to North and Central Austin or one that spans the entire city.

    Anti-War Dad Comes to Austin

    Bob Watada, father of Lt. Ehren Watada – who refused to go to Iraq and who has publicly denounced the war repeatedly – comes to Austin as part of national speaking tour

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Travis County Sheriff's Office
Will in-person visitation return to Travis County Jail?

Chase Hoffberger, Sept. 25, 2015

Unanswered Questions in Jailhouse Suicide
Unanswered Questions in Jailhouse Suicide
Since 2012, 100 have suffered self-inflicted deaths in Texas jails

Chase Hoffberger, Sept. 4, 2015

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014


Alcatravis haunted jail, Peggy Hill, Travis County Sheriff's Office

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle