Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Rock Sweet Rock: A Children's History of Alcatraz 

Wednesday, Apr 17 2013
Comments

Page 3 of 5

"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.

About The Author

Katie Tandy

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular

Slideshows

  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"