Former Alcatraz residents recall its wild parties and dark secrets – with one revealing how the notorious lock-up known for housing criminals like Al Capone was ‘a really wonderful place to live’

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Written By Maya Cantina
  • Alcatraz was home to some of America’s most violent criminals including George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Alvin ‘Creepy’ Carpis 
  • However, it also played host to dozens of civilian families who have described the wild parties that went on outside the prison walls 
  • The two communities lived side by side on the tiny island but the children were ordered never to interact with the prisoners 

Former residents of Alcatraz island – both inmates and the civilians who worked there – have described life on the infamous ‘Rock,’ with its wild parties and dark secrets.

Better known for it’s notorious criminal residents – including Al Capone and Alvin ‘Creepy’ Carvis – the island off the coast of San Francisco was also home to several civilian families.  

Jolene Babyak lived on Alcatraz with her family as a child for two years in the mid-1960s when her father worked at the prison, telling SFGate it was a ‘really wonderful place to grow up and to live.’ 

For Babyak, the place holds happy memories with themed parties, movie screenings, dances, potlucks and her first kiss. 

But for prisoners it was a brutal, dark place. 

Alcatraz in the 1930s – from the 1930s to 60s, Alcatraz was America’s top maximum security prison

Jolene Babyak spent three years living with her family on Alcatraz as a child

Jolene Babyak spent three years living with her family on Alcatraz as a child

It was an island of two halves, while prisoners sat in their cells and plotted their escape, the dozens of civilian residents took part in themed parties and mini-plays.

Babyak told SFGate: ‘Everybody dressed up and we did skits. It wasn’t Hollywood, but it was very entertaining.’

Roughly 70 guards lived there with their families at any one time, living in a residential block, Building 64, and socializing together. 

There was a pre-school, a small shop and a post office and the inmates did all of their laundry. 

Rent was cheap, just $18 a month, which was very low for the time, with amazing views and some residents even had color TV.

There were holiday parties, with Halloween games, prizes and a summer party on the pier known as the ‘watermelon feed’ where everyone ate fruit and the children took part in three-legged races. 

There even was an annual ‘lampshade’ event where the women on the island would get together wearing hats made of lampshades. 

Babyak said some of the guards even dressed up as ‘ballroom girls’ and did the can-can dance, she added: ‘Liquor wasn’t allowed, but I’m pretty sure some of them carried flasks in their garters.’

After one of the costume parties on the island when she was 15, Babyak said she even had her first kiss. 

She said: ‘I liked living here. It was fun. It was unique, you know?’ 

The cell house block is visible on the island with the old barracks and dock where prisoners and staff would arrive to

The cell house block is visible on the island with the old barracks and dock where prisoners and staff would arrive to

A map showing the key Alcatraz buildings and guardhouses

A map showing the key Alcatraz buildings and guardhouses

Bill Baker was imprisoned on Alcatraz for three years from 1957 for car theft, he said the worst part was the boredom

Bill Baker was imprisoned on Alcatraz for three years from 1957 for car theft, he said the worst part was the boredom

Children living on the island were shuttled to school on the mainland by boat, where their home was a fascinating topic of discussion.

The only rule imposed on the young residents was to never interact with prisoners, under any circumstances. 

But on the other side of the island’s high walls, some of the 20th Century’s most notorious prisoners were living out their days. 

Bill Baker was imprisoned on Alcatraz for three years in 1957 when he was just 23. 

Unlike some of the other inmates he was just there for car theft, but he had been sent to Alcatraz as punishment for trying to escape from his last jail.

The worst part for him, he said, was the sheer boredom. 

He said: ‘You were locked in your cell most of the time. It was all about boredom and how you dealt with it. In the long run, the boredom, the repetition, the routine could wear you out.’

Instead of being rehabilitated, Baker said he just learned more criminal tricks inside, learning how to counterfeit payroll checks and making hooch from rotten fruit in a bin.  

But it wasn’t all misery, he wrote in his memoir: ‘Happiness comes in small packages in prison, but it comes.

‘It has to get through the gray filter of awareness that you’re locked up. But it gets through, somehow.’

The cell quarters perch on top of the island with sheer cliffs dropping down to the sea

The cell quarters perch on top of the island with sheer cliffs dropping down to the sea

The infamous prison island is known as 'the Rock'

The infamous prison island is known as ‘the Rock’ 

But Babyak said the island also held dark secrets – with one of her main memories being how terribly prisoners with mental health issues were treated. 

She said: ‘Being schizophrenic on Alcatraz did not improve their situation, you know, their mental health. 

Baker added: ‘They didn’t deal with mental health — they said go see the preachers. Of course, they did give away some pills. They gave a lot of Thorazine to the ones who were really, obviously sick.’

Jan Peters, 62, was the last child to leave the site of the island prison when it closed. 

His father Arnold Peters had been in charge of relocating the inmates to other federal prisons.

In 2013, on the anniversary of the prison’s closing, Peters said: ‘I’m realizing that we were a part of American history.’

