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Rock Sweet Rock: A Children's History of Alcatraz 

Wednesday, Apr 17 2013

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."

The island was divided into three levels: The beach and dock were on the lowest level; the residences on the second; and the prison and warden's house on the third. The families primarily lived in Building 64, a rather dreary three-story, barracks-style building, but there were three modern apartment buildings, a large duplex, and four cottages for senior officers.

Between the parade ground — a huge concrete area originally built for military drills and parades in the 1860's — and the Officer's Club, which featured a library, a small bar, billiards, ping-pong, a dancefloor, and a two-lane bowling alley, Alcatraz's social life was positively teeming.

"I started meeting kids on the second or third day," Brunner says. "We lived in 64 Building, right off the dock. One of the first things they taught me was on the Parade Ground. You put on a pair of skates and held up a sheet like a sail between two kids. Because the wind went maybe 10 miles an hour, we had a ball with it."

Fishing was also a very popular past-time. Brunner says that in 1955, he and his friends caught so many bass — "at least 20 or 30" — they were able to feed the prison population, twice.

Life on Alcatraz wasn't without its inconveniences, however. There were only two pay phones that civilians could use to call the mainland. A call from the mainland would be routed to a control center up in the prison, where a guard would answer and then call the intended person on their personal apartment telephone. While every apartment did have its own phone, which connected to every other phone on the island, none of them connected directly to the mainland.

"It was the technology at the time — they just didn't feel it was necessary to have more than one pay phone," says Brunner. "But imagine 15 teenage girls trying to call their boyfriends in the city," he laughs. "It was crazy."

A small motorboat made about 12 trips to the mainland daily; most children took the 7:30 a.m., which dropped them on Van Ness Avenue. The last boat left San Francisco at 12:30 a.m. "Sometimes you wanted to stay out, but that meant having to sleep in your car in the city, and that was a bit of a chore," says Brunner of his teenage days.

The close quarters and intense familial overlap also proved to be an ongoing challenge. With just 22 acres and 60 families at any given time, at times the sense of incarceration permeated out from the prison walls.

"If you take 60 different families, you'll get 60 sets of values," says Babyak. "And everyone had different religions. It was a very gossipy island and it was magnified because it got around so quickly."

But that gossip wasn't allowed off the island.

"In the 30 years it operated, I never came across any allegation that any family members ever gave information of any kind to the press," says Ward. "The very idea was cause for removal and that's a big inhibiting factor. To bring it home would only mean to worry families and have you afraid to have you go to work. The officers would understand that people in the 'free world' have no comprehension of what it's like to work in a maximum security prison."

In his book, Ward said the Department of Justice believed a "maximum-custody, minimum-privilege regime at Alcatraz was necessary for practical reasons of security," and feared public backlash from the prison's resistance to the then-current, progressive models of prison. So in an attempt to minimize public criticism and scrutiny, the Bureau of Prisons laid a "policy of secrecy" over the island. Not only was it forbidden to speak to the general public or press about the prison, but families were also kept in the dark, at least officially, as "leaked" information was punishable by dismissal; discussing your day as a guard was considered too disturbing. "There were stories you could share with other men, ones you couldn't share with your wife or children," Babyak says.

So the guards and wardens, cooks and cleaners turned to one another as confidants, exchanging daily tales over clandestine cocktails. Both alcohol and discussing prison protocol was forbidden, but to maintain a certain amount of sanity, the working men of Alcatraz dabbled in both.

"It's like cops today," Babyak says. "You don't go sit at the dinner table and tell the kids about how one guy tried to stab another guy. It's also like liquor on the island. It's not allowed to be there but everybody had it."

Stucker adds, "They didn't talk about it with me or their wives or nobody except on the rare occasion if you happened to squeeze into a little drinking session with these guys. ... A fair amount of alcohol flowed on the island and it was like war stories among veterans. They don't speak about it until they're drunk."

As the son of a guard, Stucker "had been instructed never to surprise my father," he says. "They were tightly coiled, they all were."

Though they didn't speak about it to their families, the guards knew just how badly the prisoners wanted out.

From 1934 to 1963, there were 14 escape attempts. The second-to-last, and most famous, occurred June 11, 1962: Clarence and John Anglin and Frank Morris burrowed out of their cells (leaving papier mache heads behind), climbed a ventilation shaft, and fled the island on a makeshift raft fashioned from raincoats. (They were never found, dead or alive.)

Jolene Babyak and Phil Dollison's father, Arthur "Art" Dollison, was serving as active warden during the escape.

"I remember my dad that day," says Dollison. "The telephone rang in our house, my dad picked up the phone, and that was the second time in my life he said a swear word: 'Oh shit.' I knew something serious had happened. Myself and some of my friends, we walked around the island along the water to see if we could help. We were thinking what we would do if we were trying to get out of here."

"The escape happened three blocks from our housing," says Babyak. "The siren woke me up and I thought it was exciting. I was a newspaper hound and of course it was in the paper. I grilled my dad with a lot of questions, but it never shook my confidence."

