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Record Caper 

Long-missing Alcatraz files make their way back to the Bay Area

Wednesday, May 17 2000
Al Capone has returned to the Bay Area. That's to say, an approximately 8-inch thick stack of files on Alcatraz prisoner No. 85, Alfonse Capone, long sought after by historians and authors, has arrived at the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno. And by mid-June, the collection will be available, by appointment, for public viewing.

The files on Capone, and many of his fellow Alcatraz inmates, have been missing, or otherwise unavailable to the public, until now. It's been a long journey back, one clouded by government bureaucratic snafus and steeped in controversy. And it's not quite over yet.

The United States Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island housed prisoners in what was then considered the nation's most secure facility from 1934 until 1963. When it closed, the files on the remaining inmates were transferred along with them to other federal prisons. Most of the prison's other records, detailing nearly 30 years of operations, seemed to disappear into a bureaucratic black hole.

Some of the Alcatraz records were likely destroyed in routine government purging. Others are the subject of endless rumors about having been stolen and sold to autograph seekers and collectors.

But many of the records wound up in the custody of a University of Minnesota criminology professor, and that has spawned a sparring match among the National Archives, the Bureau of Prisons, various private researchers, and the professor that has lasted for more than two decades.

Sometime in the 1970s, the Bureau of Prisons retrieved most of the Alcatraz inmate files from the various offices where they had landed over the years, and turned them over to Dr. David Ward, a Minnesota professor who lives part time in Mill Valley. Ward, according to Bureau of Prisons spokesman Daniel Dunne, was to use the records for a National Institute for Justice-funded study of the long-term effects of incarceration in maximum-security prisons, looking especially at recidivism rates.

It is impossible to know exactly what was given to Ward, because the government did not keep any sort of inventory of the Alcatraz files. Given the lack of a master list, it has always been impossible to determine what files might be missing, as opposed to which ones never existed in the first place.

The files turned over to Ward, Dunne says, were supposed to remain in a secured portion of the library at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. Two decades went by, and the records, which would otherwise have been public, remained in Ward's custody. Meanwhile, authors and historians screamed at the government for access to the files. And, some in the government -- specifically the archivists of the National Archives and Records Administration -- screamed at the Bureau of Prisons.

Finally, in 1995, Alcatraz records began to arrive in San Bruno. Ward returned several boxes to the Bureau of Prisons, which in turn handed them over to NARA. In all, the agency has now collected about 550 cubic feet of Alcatraz records, some from the Bureau of Prisons and some from Ward. But as long as Ward retained some of the files, NARA's Alcatraz archive remained woefully incomplete. Not only were the Capone files missing, but so was virtually any sort of information on the 1962 escape of three prisoners, memorialized by the Clint Eastwood movie Escape From Alcatraz. (Complicating matters further, the U.S. Marshal's Office still considers the three escapees -- Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin -- at large, and so their inmate records are not public.)

The information vacuum proved difficult for people like Bay Area author Jolene Babyak, who lived on Alcatraz for a few years as a child while her father worked at the prison. Babyak's father was acting warden at the time of the 1962 escape, an event that is the subject of her third book on Alcatraz, due out later this year. Piecing together details about what actually happened on that fateful day -- several people have alleged that one of the watch towers had been shut down at the time of the escape -- was virtually impossible without complete administrative records.

Babyak had encountered similar problems while researching an earlier work, Bird Man: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud. She found that the National Archives inmate files on Stroud contained only photocopies.

Joel Gazis-Sax, another Bay Area researcher who operates a Web site devoted to the years at Alcatraz before 1948, also ran into the missing files problem. Gazis-Sax, among others, has made no secret of his dissatisfaction that Ward was allowed to sit on a stash of important records. The researcher devoted a portion of his Web site to the controversy, urging users to write to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno demanding that Ward release the files.

"We've been told for many years that the files on Capone had been lost," Gazis-Sax says. "We have been lied to and the people at NARA have been lied to.

"The same thing happened with Henry Young [an Alcatraz inmate tried for killing a fellow prisoner in a case that became the subject of the highly fictionalized film Murder in the First]. We were told that [some limited files] was all that they had. About three years ago, Henry Young's files arrived."

After several years of back and forth, Ward returned several more boxes of records last year. And again, the researchers cried foul. Finally, the Bureau of Prisons and NARA sent a letter to the University of Minnesota demanding that all remaining records on Alcatraz be returned to the government. Earlier this year, the professor responded with yet another box of files.

Ward refused to discuss the Alcatraz files with SF Weekly other than to say that he has now turned over all of the files in his possession to the Bureau of Prisons. "Everything has gone back," he said. "I have nothing else."

In the past, Ward has publicly blasted his fellow Alcatraz researchers, saying that were it not for his efforts in gathering and preserving the files they would not exist because the government would have let them languish. In an Associated Press report last year, Ward called his critics "a bunch of bozos," a moniker quickly adopted by the Bay Area researchers, who are considering printing up some "Bozo" T-shirts to memorialize Ward's arrogance.

Ward's upcoming book, Alcatraz: The Effects of Long-Term Confinement in Super Maximum Custody, is due out in about 18 months, according to University of California Press, its publisher.

Meanwhile, archivists at the Bureau of Prisons and the National Archives and Records Administration are attempting to inventory their new files, which include those on Capone and the originals on Stroud. The newly arrived records also contain information on less famous inmates, as well as some of the prison log books. The files will be available to the public as soon as archivists sort and treat them for preservation.

Additional Links:

National Archives & Records Administration in San Bruno:

Nationa Parks Service Alcatraz site:

Joel Gasiz-Sax Alcatraz site:

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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