"It's like cops today," Babyak says. "You don't go sit at the dinner table and tell the kids about how one guy tried to stab another guy. It's also like liquor on the island. It's not allowed to be there but everybody had it."

Stucker adds, "They didn't talk about it with me or their wives or nobody except on the rare occasion if you happened to squeeze into a little drinking session with these guys. ... A fair amount of alcohol flowed on the island and it was like war stories among veterans. They don't speak about it until they're drunk."

As the son of a guard, Stucker "had been instructed never to surprise my father," he says. "They were tightly coiled, they all were."

John Brunner and his wife Lesley – who met at a Christmas party on Alcatraz – pose for a gusty shot on the hood of their car 
in 1964.
Photograph courtesy of John Brunner
John Brunner and his wife Lesley – who met at a Christmas party on Alcatraz – pose for a gusty shot on the hood of their car in 1964.
Phil Dollison (right) with National Parks ranger John Cantwell at a recent Alcatraz reunion. To this day, ex-guards, ex-convicts, and their families all gather on Alcatraz for reunions every August.
Photograph courtesy of Phil Dollison
Phil Dollison (right) with National Parks ranger John Cantwell at a recent Alcatraz reunion. To this day, ex-guards, ex-convicts, and their families all gather on Alcatraz for reunions every August.

Though they didn't speak about it to their families, the guards knew just how badly the prisoners wanted out.


From 1934 to 1963, there were 14 escape attempts. The second-to-last, and most famous, occurred June 11, 1962: Clarence and John Anglin and Frank Morris burrowed out of their cells (leaving papier mache heads behind), climbed a ventilation shaft, and fled the island on a makeshift raft fashioned from raincoats. (They were never found, dead or alive.)

Jolene Babyak and Phil Dollison's father, Arthur "Art" Dollison, was serving as active warden during the escape.

"I remember my dad that day," says Dollison. "The telephone rang in our house, my dad picked up the phone, and that was the second time in my life he said a swear word: 'Oh shit.' I knew something serious had happened. Myself and some of my friends, we walked around the island along the water to see if we could help. We were thinking what we would do if we were trying to get out of here."

"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."

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4 comments
gr8wx
gr8wx

Spent about two years there around 1960-62.

gr8wx
gr8wx

Couldn't beat the rent -- zero. I spent almost 2 years there. I still remember the water barges that provided drinking water to the island. Also, all the electricity had to be generated on the island too. 


The story of fishing for striped bass was way overblown. Not to mention the fact that the guards used illegal spotlights to attract the fish.

After Alcatraz mercifully was closed down my Dad and some others transferred to the FCI at Lompoc, CA sort of a minimum security correctional facility. 

garoldjohnson
garoldjohnson

As a child of Alcatraz I find this article well researched, even in every one own families stories are what we remember and is our personal true story

Shawn A Smith
Shawn A Smith

Is that Prince Charles in the denim jacket? (Heh heh heh!)

 
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