Lesley Brunner — who lived in San Francisco and met her husband, John, at an Alcatraz Christmas party — witnessed the next and final escape attempt six months later while visiting a friend on the island.

"I saw a guard running with what looked like a rifle," says Lesley. "And the loudspeaker was blaring, telling everyone to stay inside and lock all the doors and windows."

After two hours of peering out the apartment windows, the girls spotted the guards bringing a soaking Daryl Parker back to prison. "It was the first time I saw a man in his underwear!" she laughs.

Without any pay phones, Lesley wasn't even able to let her mother, over in the city, know what was happening or where she was. "Apparently she was very worried, but at 17, it didn't occur to me how dangerous a situation it was. I was having a great time, it was an experience."

Phil Dollison says he was the only child to ever get a tour of the prison while it was still operating as a prison — a chilling experience.

"At that time, The Birdman of Alcatraz was one of the top movies of that era and I had seen it and I was so impressed with Burt Lancaster. My father took me up to the second floor, to [Bird Man] Robert Stroud's cell. I stood there for 15 to 20 minutes in awe while they talked. I thought he was such an important figure, I couldn't even ask him a question."

That same day, Dollison also encountered one of the rare disturbing moments of his time on Alcatraz, strolling down the infamous corridor known as Broadway beside his father.

"Everyone was screaming and whistling," he says. "But he wouldn't answer me when I asked him why they're doin' that. But once we left he said, 'Because you're a young boy and they see [young boys] as sexual objects.' But he wouldn't explain until we got outside."

In the wake of the Great Depression, which created unemployment rates as high as 25 per cent in the '30s, men needed jobs. Working in a prison offered security, a steady income, and didn't require much education. According to A History of Alcatraz Island: 1853-2008, a new guard in 1948 would make $3,000 a year (about $28,500 after adjusting for inflation). That's not an impressive salary, but considering monthly rent was only $400 at most (after inflation) it's not too shabby either.

"The civil service exam qualified you to apply for government jobs like Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, the FBI, etc.," says Babyak. "But many of these men were determined to take the first offer they got and sometimes they'd send them to Alcatraz. These people would literally pack up their kids and at their own expense move 2,000 miles across the country to Alcatraz."

But the job carried a stigma: Perpetuated by pop culture and misinformation, the public view of prison guards was as thugs, not much better than the criminals themselves.

Joshua Page, author of The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (Studies in Crime and Public Policy), says that the classic portrayal of guards within mainstream media is one of sadism, corruption, and ineffectiveness. "People believe that those that can't become cops become prison officers."

But Babyak says this perception wasn't felt by the guards, or their families.

"The question of stigma is complex," she says. "Certainly there was stigma among the public and within television and movies, but there was no stigma for them. These were guys that been raised on farms and quit school in sixth, seventh, eighth grade. They got a pension and it was a bit prestigious in comparison to other prisons. They were just ordinary guys — sometimes from the Army and Navy — and they needed a job. They got to San Francisco and thought, 'This is a nice town, wonder what I can do here!'"

For their children, the mystery of the island had a certain cache.

"Everybody at Galileo High School [in San Francisco] knew all the kids from Alcatraz and every one of them wanted to go," says Dollison. "But unless they knew somebody, they couldn't get over. Taking a tourist in the '50s or '60s was a big plus for anybody.

"We knew living there was very special in terms of the history of San Francisco," he says. "Everyone knew us and we had a little bit of status there."

Babyak adds that there was also a fair amount of pride among the guards — as well as prisoners.

"For the guards, it was a bit more elite, at least in appearance, than other prisons," she says, "and as for the prisoners, in retrospect, they loved telling tales about surviving Alcatraz once they'd been transferred or released."

Ward came across the same pride permeating every facet of Alcatraz's inhabitants, from the guards and families to the prisoners themselves.

"The institution had become highly publicized, and for many of the sons and daughters, Alcatraz is the most important thing that ever happened in their families," he says. "And when inmates of other prisons wanted to impress me with how tough things were, they'd compare it to Alcatraz. Even other convicts had the image that Alcatraz prison was the worst there ever was."

It was Ward himself who first penetrated the prison's "policy of secrecy" and began to debunk some of those myths.While most prisons after World War II experienced a newfound emphasis on the exploration of psychological and sociological treatment for prisoners, Alcatraz and its prisoners remained outside their seemingly progressive societal evolutions.

In 1974, former director of the Bureau of Prisons, James Bennett, approached Ward about reopening an Alcatraz study Ward had first initiated more than 10 years prior. Bennett wanted Ward to counter once and for all the unsavory rumors about Alcatraz. "He was very upset about the stories and images of Alcatraz that he heard were being conveyed by National Park Service Rangers now that the island was open to the public," says Ward. "NPS, of course, had no information about the prison except journalistic accounts written by authors — who never visited the island or talked to the prisoners — and a few ex-convicts and former guards who were living in the Bay Area." Ward was the first "free world" citizen granted access to Alcatraz's trove of records, files, and first-hand tales from the men who worked there, and went on to tell the stories of the prison hidden from the public — and the Alcatraz families themselves.

