I’m holding onto the bars of the first cell in what is known as B block at Alcatraz Prison. The cell is 1.5 metres by 2.7 metres and has a small sink with cold running water, a single bed and a toilet. There are no doors, and the cells face one another in long corridors, so the men incarcerated there could see one another sleeping, pissing, shitting and doing what little else they were permitted to do. The cells in D Block are bigger, but prisoners there were confined for 24 hours a day, and it’s so dark you can’t see your own hand in front of your face.
The voices on the Alcatraz audio tour (that few can resist doing) are those of former inmates. I listen to their stories and laments, hear the riots, crims and guards running, shouting, the slamming doors and keys being pocketed. And every now and then I hear what the inmates caught on the breeze back then — laughter, music, and the torturous sound of women’s voices drifting across the bay from San Fran.
Today, the tales of Alcatraz are also kept alive by the ‘Alcatraz Alumni,’ former crims, residents and guards who lived on Alactraz Island and who visit the millions of tourists that flock to the place, to shed light on some of the many questions.
THE GUARD: JIM ALBRIGHT
After 26 years spent working in five prisons, Jim Albright retired. Like most of the remaining Alcatraz Alumni, now he’s something of a celebrity, as he was (as the name of his biography clarifies) The Last Guard Out. He escorted the last inmate off the island on March 21, 1963.
When Jim lived and worked on Alcatraz in the early 60s, it was home to anywhere up to 300 prisoners, and no media was allowed anywhere near it. So during its operating years — 1934 until 1963 — people were scared of the place. The public knew that the worst of the worst prisoners in the system were locked up there, but it was a mystery to most. And for the prisoners, Alcatraz was the end of the line, as apparently there was no way to escape from it. Even if you managed to escape the building, you’d drown in the freezing San Fran Bay before you swam the two kilometres across to the city.
Jim was 24 years old when he landed his job on Alcatraz, and he learned a lesson right from his first day on duty. “Treat everyone the same and don’t trust anyone,” he says. “There was no mistaking it, the prisoners would kill you to escape if they had to.”
Alcatraz was originally built to incarcerate mobsters in the 20s and 30s such as Al Capone and anyone with notoriety, because out there, they couldn’t benefit from having access to media. “On Alcatraz the inmates treated them like any other inmates, whereas in other prisons they were treated like big shots, like royalty,” he says.
A question that Jim, and every one of the Alcatraz Alumni, gets on a regular basis, is the core of one of the great crime mysteries of all time. Did the trio that famously escaped Alcatraz in 1962 survive? Brothers Clarence Anglin and John Anglin, and Frank Morris were never found. The men placed realistic-looking dummy heads made out of papier-mâché and human hair from the prison barbershop in their bunks so that they’d be counted before lights out, and stitched together stolen raincoats to create a raft. Today they’d be in their 80s, and there are still many people who believe they are alive in South America.
Alcatraz was the end of the line for them, Jim says. You break the rules in other prisons and that’s where you end up
“If one or two of them did survive, they would’ve turned themselves in by now, as they’d be so famous,” Jim says with certainty. “They’d be able to sell their story and live really well off it. There were stories of a body seen floating under the bridge after the escape, but it was gone by the time they got to it, probably eaten by sharks. I don’t think they made it.”
Alcatraz was known as being a place that was not created to fix men, but to break them. “Alcatraz was the end of the line for them,” Jim says. “You broke the rules in other prisons and that’s where you end up. So it was the ones who everybody had already given up on in there. Most of them didn’t even get visitors, as by that stage in their lives even their families had given up on them.”
Anyone who has spent any time on Alcatraz will get to thinking: Are people born criminals or do they become crims? “I think we are all born equal and it’s a learned thing,” says Jim. “It’s what you are taught that makes you who you are. You have to look at the homes that those guys came from: single family homes usually with only their fathers, and often the families are already in crime. Crime is normal to them.”
Today Jim and his wife are in their early 80s with grandchildren in their 20s.
“On the 75th anniversary of Alactraz, when the kids were 13, the whole family went out there,” says Jim. “We slept in the segregation cells and I wore my uniform. Every minute, someone would stop me and ask a question, or get an autograph or a photo. That’s when my grandson said: “Grandpa! You’re famous! We went to Disneyland and that was neat, but this is awesome!”
