From military prison to notorious federal penitentiary to American Indian occupation site, Alcatraz Island has an intriguing and storied past — which is part of its continuing appeal.
In august 1959, 24-year-old jim albright found himself driving a ’56 Chevy Nomad across the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge with his wife, Cathy, their 19-month-old son, Kenneth, and all of their belongings. It was their first time west of Colorado. “The fog was sweeping across the bay from the Pacific,” says Albright, “and I looked out there and saw Alcatraz just perched on that little rock in the water. Then I thought to myself, ‘Jim, what the hell did you just do?’ ”
Nearly four years later, Albright walked the last of the prisoners out the front door of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, staying behind as the boats that began transporting those prisoners to places like San Quentin State Prison, Leavenworth and the then-new U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., sailed away. From that moment forward, Alcatraz Island would never be the same.
We’ve all heard stories of The Rock, a 22-acre rocky outcrop in the middle of San Francisco Bay, just 1.5 miles from the city’s bustling wharf. What began as a nesting site for seabirds housed a military fortress by 1859, and soon a military prison that hosted deserters and Civil War Confederate sympathizers. A century later, the island became the focal point of political protest for American Indian activists, and today it serves as a top draw for tourism, attracting approximately 1.5 million visitors a year. Still, no era of the island’s history is more universally renowned than the years it served as the most notorious maximum-security prison in the United States. From 1934 to 1963, nearly 1,500 prisoners cycled through Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, including some of the most disruptive men of their time: guys like infamous gangster and crime boss Al Capone; Arthur “Doc” Barker, killed by Alcatraz prison guards during an escape attempt; and Robert “Birdman” Stroud, who spent his 17-year sentence in solitary confinement. In fact, with its tiny bare-bones cells, inhospitable surroundings and well-known reputation for housing the worst of the worst criminals (not to mention being a favorite subject of Hollywood directors), Alcatraz has achieved legendary status. There are few people alive, however, who actually lived it. Albright, though, happens to be one of them.
An imposing figure even today, the 6-foot-tall Albright had no previous law-enforcement experience when he first came to Alcatraz, though that didn’t stop him from moving up the ranks from junior officer to senior officer specialist in less than four years. While his time on the island was relatively brief, Albright has tales from his years there that would chill your blood. Like the fact that big-name prisoner Mickey Cohen used to work for Albright in the prison’s clothing room. Or that Albright was on duty the night of June 11, 1962, when three prisoners — Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin — climbed through holes they’d dug in their cells, into a ventilation shaft, onto the roof and then down to the bay where they escaped via raft. No one knows whether they lived or died. It’s rousing enough to hear the stories one-on-one, but imagine listening to Albright tell them amid the thick, cold, concrete walls of the former Alcatraz prison. Thankfully, this is just one of the many things that have been made possible since the U.S. government first declared Alcatraz Island surplus land 50 years ago.
On a brisk, foggy sunday last August, I boarded a ferry to Alcatraz Island alongside dozens of other giddy and excited tourists. Once there, we started the upward trek to the penitentiary’s former cell house, where typically we’d be picking up our headsets for Alcatraz’s much-lauded audio tour. But this was no ordinary day. This was Alcatraz Alumni Day, an annual reunion of everyone who’s ever spent time living or working on the island: former guards, their wives and kids (up to 60 children lived on Alcatraz at one time) and, yes, even prisoners. On my walk up the hill, I pass Samuel Hill, one of the few African-American correctional officers ever employed by Alcatraz, before coming upon William Rutter, who lived on the island until he was 10. “My dad, who’s now 89, was a guard here,” he tells me. “He was the guy who escorted Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud off Alcatraz in 1959.” Then my eye is caught by a set of curtains hanging in an upper corner window of Building 64, the apartment block that once served as living quarters for the guards and their families.
"The termination of Alcatraz had long been a possibility. The disappearance of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers just helped seal the deal."
“Cathy [my wife] made and hung them back in 1962,” Albright had told me a few days earlier. “Can you believe they’re still there?”
Then, a Texas oil tycoon named Lamar Hunt proposed the idea of erecting a space-travel theme park on the island, and in reaction, a campaign to “Save Alcatraz” was born. While the Department of the Interior began mulling over the possibility of using the island for recreation, a group of American Indians known as the Indians of All Tribes (IAT) had plans of their own. In November 1969, they began a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz, hoping to both call attention to the U.S. government’s efforts to disband individual tribes as well as to convince the government to establish a Native American cultural center and museum on the island. While the on-site plans never came to fruition, the occupation did spur considerable media coverage, thrusting Alcatraz into the spotlight once again. By 1972, the government had granted Alcatraz status as part of the larger 75,398-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and in October 1973, the island officially opened to the public.
