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Rock Sweet Rock: A Children's History of Alcatraz 

Wednesday, Apr 17 2013
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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."

About The Author

Katie Tandy

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