Note: Ko Im contributed to the above video
There’s so much mythology and pop culture surrounding Alcatraz and its lonely island prison that to meet non-actors who actually served time there or guarded those inmates could be the most surreal experience of all.
But there they were within those same imposing-yet-decaying walls this week, octogenerian ex-prisoners and guards warmly chatting with each other as if they were old friends. And if you ask them whether the many movies and legends portraying Alcatraz got the facts right, they’ll have some verdicts of their own.
“The movies were not always our friends,” said Jim Albright, a former Alcatraz guard who led the last prisoner off the island on March 21, 1963. “They put out some false things.”
“They sure did,” agreed Robert Luke, an Alcatraz inmate during the 1950s who was standing next to Albright during a reunion in the Alcatraz mess hall organized by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and TripAdvisor, where the landmark was the most popular in the U.S. this year. “Movies are made to make money, not tell the truth. Especially the ones about Alcatraz.”
Straight from the mouths of those who lived and served time there, here are some actual facts about life on the most notorious U.S. prison of all time:
Alcatraz inmates had a cell to themselves. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Alcatraz was relatively posh for a prison: Unlike other federal penitentiaries, Alcatraz housed prisoners in single cells – although this was in part because some of those prisoners were the most violent of their day. Despite its notorious reputation, prisoners actually looked forward to coming here.
“Before I came here, the word was out on what Alcatraz was like,” said Luke, an armed-robbery convict who arrived after trying to escape from Leavenworth federal prison in 1954. “What I knew was, you had your own cell, the food was good, you had yard privileges on the weekend, a big library and I’m a big reader, and you had to work once a week. So what else do you want if you have to do time?”
Said Albright of the privileges of single-cell incarceration: “A lot of inmates didn’t want to leave here. “They were in tears when they closed.”
Former inmate William Baker on dealing with violent inmates: “If you’re bad and I’m bad and we both know it, we’re not going to mess with each other.” (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Many inmates weren’t scared for their safety: While there were some especially dangerous convicts, such as Robert “Birdman” Stroud, who was kept in permanent solitary confinement, both Luke and another former prisoner, William Baker, said they weren’t picked on by fellow inmates, and that boredom from daily routine was a much bigger threat than being attacked.
“This was a bad place, but we could still handle it and we did handle it,” said Baker, imprisoned for counterfeiting payroll checks. “There were some bad boys here. We didn’t go talking out the side of our mouths like Hollywood gangsters and pounding our chest because if you’re a real bad boy, you don’t have to do that.
“Most people had respect for each other here. If you’re bad and I’m bad and we both know it, we’re not going to mess with each other. We both have an atomic bomb, we’re not going to drop it.”
If a fight broke out, sometimes the inmates helped the guards: Pat Mahoney, who worked at Alcatraz for seven years, proudly says he treated inmates well, even representing them successfully in prison trials. He recalled one scary incident where a scissor fight broke out in the tailor shop and he had no guards to help:
“All of a sudden all hell broke loose and this one [prisoner] took the big scissors and rammed it through [another prisoner] through his breast and out the back,” Mahoney said. “Here I’m trying to fight him and get the scissors all alone. My inmate crew jumped in and helped me, which was very unusual. The one that was doing the stabbing got stabbed so bad in the wrist he almost lost his hand.”
Once on different sides of an Alcatraz cell, now friends: retired guard Jim Albright (left) arrived on the island in 1959 months after inmate Robert Luke was released.
Guards generally got along well with inmates: Prison movies are full of blood feuds between abusive guards and conniving cons, but the former inmates on this day said that wasn’t usually so at Alcatraz. (A notable exception was the “Battle of Alcatraz” escape attempt in 1946 where 18 officers were injured.)
And while prison lore says the inmates were only called by their numbers, Luke said he was called by name.
“There was a certain amount of respect with the guards,” said Luke, who learned the hard way in Navy prison not to try fighting guards because you’ll never win. “If you did your time and didn’t make any trouble, they didn’t bother you. I was in six prisons in 11 years and never saw a guard who abused a prisoner who didn’t have it coming.”
And forget those stories about guards who ransacked inmates’ cells looking for contraband. Luke said guards were told to leave everything as they found it before the search, and the guards obeyed.
Pat Mahoney was a guard at Alcatraz during some of its most famous escape attempts. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
But that doesn’t mean the inmates were easy to handle: Mahoney told the story of his first day at Alcatraz, when he was told to take a prisoner out of solitary confinement and prepare him for trial. He noticed all the officers keeping a safe distance behind him.
“They opened the door and my God, it hit me in the face,” he said. “There was [excrement] everyplace. On the walls. I backed off and started to heave a little bit. We got him out of his cell and got him into the shower and washed him off for trial. We pulled two inmates out of their cells to clean that out.