Back at Alcatraz Alumni Day, former con Bob Luke and retired guard George DeVincenzi have just wrapped up a joint question-and-answer session with visitors, and members of the park staff are currently conducting a call-in interview with Bob Schibline (or prisoner number 1355), a onetime bank robber now living in Florida who, while serving at Alcatraz, was privy to the infamous 1962 escape plan. Off to the side, William “Bill” Baker is preparing for his inaugural talk in the main cell house, where he spent the previous night (in his old quarters, in fact). Dressed in a brown suede jacket, ball cap and baggy jeans, the 80-year-old seems slightly nervous; perhaps even a bit overwhelmed. After all, it’s Baker’s first time back to Alcatraz since he left the prison for Leavenworth in 1959. In fact, he’s only been a free man (though one still on parole) for just over two years.
As a 24-year-old who liked socializing, Baker was not a fan of Alcatraz’s strict rules when he arrived in 1957. Prisoners were entitled to food, shelter, clothes and medical attention. Everything else was considered a privilege. From 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., they were locked in their cells, completely removed from contact. Still, says Baker, “There’s comfort in surrendering to prison. You ring a bell and they come.”
Once introduced, Baker walks into the center of the room to roaring applause, which obviously takes him aback. It’s not the kind of greeting he received on his last trip to the island. When asked why he chose a life of crime, Baker replies, “I needed excitement in my life, and crime’s how I sought it,” adding, “I still crave a little excitement. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here sleeping in my old cell.”
Unlike Baker, Bob Luke never returned to prison after being released from Alcatraz in 1959. The octogenarian — who was originally put away for armed robbery and once served time with George Celino Barnes, aka Machine Gun Kelly — applied for a job, got married and spent much of the next 50-plus years living a quiet, normal life, much of it in Marin County, Calif., just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Only his wife and a few close family members and friends knew about his past, and Luke preferred it this way. That is, until 2010, when he caught a segment about Alcatraz Alumni Day on the evening news. Right then, he decided to give the park service a call. “It took me 30 minutes on the phone to convince them who I was,” he says. “Nobody knew I was still around.” Luke and his wife, Ida, have visited Alcatraz “at least 100 times since,” he says, and though he enjoys interacting with visitors, he never hesitates to stress, “[For prisoners,] the only good thing about Alcatraz is the day you left.”
Today, however, the mood seems jovial, with Luke and DeVincenzi more like comrades than enemies. Seated in front of a room filled with dozens of people visiting from places like the U.K., Norway, Italy and Australia, they share stories together as would two old friends. DeVincenzi reveals to the crowd that he’d often play checkers with Robert “Birdman” Stroud, “but only when I knew and trusted the gun officer on patrol.” Luke — who had been in half a dozen different prisons within 11 years — talks about the change of heart that finally turned him clean.
“I was sitting in the Alcatraz recreation yard and caught a whiff of freshly mowed grass coming over from the city,” he says. “That’s when I had an awakening. The first thing I did when I got out of Alcatraz was lay down on a lawn.”
Though their time at the penitentiary overlapped, the two men didn’t know each other. “There really wasn’t a lot of conversation going on here,” says Luke, who admits he stood next to Alvin “Creepy” Karpis in line every day for two years and never exchanged a word. Still, it’s this new era of Alcatraz that has enabled them to form an unlikely bond, one that few of us can truly understand. Case in point: When an audience member asks about the food served at Alcatraz, Luke responds with gusto. “It was so much better than at other prisons,” he says. “There was stewed fruit, fresh coffee — even hotcakes on weekends.”
“I ate the same food as the prisoners,” DeVincenzi says, “and it only cost me 25 cents a day.”
“Well, I got mine for free,” says Luke, as the crowd starts laughing.
“Yeah,” says DeVincenzi, with a pause and a wink. “But I got to go home at night.”
The U.S. National Park service now runs Alcatraz Island, which, along with the penitentiary, serves as a nesting site for western gulls, cormorants and other seabirds as it did in its days before development. The island also boasts thriving gardens first planted by the military over a century ago and recently revived through the help of volunteers. Remnants of the American Indian occupation, such as a painted sign that reads “Indians Welcome,” still exist, as does an operating lighthouse from the island’s military era. But while the last 50 years have brought about plenty of changes on Alcatraz, they haven’t erased the past. A good thing, Luke would agree, because the past is what keeps the crowds coming.
“As long as they like it better than I did,” he says with a slight — almost distant — smile.
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LAURA KINIRY is a regular contributor to American Way and writes for publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, BBC.com and Smithsonianmag.com. She resides in San Francisco.