It was a pleasant morning when the crowds filed off the ferry onto Alcatraz Island on Aug. 12.
Many stared in wonderment as they approached the so-called Rock, a behemoth that once was thought to keep the worst of the worst behind bars. Many who shuffled up the ramp could be seen clutching cameras and pamphlets containing factoids about the former federal prison, obviously tourists on a quest to learn more about storied island.
But for the others setting foot on Alcatraz that summer day, it was a homecoming.
“It’s a great feeling,” William Rutter, who spent six years as a child on the island, said of being back.
For nearly three decades, former corrections officers, their families and even former inmates, have gathered once a year on Alcatraz to reflect on the time they could call a part of the island theirs. Ex-cons and ex-guards greeted each other like old friends and presented unwitting tourists with a living history of sorts.
“We pretty much had the same experience,” former inmate Bill Baker said as he stood next to former guard Jim Albright.
Baker, who served the last three years of his sentence on Alcatraz after successfully escaping from several other prisons, likened the camaraderie between guards and inmates to that of soldiers who fought on opposite sides of a battle.
“It’s hard to explain, but you can imagine, why do you people go back to the beach [where] thousands were killed in the war? And both sides go, and they shake hands, because they shared the same experience,” Baker said. “This guy, he did time, just like me, sort of. If you stop to think about it, you did many, many hours sitting in a chair, sitting up in a tower, thinking about things.”
No hard feelings existed between the two men, who were clear on what their roles were at the time, and the respect they had for each other then and now.
“My job was not to punish them,” Albright explained. “Their punishment was being removed from the street. My job was safety and security.”
Situated in the middle of San Francisco Bay just 1.25 miles offshore from the mainland, Alcatraz Island was used for a number of reasons through the years, but its most famous function was as a high-security prison.
Open from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was thought to house some of America’s most ruthless criminals. But it was also home to the many of guards who patrolled the cellblocks, as well as the guards' young families.
“It’s … a village in many, many ways, but with a lot of rules,” Betty Stone told InsideEdition.com. Stone was 3 years old when her father began working at the prison in 1950. “I remember the playground well. I remember the foghorns.”
Stone lived with her family in Building 64, the residence for guards and their loved ones that has since been torn down.
“My dad told me that I would stand on the balcony there at 64 Building when they had convict groups that were working down unloading stuff, and I would yell down to the guards about how they were being lazy because they weren’t helping,” Stone said with a laugh. “I was egalitarian, even then.”
Stone made the trip back to Alcatraz every year with her father until he passed away eight years ago. She returned this year with her granddaughter in tow.
“It was important to my dad,” she said. “This is sharing our heritage and the history. This is a unique place. I want her to be able to share that.”
William Rutter has made it a point to come back as often as possible to Alcatraz, which he said was more than just a blip in his life.
“My parents did divorce and this is the last place where all of us were together; my two sisters and mom and father,” he said. “My mother passed away and my father, he’s in Colorado — he’s going on 93. I come here and it’s just … fond memories.”
Rutter, Stone, Albright and Baker were among the dozens taking part in what would be the last official reunion for the Alcatraz Alumni Association.
“The guards and the convicts are aging and passing away,” Steve Mahoney, president of the Alumni Association and the son of a former guard, told InsideEdition.com. “Today [on the island], we have one convict and two guards, and one wife of a guard. Everyone else is the children of Alcatraz.”
The group appeared to cherish the time they had with each other and seemed to never tire of telling their stories to the tourists eager to hear first-hand accounts of what it was like on Alcatraz. The privilege wasn’t lost on Mahoney.
“We can bring some of this to life by saying we were there,” he said. “We did this.”