Photo illustration by Audrey Fukuman
On Dec. 22, 1946, Samuel Shockley and Miran "Blackie" Thompson, two of the six prisoners involved in the infamous Battle of Alcatraz — which left two men dead and 13 injured — were sentenced to death following a monthlong trial. As Thompson was being led from the courtroom he bellowed, "It's just as well! I'd rather have it that way than go back to The Rock!"
This was the public impression of life on Alcatraz, fueled by newspaper articles that read like pulp fiction. David Ward gathered some of these in his book Alcatraz: The Gangster Years: "Slow, anguishing torture of interminable confinement ... a curious relic of medieval barbarity extended into modern times," said a 1946 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
In 1935, the San Francisco News claimed it had received clandestine information from a prisoner: "Note Says 3 driven insane at Alcatraz: Brutality and Torture Charged in Letter Smuggled from 'Devil's Isle.' Ridiculous says Warden, Prisoner Declares Inmates Beaten, Shot with Gas Guns, Starved."
And secrecy was the law of that tiny land. But the Bureau of Prisons's decision to "cloak the island in an air of mystery," in regards to both the public and press, ultimately backfired.
"Claiming Alcatraz was a nightmare became a standard defense strategy," said Ward in his book. The high-profile cases stemming from Alcatraz's escape attempts and riots called into question the ethics of both the Bureau of Prisons and the federal government. Defense lawyers implied that the government-sanctioned environment of Alcatraz may have driven men to madness and murder in the hopes of escape. Ward wrote of how even academics entered the fray: Criminologist Negley Teeters went on record insisting that "guards and prisoners live[d] in a vicious twilight state of mutual hate."
Alcatraz conjures many images — punishment, penance, a kitschy tourist attraction — though rarely a vision of family. But during its 29 years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, about 700 people called the Rock home, including the young sons and daughters of guards, wardens, and electricians.
Contrary to the public perception of brutal conditions, though, when you talk to the children of those guards, the story is quite different. Living quietly in the shadow of the prison during any given year were up to 60 families and a handful of bachelors, who thrived in a peculiar but pleasant island life near a major American city.
In one of the strangest existences in San Francisco history, the children of Alcatraz grew up in a bubble, living a stone's throw from notorious criminals, but deeply sheltered in an intimate community. Straddling both isolation and a strange celebrity among their peers — "What's it like to live on the Rock?" — the children of Alcatraz, now grown, recall a largely idyllic backdrop to their youth, a compelling history hidden behind the prison's story.
By overlaying both narratives, a more complete story of Alcatraz's convoluted past emerges, even as time distorts the distinction between truth and memory, rumor and reality.
John Brunner, 74, moved to Alcatraz in 1950 at age 10 from Long Beach; his father had been hired as the island's electrician. Brunner, who spent the next 13 years on the Rock (until the prison closed) was largely in the dark about the new move.
"I didn't know what to expect," he says. "My mom had passed away. It was just my father, grandmother, and I. There was a discussion and he filled me in on some of the restrictions — I had to give up any of my toys that looked like a weapon, all my cowboy and Indian stuff — but not what it was going to be like."
Phil Dollison, 76, whose father, Arthur, became Alcatraz's last associate warden, says his family's move was a bit of a mystery as well. Dollison, his parents, and his sister, Jolene, were all living in a "boring little town" — Terre Haute, Ind. — when in the spring of 1954 it was decided they were going to San Francisco for his father to pursue a better career. He was poised to become the "manager of industries" on the island, overseeing the factories where prisoners made everything from furniture to war-effort goods like Army uniforms.
"To us, it was big-time, because we were going to California. They had gold growing on the trees," laughs Dollison. "It was nice when we got to San Francisco, but when we went down to Van Ness Avenue and got on the boat you couldn't see Alcatraz — it was enshrouded in fog. And all of the sudden, 15 minutes later, Alcatraz rises out. And I'm scared. 'My god,' I was thinking, 'what have I gotten myself into?'"
But soon enough, after "wrestling my way through the pecking order" of playground friends and foes, Dollison discovered that life on the Rock — despite ominous weather and the proximity of criminals — was peaceful and secure, an idyllic setting, reminiscent of "Leave It To Beaver."
"We didn't even have locks on our doors," says Dollison. "Nobody had keys or ever worried about it. None of us had any fear of the inmates — which were the worst federal criminals in the country — because our dads were in control."
His sister, Jolene Babyak, 66, author of several books on Alcatraz, echoes his sentiments. "I knew the prisoners were special and dangerous and sometimes they'd roar, like you'd hear at a stadium. I'd ask my mother about it but she'd just say, 'Oh, they're just letting off steam.' She was matter-of-fact about it."
Chuck Stucker, 72, son of a prison guard, 13-year resident of the island, and president of the Alcatraz Alumni Association, says life there was "safe and quiet. Mothers worried more about the steep cliffs or falling off the balconies than the presence of the prisoners."
"We just didn't pay any attention to them," he continues. "Put yourself in the mindset of a kid — these guys were adults. They had uniforms on and were of course dressed differently from the guards ... but kids just didn't socialize much with adults."