Tourist attraction Alcatraz hasn’t been a federal penitentiary since it closed 55 years ago, but a couple of its ex-cons and prison guards survive today. They’ve been holding reunions on the island for years, and SF Weekly joined them for their final homecoming last weekend to hear tales of life inside the most notorious maximum-security prison in the country, which operated for less than three decades (1934 to 1963, although it was a military prison prior to that).
First things first: Most Alcatraz residents were not inmates. There were far more guards than prisoners, and the guards’ families lived on the island along with custodial and groundskeeping staff. Only 250 inmates were held on Alcatraz at any one time.
But these were the worst of the worst, exiled to Alcatraz for causing massive headaches elsewhere in the federal prison system.
“In all my years in here, everybody asks me about ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Al Capone, all the famous ones,” said 92-year-old George DeVincenzi, who worked as a guard for eight years. “I never had to worry about the famous prisoners. You had to worry about the ones you’ve never heard of.”
DeVincenzi learned this the hard way. The most popular time to “shiv” a fellow inmate — that is, to stab him with a jailhouse knife — was on a new guard’s first day. He himself was stabbed by an inmate on the very first hour of his first shift, in 1950. DeVincenzi suffered a collateral stab in the leg during that hit, after an inmate wrestled scissors from the barber and stabbed that barber repeatedly in a homicidal bloodbath.
The murder had a surprise ending.
“The barber kissed him on the face and said, ‘I love you,’ ” DeVincenzi said, laughing. “The easiest way to explain it is, I think they had a lover’s quarrel.”
Surviving inmate Bill Baker was sent to Alcatraz in the late 1950s after three attempted prison escapes.
“They consider escape the worst thing you can do,” Baker told SF Weekly. “It’s worse than murder, it’s worse than anything in their eyes. To me, it’s the most noble thing you can do.”
Inmates were given very little time outside their cells, but they could communicate secretly by siphoning the water from their toilets and whispering through the pipes.
“Those were the first cellphones,” Baker said.
They fermented their own jailhouse booze, too.
“You sneaked fruit out of the mess hall. Oranges, apples, or purple plum makes great alcohol,” he explained. “You take sugar off the [cafeteria] table. They had big jars of sugar. You’d trade to get yeast out of the bakery. You usually paid about five packs of cigarettes for a matchbox full of yeast.”
“You got homebrew in about seven days, sometimes 10 days,” Baker said. “I never saw anybody able to leave it alone for longer than 10 days. But you would get drunk.”
The booze was illegal, but the food served at Alcatraz was the best in the U.S. prison system.
“The food here was a step above normal prison food,” DeVincenzi explained. “The quickest way to have trouble in an institution was bad food. The management knew that. You have to give them credit. Once a month, they got a T-bone steak.”
Alcatraz inmates rarely got visits. But DeVincenzi vividly recalls a visitor for convict Morton Sobell, a co-conspirator in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s Russian espionage scandal in the 1950s.
“His wife would come visit about once a month,” DeVincenzi said. Revealing himself as a man of a different era, he added, “She used to reveal her breasts to him. And being a good officer, I observed everything that took place. I looked at those visits very carefully.”
If you’ve ever done the Alcatraz audio tour, you heard the voice of former guard Pat Mahoney. His son Steve told SF Weekly that growing up on Alcatraz was not at all intimidating.
“We were oblivious,” Mahoney said. “We were never allowed inside the inner fence line. The only time we were ever allowed inside the inner gate was [when we sang the inmates] Christmas carols on Christmas Eve.”
Mahoney wonders whether the prisoners even liked this.
“I’m sure most of us singing were not all that good,” he said.
Families had access to a social hall complete with bowling alleys and pool tables. Once they hit their teens, “Alcatraz kids” found creative ways to break the law using the unique assets that the island provided.
“We were really good at pool,” said Tom Reeves, who spent his high school years on Alcatraz. “When you had nothing else to do for hours at a time, you went and played pool.”
That’s how these kids learned to pull schemes and cons. “There were bars in the Marina and they weren’t real strict,” Reeves explained. “We had federal IDs, and the bartenders would let us go in and play pool with Marina guys.”
But they weren’t just playing pool, they were playing people for suckers. “We’d set it up as ‘All I’ve got is a quarter,’ or we’d have a tag team where another kid would bet double-or-nothing on a certain shot,” he said. “And then we’d run the table all night.”
Alcatraz shut down shortly after a 1962 escape, depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz. The FBI concluded that the three escapees drowned in the frigid bay waters. Ex-con Bill Baker is not so sure.
“They spent over a year planning and executing their escape,” he said. “They did it without letting the guards know. And just as important, they did it without letting the snitches know.
“You cannot ever tell me they got down to the water and said ‘What do we do now?’ ” Baker said. “They knew exactly what they were doing. They made a boat out of raincoats and they set sail. The argument against that is that if they made San Francisco, they’d be in a bar bragging about it. No, they wouldn’t.”
It’s irrelevant whether those three convicts lived or died. The fact remains they broke out successfully, thereby destroying the islet’s reputation as a fortified citadel from which escape was impossible. Combined with the extraordinary costs of running it and the corrosive effects of exposure to salt air, Alcatraz Federal Prison was shut down less than a year after that. But the stories of the people who did time on the island show how Alcatraz will always remain the most fascinating federal penitentiary in America, bar none.