Crossing the Bay
“Are you the new doc?” the guard on the pier demanded. I stared into a pair of cold, hard eyes and quickly responded, “Yes.” He escorted me to the dock office – where I signed the register – and then to a waiting car for a ride to the “top” – where the fortress-like prison stood. Pointing to the straps hanging from the ceiling of the car, he suggested that I hold onto them.
That was good advice. Each turn was so sharp and the hills so steep that I surely would have been thrown from my seat. It was on this ride that I first saw the prisoners.
The lights of “Broadway,” the main corridor in the Alcatraz cellblock, were blazing brilliantly, as they did nightly. Bed springs squeaked as an occasional prisoner tossed restlessly in his sleep. Blatant snores echoed through the cellblock. Suddenly one of the guards on duty stiffened. He heard a thud, then a pause. Then followed a series of thuds, spaced with pauses.
He tiptoed down the cellblock, tracing the sound. When he came to the cell of Joe Kalinoski, he gasped. Kalinoski was down on his hands and knees on the floor. His head was matted with blood. Like a charging bull, snorting and head down, Kalinoski was butting his head against the concrete cell wall.
Rufe Persful lay for hours in his hospital cot reading a small Bible and muttering to himself. He was transferred here after mutilating his hand.
“See doc,” he said, pointing to cracks in the wall, “those are roads. At night people come down those roads. They flock around a big oasis, beneath palm trees, and listen to me preach.”
They Wanted Out
Number 47 was escaping from Alcatraz. Yet the prison floodlights weren’t on, turning the night into day. Guards weren’t scurrying about, firing gas cartridges into the caves and crannies to ferret him out. Coast Guard patrol boats weren’t radioed to stretch a blockade around the Rock. Nor was the escape siren screeching.
Number 47, Edward Wutke, sat upright in his cell as his life drained out in sluggish red trickles. Wutke was bleeding to death, a suicide, gritting his teeth, steeling himself to choke off the slightest moan or whimper that might attract the attention of the guards.
Discipline and Security
The scene resembled something out of a dimly lit Spanish Inquisition torture chamber. Alcatraz guards surrounded a prisoner who was lying flat on his back. He scowled up at them defiantly. I twirled a long rubber tube with a funnel attached and the deputy warden held a pitcher containing a white liquid. An electric light bulb illuminated the cell. Shadows loomed grotesquely on the concrete wall, latticed by silhouetted bars.
Recreation and Privileges
Nightly, the riders of the purple sage went galloping through Alcatraz. And in fancy the gray-clad prisoners went with them.
Lying in his cot, a Western thriller tightly clutched in his hands, the average prisoner was so absorbed that he was temporarily oblivious to the moaning foghorns, the restlessly sloshing waves, and the hobnailed guard’s boots clomping through the cellblock.
Their days were filled with the clanging of bells, shrill whistles, the clomping of the guard’s hob-nailed boots, the banging of cell doors, and the din of industry from the prison shops. The design for living on Alcatraz was the mimeographed sheet of paper containing the rules and regulations. Most new prisoners were amazed at the long hours of work and the factory-like precision.
The last rays of the setting sun dawdled lingeringly on Alcatraz, blurring its shimmering outlines and causing the Rock to resemble something on the Riviera – turreted villas dropping tier upon tier to the blue water below. Ferry commuters, that evening of September 1937, looked up from evening papers and gazed pensively at Alcatraz, at the stark security of its steel and concrete structure.
Despite its outward appearance of peace and stolidity, the Rock was in a state of siege. As though it were some factory beset by labor difficulties, Alcatraz was on strike. Unknown to the outside world, all routine had ceased. The usually bustling shops stood silent and deserted. The prison’s 300 languished in the cellblock. It would soon be transformed into a human zoo by the booing and shrieking from 300 throats.
One historic day in August 1775, the Native Americans who inhabited the shores of San Francisco Bay dropped their stone implements and gaped at a great, white-winged bird floating in through the Golden Gate.
The “bird” was the sailing vessel, San Carlos, commanded by the Spanish explorer Ayala, first person to navigate the Bay. From crest to shore, the little rock was covered with raucous, big-billed pelicans.
“Por Dios,” exclaimed the doughty Ayala, “those birds are thicker on that island than candles at the foot of an image of Santa Maria! Amigos, we will call this the Isla de los Alcatraces.” Alcatraz Island – Island of the Pelicans – is its name to this day.
An Outsider Visits Alcatraz
Shaped like a battleship, its nose pointing northwest toward the Marin Hills, Alcatraz juts out of San Francisco Bay three miles inside the Golden Gate and one and one-half miles from the nearest landing point in San Francisco.
It was the crest of a submarine mountain. But, from a distance, the Rock looked like a small, tawny crag surmounted by the steel-barred prison and the towering white lighthouse. Closer inspection revealed numerous houses, roads, trees, shrubbery and vivid patches of flowers. About 130 feet high, the Rock was 12 acres in extent, 525 feet wide and 1750 feet long.
Living on the Rock
Life on the Rock was not confined to the stone prison walls. There were pretty, cozy houses where the prison staff lived and an apartment house occupied by more than 50 families. The warden, medical officers, and sub-chiefs of the custodial force occupied the dwellings near the crest of the Island. These buildings were once designated for the Army’s commanding officers. My wife and I occupied one of these houses.
Come and Get It
Long gray lines of prisoner backs hunched over the polished tables of the Alcatraz mess hall. Nervously and rapidly, the eaters slung down food from the metal dishes – like men with only a few minutes to catch a train. Twenty minutes was allotted for a meal and any man who wasn’t finished when the whistle sounded went hungry.
