Life on The Rock: Inmate, guard and residents recount daily living on Alcatraz

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Baker was no novice thief and no stranger to life behind bars when, in 1957 with shackles binding his hands and feet, he boarded a boat for Alcatraz.

By then, the federal prison surrounded by frigid, shark-infested bay water was notorious, having captured the imagination of Hollywood producers and, with it, popular culture. Baker had heard the stories of its infamous inmates and locked-tight rules.

“To be honest with you, I was pretty scared,” he said. “The boat coming here was the worst part about it — it was fear of the unknown.”

He’s living the “straight and narrow” now, he says, and has published a book about his experience, which he doled out freely Sunday as more than three dozen former guards, their children and spouses gathered at the island prison for a final reunion. For 15 years, the National Park Service, which converted it to a park in 1972, has hosted Alcatraz alumni as a way to celebrate their contributions and share its history with visitors, said Nicki Phelps, the vice president of visitor programs at Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

But, their numbers are dwindling, she said.

“We’ve had the luxury of having people who lived the history tell us the history,” Phelps said. “They are our most valuable resource.”

Baker remembers the long hours of confinement to his windowless cell, the relief of weekend recreation while playing cards with plastic, domino-sized “cards” that wouldn’t blow away in the yard’s relentless wind, and the bonds he formed with other inmates, whom he called “some of the most honorable people I’ve ever met.”

Rules were strict, Baker said. At one point, the inmates weren’t even allowed to talk to each other, he said, though the warden ultimately relented. There was no free movement. And, inmates were kept to their solitary cells most of the time, he said.

He thought about escaping, as he had done at prisons in the past. From his second-floor cell, he could catch just a glimpse of the bay water glimmering in the sun. But the sight grew increasingly sour as his hopes for freedom dimmed, he said.

“It was exciting for a minute, but as time goes by, the water is no friend of ours,” Baker said. “The water is the wall that kept us here, and it became very ugly over time.”

Not so for Phil Dollison, who was 16 when his dad got a job on the island. For him, Alcatraz was a private oasis eliciting curiosity from schoolmates and teachers alike. He had nearly free reign to explore its rocky terrain, catch fish in the bay and soak in the expansive sunsets that wash San Francisco in a warm, golden glow. At night, it felt like a tropical island, he said.

“You could see 360 degrees of lights, from the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco and all across,” he said. “It was a really unique place to grow up. You hardly ever got bored.”

The social hall kept the teens entertained, he said. It had a two-lane bowling alley, pool tables, ping pong tables, a soda fountain, a stage for plays, Sunday movies and room for large dinners and dances. It was like living in a small town, where everybody knew each other and nobody locked their doors, Dollison said.

“All the bad guys were in San Francisco or in the cell house,” he said. “Our dads controlled the prison, so we were not afraid.”

Grocery shopping was done in San Francisco, said Cathy Albright, who was 23 when she first arrived on the island with her husband, Jim, and their 19-month-old son, Kenny. There was always someone to watch the baby for weekend trips to Marin, she said. And, her apartment in Building 64, a converted Civil War-era barracks, was spacious.

“I loved living here,” she said. “I never wanted to leave.”

Jim Albright relished family life on the island, he said, and his quick-to-crack smile and easy-going personality allowed him to transition seamlessly from work to home. Not everyone has the constitution to be a prison guard, he said.

But, he was able to be friendly with inmates without being friends. He never divulged information about his personal life and he didn’t ask inmates questions about theirs. It enabled him to continue working in the prison system long after his four-year tenure at Alcatraz ended with its closure in 1963.

The guards’ wives and children were forbidden to speak to inmates, and were almost entirely insulated from them, Cathy Albright said. Guards often escorted the wives when they left the fenced-off area where families lived. For Cathy Albright, that was alright. But, Joan Brisbois Ellis found the arrangement a little off-putting.

Ellis came to Alcatraz with her husband, Fred Brisbois, in 1952, from a town outside of Boston, Massachusetts. They hadn’t been on the island long when a neighbor invited her to watch a new batch of inmates arrive for processing. Seeing the shackled men make their way to the prison for processing struck her as gruesome — and cruel.

“It was like a carnival,” she said. “It was the big event for the evening, and I was shocked. Would you see that in Boston? No.”

Young and in search of excitement, Ellis and her husband escaped to San Francisco and Marin nearly every chance they could. She loved the island’s flowers and peaceful tranquility, but she wasn’t interested in women’s cooking clubs or other domestic activities.

She took a part-time job at an insurance company in San Francisco. Though her coworkers and city friends marveled at her living on the infamous island prison, she thought little of it, she said.

“For us, it was just another job,” Ellis said. “I didn’t know it was unique until years after. Sometimes I still can’t believe I actually lived on that island … and that I had lived through something that people consider to be so special.”

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