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Rock Sweet Rock: A Children's History of Alcatraz 

Wednesday, Apr 17 2013
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Page 4 of 5

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.

About The Author

Katie Tandy

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