Today Jim and some of the alumni travel around the US, doing talks at schools and at various events, keeping the history of Alcatraz alive. “A million people visit Alcatraz every year to see where we lived and where the inmates were held,” says Jim. “My wife and I feel proud to be a part of history and that we can do something to preserve it.”
The Warden’s Daughter: Jolene Babyak
When it comes to Alcatraz, Jolene Babyak has to be the most knowledgeable person on the planet, as she’s interviewed scores of people associated with Alcatraz to write her five books. She regularly visits the island, where she signs books and answers questions posed by visitors.
During the 50s and early 60s Jolene was among the 75 or so children living on Alcatraz because their fathers worked at the prison. Arthur Dollison was Jolene’s father, and he managed the prison’s work programs as the director of prison industries, and, most notably for many, was in charge the morning of the famed 1962 Alcatraz escape.
Through the years of research and after hearing so many first-hand accounts of life on Alcatraz, Jolene has a unique perspective that borders on the academic. “Neglect is the most obvious commonality when it comes to the upbringing of the men incarcerated on Alcatraz,” she says. “Poverty, poor nutrition, early deaths in the family are also some common factors with the inmates. The first three years of someone’s life sets them on a path, and once they are on that path of crime, the same things happen over and over again. It usually never stops.”
Jolene also notes that today mental illnesses, learning difficulties, personality disorders — which were often undiagnosed in those days — were also contributing factors to delinquency leading to crime and imprisonment.
One of the many inmates that Jolene has researched who supports this theory is Billy Cook, who murdered six people and was eventually executed in a gas chamber. His father was an poorly educated worker in a lead mine, and when his mother died, Billy’s father left the children to fend for themselves in an isolated log cabin, only occasionally bringing them food and water as means for their survival. “It’s possible that Billy had neurological damage, perhaps from lead dust that may have been on his father’s clothing, because later his killings seemed to reflect a chaotic mind,” explains Jolene. “He kidnapped a family of five and forced them to drive more than 2,000 all over the southwest (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and back to Missouri) while he was armed with a gun. In a moment of panic, while in the car, he shot the father, and when the children became alarmed, he shot and killed everyone. He then dumped their bodies down a water well.”
Despite living next to a maximum-security prison, Jolene explains that Alcatraz was a “safe and wonderful” place to grow up. “We were very protected and no one was ever hurt. There was a boat every day that took ten minutes to cross over to San Francisco, and we felt like the special ones, living there.”
In the late 1970s, Jolene began working on a book about family life on the island. That led to later books about the prisoners
Today Jolene’s book Breaking the Rock is getting new generations interested in Alcatraz and its incredible history. “It’s a great way to get kids interested in reading,” she says. “Lots of boys don’t like reading, but they’re fascinated by Alcatraz, and the escape stands out because it is still a mystery.”
Jolene applies her knack for sociology and neuroscience to back up her belief that the legendary trio behind the great escape didn’t make it. “Even if they did make it across the bay, they’d need some kind of support, and those kinds of guys don’t create bonds with people,” she says. “Frank Morris was in ten foster homes from the time he was six months old until he was 13. Which means no one wanted to adopt him. From 13 to 35, he was never out of prison more than 2 years — accumulatively. All this means that he was largely incapable of bonding with people and incapable of staying out of prison without trouble. It’s not a good pattern for an escapee who wants to remain undetected”
Jolene believes there’s something that some of us have, that ensures we make it through life largely on the right tracks. “Insight is missing from people who have personality disorders or, often, mental illnesses,” she says. “And if you don’t have insight into your predicament, like so many Alcatraz prisoners didn’t, it’s difficult to change your behavior. — like so many of the guys who were locked up on Alcatraz — you may go through life not knowing that there’s something wrong. So you can’t fix it.”
Jolene tells the story of one more former inmate to illustrate her point — Bob Luke. “Bob has been out of prison for 50 years now,” she says. “He told me how he was sitting on the bleachers at Alcatraz one day, and he could smell freshly mown grass from a lawn near the penitentiary. He knew he wanted to get out of there and be around nature. That was the moment he realised that it wasn’t everyone else’s fault that he was where he was. He realised that it was his fault. That’s his ability to have insight. He’s a great example of a man who changed his ways. He got out and worked in the recreational industry – fishing, boating – and he met a wonderful woman. He made a life for himself outside.”