"I had wives tell me, 'I've never heard him talk like that ... he's never told us these stories," says Ward. "Rules were so strict. 'Free world' people were kept at arm's length throughout the entire history of the prison."

Ward also discovered, through hundreds of interviews with ex-convicts, workers, and family members, that the unique characteristics of the prisoners may have made them particularly successful at self-rehabilitation.

"They were truly an exceptional group of people; they were the leaders, clever, ingenious, physically powerful, many of them very intimidating," Ward says. "That half of this population was able to survive an average of about five years on the Rock, go on to other prisons, and then finally get released on parole, indicates that these guys had made conscious decisions to spend the rest of their lives in the free world. Psychological treatment wasn't bothered with because they were supposed to be unchangeable. But the aging process worked its wonders."

Over time, the aging process affected too the now-grown children of Alcatraz: Certain inconsistencies would arise in their stories, revealing the slippery nature of history — especially personal history.

Just as the institutionalized secrecy of Alcatraz created conflicting and often false perceptions of the Rock's inner workings, so too did the memories of those who lived there. The firsthand stories of the guards, prisoners, and children alike are distorting Alcatraz's notorious history, adding intricate layers that create a fuller, but not necessarily clearer, picture of what happened.

Phil Dollison remembers that "most of the boys from Alcatraz went into law enforcement." He believed that in particular the sons of guards or wardens were so steeped in that culture and had such reverence for their fathers that they simply couldn't help developing a desire to follow them.

But Chuck Stucker says the numbers simply didn't support that reality. "I can tell you right off that ten, maybe 12 kids went into law enforcement, and that's out of hundreds," he says.

Stucker also doubted Dollison's story about searching for the escaped convicts along the water's edge in '62. From Stucker's experience, protocol was rigid and no civilians — and certainly no teenagers — would be allowed to wander around with criminals running amok.

Still, for Dollison it's the truth. But Stucker thinks that "memories 40 years later are wonderful" but questionable.

Like The Rock's occupants — both families and convicts alike — so much of Alcatraz's history is composed of memories, rumors, half-truths, and personal stories. Like a twisting kaleidoscope, every time you peer in, everything looks a little different depending on the light.

Ultimately, however, the very tales in question — those recorded by the prisoners, guards, mothers, and children — are what have united them in the fading history of The Rock. While official reunions didn't formally launch until 1984 through the NPS, the children of Alcatraz and their families began gathering to reminisce long before that.

"Around 1967," says Dollison, "we said, 'Let's get together in our travel trailers, the four or five of us, and have a weekend somewhere by Russian River. We'll drink beer and play cards and talk about Alcatraz stories. It just evolved over the years. Around '74 we said, 'Why don't we invite everybody who lived there?'"

Eventually the NPS — which had taken over Alcatraz — gave Dollison a call and said it wanted to "get some historic perspective and send somebody up to interview you about the reunion." The NPS explained that the person they were sending was a former inmate — Frank Hatfield — who had since became a park ranger.

Dollison says he warned them that sending a convict into their reunion wasn't a great idea. While the daily interactions between guards and prisoners were rarely hostile, fraternization was another thing entirely. Collapsing the boundary between guard and inmate wasn't easy, even after both had left the island. In Ward's book, a former inmate, Floyd Harrell, describes the situation:

"Relationships between inmates and officers were cool ... the general climate at Alcatraz was not conducive to friendly relationships. ... I arrived at Alcatraz believing the personnel and the prisoners were on different sides of the fence and I left feeling the same way."

"In those days the officers from Alcatraz wanted nothing to do with those inmates," says Dollison. "I said, 'Don't bring an inmate up there to Russian River, they're not gonna want that.' And sure enough, early morning, Hatfield walks through the compound at the Russian River and scared the hell out of everybody. Because an inmate walks in. ... I said, 'This is a closed organization, we don't want outsiders and we don't want convicts.'"

The former guards got together and threw Hatfield out. An hour or so later, the NPS came in and booted the guards. The tension between guards and prisoners was still too fresh. But since this incident, the animosity has slowly cooled.

Beginning in the mid '80s, and continuing today, is the unlikely gathering of both ex-prisoners and former guards at an annual reunion every August. Stucker says that in the reunion's heyday in the '90s, 40 or 50 "island people," including half a dozen inmates, would all return to the island together. "That's when the guards and prisoners really started rubbing elbows again," says Stucker.

But two decades on, the reunions have been reduced to a handful of Alcatraz alumni. Stucker gets sad thinking that a rich history is fading so fast.

"The majority of people at the reunions now are the kids who grew up there on the island. And you have to be in your sixties to have any memory at all," he says. "We're down to one last convict. The reunions won't last too much longer, I don't think.

"The average age between convicts and guards was only one year apart," he continues. "They were contemporaries in every sense of the word. No, they're not so much friends, but they became closely connected in later years because they had a common denominator. The camaraderie between former convicts and former officers was remarkable.

"If you can walk up to someone and talk about people and situations they know and you know, they open up," he says. "The information is dying with our group and we're trying to tell every story ... and the convicts are part of that."

About The Author

Katie Tandy


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