Guided by the beam of his flashlight, Gregory Johnson inches down the gloomy infirmary ward of this retired prison, once home to the nation's most malicious killers and psychotic criminal malcontents.
"Man," he whispers, "I couldn't imagine being out here at night without my gun."
Until the first boat arrives after dawn, the U.S. park police officer spends the night battling both his nerves and imagination, patrolling the place once known as America's Devil's Island.
Over the years, Alcatraz was the dreaded last stop for 1,576 luckless hard-timers — murderers, mobsters, the nation's most-wanted crooks — many of whom officials feared couldn't be confined anywhere else.
Known as "the Rock," the 12-acre penal island was notorious for its cramped cells and rigid discipline that at times demanded total silence. The prison also inflicted its own brand of emotional torture. At night, as the stories go, inmates could hear women's laughter on the mainland 1 1/2 miles away.
Decades after the prison closed March 21, 1963, with inmate Frank Weatherman's valediction, "Alcatraz was never no good for nobody," all that remains is the lore of the desperate men once locked up here.
"I don't believe in ghosts, per se," says Johnson, 38, a no-nonsense law enforcement veteran. Still, holding a shackle of oversized keys, he cautiously makes his moonlit rounds across the island, some areas wanly illuminated by ancient light fixtures, others left eerily dark.
His footsteps echoing, he walks the old cellblocks that once housed notorious bank robber and gangster Arthur "Doc" Barker and kidnapper Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpavicz, a former Public Enemy No. 1.
He checks the crumbling medical ward where Robert Stroud, "the Birdman of Alcatraz," spent 17 years. He peers into the deserted laundry room, now strewn with shattered glass, where Chicago mobster Alphonse "Scarface" Capone hustled among the industrial washers. He patrols the cramped office of hard-boiled wardens nicknamed Saltwater, Gypsy, Cowboy and Promising Paul.
Every now and then, the old prison plays tricks on his mind.
One night, as the buoy bells clanged and the foghorn moaned, he swore he heard clinking glasses, as if a toast were being made. He hears mice skitter on cellblock floors, and the wind howling outside often seems like crazy laughter.
"This is one creepy place after dark," he said. "It can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up straight."
For years, ferry company employees were assigned to the island's night shift. Last fall, when the National Park Service, which runs Alcatraz, changed ferry services, park police took over until the new contractor begins work this month.
Officers watch both the ferry docks and federal facilities, mindful of pranksters on motorboats or protesters. After all, Native Americans fighting for civil rights once occupied Alcatraz for 19 months, starting in November 1969.
Johnson initially balked at the duty he shares with other officers. "I said, 'You want me out there all by myself? Once you're there, you can't get off.' "
At first, he tried to tame Alcatraz by absorbing its history. He took the park service's audio tour, walking alone among the cellblocks, guided by the recorded voices of former guards and inmates.
Then he took a different tack: reveling in his fear.