The Prisoner: Bill Baker
William G Baker (aka Bill) is now 80 years old, and he’ll tell you straight up that he spent 30 years of his life in prison. “But that’s OK,” he says with a chuckle. “’Cos I’ve spent more than 50 years of my life as a free man.”
Bill has been a car thief and a jailhouse rioter, and because he was an escape artist who managed to escape from other prisons, at 23 years of age in 1957 he was sent to Alcatraz. The island didn’t change him, though. In fact it gave him an education that further served him as a criminal, as over his four-year incarceration another inmate taught him how to write counterfeit checks.
After Bill got out he continued his ‘education’, and mastered the art of fake payrolls and corporate checks, learned bank routing numbers, and even how to get around magnetic ink. “I loved it,” he says. “And it was such great money. I’d still be doing it if technology and my age didn’t put me out of business! And the only bad part of it was getting caught. But you learn from your mistakes, and I got better after learning what not to do. And the people putting me away learnt from my mistakes too!” he says.
Bill got out of prison in 2011, and now he returns to Alcatraz every week promoting his book, Alcatraz 1259. “Fifty years ago, those tourists wouldn’t have given me the time of day. Alcatraz turned things upside down in that sense,” he says.
Now Bill works eight, sometimes 13 hours a day, signing books and talking to folk. “I sometimes sell 300 books a day, so that’s close to $1,800 a day! I meet people from all over the world and the kids who visit Alcatraz are the best – they ask penetrating questions. They want to know about the blood, the murders, the escapes. They see me as a rock star but I tell them this: I am not the hero. I don’t want to glorify what I did, even if it was fun at the time.”
Bill gets the ‘great escape’ question a lot too. “Did they or didn’t they make it?”
“They spent a year planning that escape and they didn’t tell anyone, so there’d be no snitching. Anywhere where you have desperate men, you have snitches, you see. But they kept it all quiet, made the tools, created the dummy heads. It was all very clever, and the patience they had over a long time was impressive. So if they made it, they wouldn’t tell anyone. They’d keep their plan going and keep their heads down, as what they desperately wanted was their freedom. So maybe they did make it.”
Bill laughs at the fact that people on the outside thought of Alcatraz as one of the most dangerous places in the US. “Yes, men would kill if it meant freedom, and you did have to watch your back, but Alcatraz was not a dangerous place if you knew who to mess with, and who not to mess with. There was more danger back then in a bar in San Francisco!”
Another misconception that many people have is that Alcatraz prisoners were stupid thugs. “I heard that when they did IQ tests, they found that some men’s IQ at Alcatraz was really high,” Bill says. “The first clue I had about that was seeing bunches of raggedy convicts playing bridge. There was poker too, but bridge was the main game, and it’s a complicated game that requires wit and patience. Some guys in there were more educated than the average person on the outside.”
Bill’s view on whether crims are born or made through experience is different to Jim’s and Jolene’s. “You can choose to not be a criminal,” says Bill. “Everyone chooses what is best for him or her in life, and they make those choices and changes because of who they are. They work out what gratifies them. I think I would have been a criminal regardless of how I was raised. I think it’s in my DNA. My brother was a Baptist minister, after all! Being a crim is all about the fast money, the women and the lifestyle. They don’t want to wait. They want things immediately, so they take ’em.”
Bill is quite philosophical these days. “I had a lot of fun — the money and the many girlfriends made it enjoyable. But you have to know what prison life does to someone to understand. For most criminals it’s much easier to surrender to the system, surrender to the bells,” he says, referring to the bells in prison that chime to announce things such as dinner and yard time. “That makes life easier. All you have to do is surrender, and once you do that, you gain some sort of peace. You can sort of take it easy. When you get out, you have to hustle and work again, and you’re uncomfortable, but when you surrender all responsibility, life is easier.”
Millions of people will always continue to descend upon Alcatraz, drawn by curiosity and a mystery that hangs above the concrete island like a fog. Did they make it? We’ll only ever know if the escapees come forward, and that’ll be the story of the century.