Peters and former Alcatraz resident John Brunner, whose father was the prison’s electrician, said living next door to the country’s most dangerous criminals was ideal.

They never saw the inmates and had world-class views, fishing and friends.

‘It was fantastic to live here. We never had to lock our front door,’ Brunner said with a chuckle.

There were 378 cells at the prison in total with this number including isolation cells. The cell pictured is adorned with artworks made by the inmate in a bid to brighten things up

There were 378 cells at the prison in total with this number including isolation cells. The cell pictured is adorned with artworks made by the inmate in a bid to brighten things up

Alcatraz inmates seen entering the mess hall in their prison uniforms in 1954

Alcatraz inmates seen entering the mess hall in their prison uniforms in 1954

One of the guard towers on Alcatraz Island with the city of San Francisco in the background

One of the guard towers on Alcatraz Island with the city of San Francisco in the background

Al Capone was imprisoned on Alcatraz for four and a half years until he began to suffer from syphilis and was transferred off in 1939

Al Capone was imprisoned on Alcatraz for four and a half years until he began to suffer from syphilis and was transferred off in 1939

Alcatraz, which is set on a rocky outcrop one mile offshore from San Francisco, operated for 29 years as a penitentiary and during that time it held some of America’s most dangerous criminals, including Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. 

The infamous gangster known as ‘scarface,’ Al Capone, was imprisoned on Alcatraz for four years until 1939. 

He was joined by fellow gangster George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, who served 17 years on the island.  

But three of the most famous inmates are the ones who managed to escape. 

Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin, who were all serving time for bank robbery, vanished from the prison in San Francisco Bay on the night of June 11, 1962.

The men used spoons and forks to burrow their way out of their concrete cell and crafted a raft out of raincoats. 

They made dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair and left them in their beds to fool the night guards. 

After they were discovered missing, the prison went into lockdown and an intensive search began. 

Although many historians believe they perished in the frigid, treacherous currents surrounding the maximum-security island prison, their bodies were never found and some believe they made it to freedom.

Mug shots of the three prisoners that made a rare escape from Alcatraz. From left to right: Clarence Anglin, John William Anglin, and Frank Lee

Mug shots of the three prisoners that made a rare escape from Alcatraz. From left to right: Clarence Anglin, John William Anglin, and Frank Lee

Morris and the Anglin brothers left cleverly-built dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair in their beds that apparently fooled the night guards

Morris and the Anglin brothers left cleverly-built dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair in their beds that apparently fooled the night guards

An officer reveals an escape route that three prisoners carved in their concrete cell using cutlery

An officer reveals an escape route that three prisoners carved in their concrete cell using cutlery 

The prison closed on March 21, 1963, shortly after their disappearance, however the two incidents were unrelated.

The decision to close the prison was made before the three criminals disappeared on the grounds that it was too expensive to keep operating. 

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), an estimated $3 million to $5 million was needed just for restoration and maintenance work to keep the prison open. 

The Bureau said: ‘That figure did not include daily operating costs – Alcatraz was nearly three times more expensive to operate than any other Federal prison (in 1959 the daily per capita cost at Alcatraz was $10.10 compared with $3.00 at USP Atlanta).’

The main expense was due to the fact that Alcatraz was an island and all of the goods had to be shipped there by boat. 

The BOP notes: ‘For example, the island had no source of fresh water, so nearly one million gallons of water had to be barged to the island each week. 

‘The Federal Government found that it was more cost-effective to build a new institution than to keep Alcatraz open.’ 

Alcatraz, which is set on a rocky outcrop 1 mile offshore from San Francisco, operated for 29 years as a penitentiary and during that time it held some of America's most dangerous criminals, including Al Capone and George 'Machine Gun' Kelly

Alcatraz, which is set on a rocky outcrop 1 mile offshore from San Francisco, operated for 29 years as a penitentiary and during that time it held some of America’s most dangerous criminals, including Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly

One of the cells in Block B from which the three prisoners escaped. The photo shows view of the interior of cell from the door and the method used by the inmates for hiding their chiseled exit

One of the cells in Block B from which the three prisoners escaped. The photo shows view of the interior of cell from the door and the method used by the inmates for hiding their chiseled exit

Following the announcement of its closure, signed off by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Alcatraz’s population was slowly whittled down, with inmates redistributed to other federal prisons. 

The press were invited to watch the final 27 inmates being marched out on the final day of its operation.

Frank Weatherman, who was the last inmate to be banished to Alcatraz in December 1962 and the last to walk out, simply told journalists, ‘Alcatraz was never no good for nobody,’ when he was asked for his opinion on the place.

After the prison closed, the island – which was owned by the federal government – was left abandoned. 

During its abandonment there were several occupations by Native American activists, who were campaigning against the U.S. Government’s Termination Policy and the broader plight of Native Americans.

While there were various plans of what to do with Alcatraz in the pipeline, including it being turned into a resort complex, it was eventually decided to preserve it as a historical site. 

ᴀʀᴛɪᴄʟᴇ ꜱᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ

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