You hear little talk and almost no laughter on the island. And, even though prisoners and guards have been gone from Alcatraz for more than three decades, there's a compelling feeling to be quiet. Even with several hundred people walking the cell-block halls, footsteps echo without interference. People talk in whispers and look on in silence . . . in awe of Alcatraz.
Movies have helped spread the mystique of this isolated island. Always bad guards and good prisons.Which doesn't sit well with Frank Heaney, a man most familiar with the island and its history.
"Ever notice how all of the movies portray the guards as mean and uncaring while the prisoners, who murdered and raped and robbed to get there, were always the victims. I never can quite understand that," he said with a few shakes of the head.
Heaney is somewhat of a legend on the island. At age 20, he became the youngest guard ever on the island prison. He applied for duties in 1947. Now he works for the Red & White Fleet, the company responsible for getting people to and from the island and, through an audiotape, to tell them of its history.
Occasionally, Heaney makes a trip and talks about some of his times on the island. But even he talks with a noticeable hush at times, according to what part of the prison he's in.
The island was christened La Isla de las Alcatraces, or island of the pelicans, before the United States took deed. It was the Army that first held prisoners there around the turn of the century. With the "gangster era" came a need for a secure prison to hold the most notorious of the bad guys. In 1934, Alcatraz became the secure facility they were looking for.
That year, 53 men, among them Al Capone, became the first federal prisoners on the island.
Heaney remembers Capone as a big, quiet man who was starting to show advanced signs of syphilis.
Heaney says Capone kept to himself most of the time. "Sometimes he'd be confronted by some of the younger prisoners trying to get a reputation. He was stabbed once."
Robert Stroud, the "Bird Man of Alcatraz," was another character given a Hollywood image.
"He was not at all the person portrayed by Burt Lancaster. He was a mean, abusive and foul person. A troublemaker. Very bright, but subject to severe mood swings. He was frightening and it didn't help that he insisted on shaving every hair off his body," Heaney remembers.
Surprising to most is that Stroud came to Alcatraz without his birds. All of his bird raising was done in Leavenworth.
One thing Heaney said he learned early in his career was to remain aloof from prisoners.
Standing in the old mess hall at the prison, he remembered that it was prison rules to eat everything put on a tray.
"Everything, with the exception of maybe fat off meat. Sometimes I'd be assigned to inspect their trays and it was hard reporting a man for not eating everything. It meant he didn't get to eat the next day. But, they knew if you let them get away with it this one time, they could do it again, and maybe try a more serious violation of the rules."
For example, during activities in the exercise area. It was here stabbings occurred. Men would surround the victim, he would be stabbed and then everyone would walk away . . . and no one saw a thing.
"Every time we saw a group gather, we knew something was up," he remembered.
The exercise yard also held a small baseball field.
"The rules were somewhat different here. If the ball went over the fence it was an out. Most of the time they tried to hit grounders. They looked forward to the games and didn't want long interruptions while guards went after the ball," he said.
Another thing most of the men looked forward to was work. It was the only thing that broke up the boredom of sitting in their cells.
The worst part of island incarceration, however, was not prison life, but the sounds and the sights of the city.
Heaney said on some nights the men could hear music and laughter and horns honking from San Francisco.
"Everything they wanted was just a mile and a half away, and they couldn't get to it," he added.
There were, of course, escape attempts and escapes from what was considered an escape-proof prison.
The worst was a failed attempt by six prisoners in 1946. After a 48-hour siege, five were dead and 15 wounded.
The most famous escape, made so by the movie with Clint Eastwood, "Escape From Alcatraz," was the most successful. Four men dug holes in their cells, left dummies in their beds, made it to the water and then used rubber raincoats made into a boat to make it to the mainland. No one has heard from three of the men. The fourth apparently did not cut his hole large enough and was left behind to give details of the escape.
For Heaney, the island prison remains a fascinating place, not only for the men who were here, including the likes of Machine Gun Kelly, Capone, Stroud, Floyd Hamilton (driver for Bonnie and Clyde and one of the prisoners Heaney liked), and Creepy Karpis, but for what it represented during one of the lawless periods of the country.
Getting to Alcatraz
The boat ride to the island is $10 with audiotape tour and $6.75 without the tape. There are lower prices for seniors, juniors and children. There are 10 trips daily from Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 41, to the island. The average stay is 2 1/2 hours.
A self-guided tour takes you through buildings, the cellhouse and the grounds. There are also ranger-led tours. Warm clothing and walking shoes are advised.