“What he was trying to do was get certified as a psychotic so he could go to Springfield, Mo., and possibly escape. It didn’t work but at least he gave it his best shot.”
The water surrounding Alcatraz is pretty, but was deadly to inmates who tried to escape. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Sharks didn’t kill escaped convicts … the cold did: While great white sharks are known to populate the Pacific Ocean off San Francisco’s coast, there are no deadly sharks in the bay around Alcatraz. But for an untrained swimmer, the water (low 50s Fahrenheit) was simply too cold to survive all the way to the mainland.
Mahoney fished out the last escaped convict in Alcatraz history, John Paul Scott, in December 1962 just in time before Scott would have died of hypothermia. Scott was found washed ashore on the rocks near Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge. (His escape partner, Darl Parker, was found on a rock outcrop near the island.)
“He was totally naked, his temperature was down to about 85 degrees and he was about to collapse and die,” Mahoney said of Scott. “When the doctors heard it was an Alcatraz convict they all wanted to bring him back alive. They brought his temperature up very slow. At about 3 a.m. on the boat they had him on a stretcher. Scott looked up at me and said Mr. Mahoney … why didn’t you pick me up? I said, well we were looking for you. And back he came.”
Baker, a career criminal who was known for his escape attempts in other prisons, never did try to conquer Alcatraz.
“I thought about (escaping) a lot,” he said. “I was an escape risk, and I did escape [in the past], but I’m not suicidal. I was 23 years old, and I had three years left when I got here. I couldn’t figure out how to beat that water. The water kills because it’s cold. Never mind the tide or the currents or any of that.”
An infamous D Block solitary cell. (Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)
Solitary confinement in the infamous ‘D Block’ really was awful: Luke, who had a vicious temper much of his life, didn’t like his first job at Alcatraz. So he decided to show it by tearing up his cell and burning all his clothes. That earned him about a month in solitary confinement – he spent four months during his sentence there, without light and sound – and the loneliness there contributed to the title of the book he published in 2011: Entombed in Alcatraz.
“The captain said, ‘You burned your clothes, you don’t need anything down here,’” Luke recalled. “So I went in the cell, all steel, 7x7, no bed , you’re bedding on the cold floor, and the lights went out. … I got bread and water every day, and a meal every three days.”
Some inmates reformed at Alcatraz, but that was never the goal: Both inmates and guards said that rehabilitation was not on the agenda, and when Alcatraz closed, most simply served time elsewhere.
Baker was one of those, and his criminal career continued well after Alcatraz shut down. He was in and out of prison until 2011, and only now in his 80s has he truly reformed after the publication of his own book, Alcatraz-1259.
“We were criminals when we came here and we were criminals when we left,” Baker said. “This place had nothing to do with civilization. We had no schools, no counselors. They said if you got a problem, go see the preacher. When I got out, I became a counterfeit payroll person. I became a better criminal here.”
Luke, a career criminal imprisoned for armed robbery, learned to find peace near the end of his Alcatraz sentence. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
That said, Luke became an exception to the rule. Angry his entire life and a criminal since he was 15 years old, he reached an unlikely epiphany with 10 months remaining in his Alcatraz sentence before he was due to serve more time in San Quentin.
“I was sitting on the top step one day looking over the wall at the bridge, and the wind was blowing from the southwest,” Luke said. “And all of a sudden I smelled new mowed grass. You’ve smelled it once, you know what it is. So I just asked myself, what am I doing here, in this rat hole, when I could be outside smelling new mowed grass. Why was I here?
“And I went all the way back to when I first got in trouble at 15, and everything I realized I’d done was by my own choice. Nobody forced me to do it. As soon as I believed that, all the hate went out of me and the blame for other people, and I knew I wanted to get out and stay out. And that was it.”
Luke didn’t have to serve in San Quentin after all, and he was one of just six prisoners to walk out of Alcatraz a free man. He found work in San Francisco, got married, and turned his life around while learning to control his temper.
For the guards and their families, this was home. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Guards lived on Alcatraz with their families, and the kids loved it: Steve Mahoney, the son of Pat Mahoney, lived the first six years of his life on Alcatraz. Albright had two daughters with Alcatraz on their birth certificates. Both guards and their kids had fond memories to share about having the island to themselves.
“As small kids it was a great place to play and there were lots of activities going on,” Steve Mahoney said. “People ask, ‘Did you feel safe?’ No one felt unsafe and locked their doors around here. You didn’t have much interaction with the inmates. You would have little interactions where someone would say hello, but they weren’t supposed to talk to you.”
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