The air was stifling. Odors from the steam tables mingled with the odors of perspiring human bodies. Every window was shut to allow for the greater efficacy of tear gas bombs.
Face after face passed before me. It was sick line time, when any prisoner with any medical complaint came to the hospital for aid. I saw the pale blank faces of prisoners with a serious medical problem; the pouting, frowning faces of prisoners who wanted to be sick but weren’t; the faces of whiners who wanted to be coddled. One by one they passed in review, stated their complaint, and passed on.
Literary and Social Club
Alcatraz had its prisoner version of a Ladies Tuesday Afternoon Social and Literary Club. Only it was all done undercover. The gossip and poetry wasn’t confined merely to one afternoon a week – it went on continually. And the gossip and poetry, instead of being distributed over teacups and iced cakes and sandwiches, was usually meted out via the grapevine.
Suffer Little Children
“You know,” said a prisoner, “the first Christmas I was here on the Rock, I didn’t even know it was Christmas. We were told to put on our blue holiday clothes and I wanted to know what for. Christmas, I was told. Aw hell, it ain’t Christmas, I said – if it was, we would get a sack of candy like when we were back at Leavenworth.”
Christmas was observed on Alcatraz as it might be observed by some snow-bound polar expedition -without holly, without radios blaring Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men, without green and red gift packages.
All day the fog drifted in from the sea – tumbling, billowing clouds of it. It was as though nature laid a fleecy white smoke screen over San Francisco Bay.
The timid ferries groped along like nearsighted old grandmas who had misplaced their glasses and to whom everything was a white blur. Devil-may-care tramp freighters usually wallowed cockily in and out of the Golden Gate but inched along cautiously now.
And out from the white void that was the Bay came the din of foghorns. They screeched in agony or brayed raucously or shrieked high-pitched, like sirens. The San Francisco papers, in huge headlines, called it the heaviest fog in twenty years. But later in the day those headlines were replaced with a more absorbing story – Alcatraz Escape.
Reunion on Alcatraz
Alcatraz was a malevolent Shangri-La. It was as isolated as the fantastic mountain in Lost Horizon, where time stood still. Time stood still in Alcatraz, too, as most of the prisoners were serving 90-year or lifetime sentences. Those who were eventually released found themselves old and gray and wrinkled – like those who groped their way out of ageless Shangri-La.
Alcatraz’ isolation was the best medicine for modern, high-powered gangsters. While at Atlanta or Leavenworth, they remained in touch with their gangs, retained their far-reaching influence behind prison bars, had money, dope and guns smuggled to them, and often shot their way out of prison.
Keeper of the Faith
There was one man on Alcatraz who did not understand the methods of modern gangs. He was aging Phillip Ryan, also known as “Mike” and “Red.” He was the Rock’s grand old man, counselor to the newcomers, keeper of the faith. Prisoners said he never squealed, either on pal or enemy.
Capone was still a big shot, even behind the wind swept walls of Alcatraz. He was still treated with respect by the other prisoners as well as the prison officials and still had his bodyguards. In the days when machine guns clattered like noisy typewriters in the streets of Chicago, 18 “torpedoes” (bodyguards) flanked Capone. They surrounded him like the retinue of a wealthy Maharajah. On the Rock he had four “lobby-gobs.” They constantly hovered near him whenever he mingled with the other prisoners in the yard.
The Loneliest Man on Alcatraz
Since the first day he arrived at Alcatraz, the other prisoners shunned him, as though he were some loathsome thing.
In the mess hall, those sitting on either side of him inched away. When he asked other prisoners to pass the milk or sugar, they ignored him and continued eating.
During the recreation periods, he would amble up to a group of guffawing, joking prisoners and try to join them. Or, if they were short a man in some game that was starting, he volunteered to play. But they walked away and left him standing awkwardly alone.
Virtually all his life – by his own admission – Thomas Robinson, Jr. groped for something. Contentment. Security. A regulated, orderly life. He cracked trying to fit himself into the social scheme of things. Then came the kidnapping of Mrs. Alice Stoll in Louisville, Kentucky and his sentence of life imprisonment.
This is his own story, the document of a man who found himself, as he told it to me.
His ancestors were solemn chieftains who once held court over tribal fires in ornate teepees. Now Thomas W. Wareagle squatted beside the Alcatraz incinerator, feeding garbage into its fiery maw.
Wareagle chafed at the narrow confines on the Rock. He chafed even more over the lack of solitude his Native American nature demanded.
“Too many people here,” he grumbled. “Too much noise. Too much doing. Wareagle like to go alone into woods, be alone with birds and deer.”
A latent but ever-present fear dogged the civilian population on Alcatraz ... the fear of a mass prison break that could spew 300 desperate men onto the rocky terraces of the Island, to murder and pillage, on their bloody road to freedom. Frequently, this shadowy terror caused a prison guard to suddenly resign, pack up his wife and children, and move to a healthier neighborhood.
Experts admitted in whispers that a mass break was possible and that the Rock was not entirely the foolproof lock-up boasted by the government. It was a vulnerable spot, where its civilian population could be captured and held as hostages or shields by frenzied prisoners
After re-reading my father’s manuscript in the mid-1980s, I asked him a battery of questions. While reflecting on his responses, he remembered secret stories that could now be safely told. He also reflected on his once naïve attitude toward the prisoners. I am pleased to share my father’s reflections with you.
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