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

Source:: The Mercury News – Lifestyle


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