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.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

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

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