The Children Who Once Called Alcatraz Home: ‘For Us, It Was a Big Playground’
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 young families of guards who patrolled the prison.
Sweeping views of San Francisco, a tight-knit community and the comfort of knowing your child was safe. It may sound like the trappings of a posh island resort, but in place of luxury apartments or sprawling manses were high fences, guard towers and blaring alarms.
Situated in the middle of San Francisco Bay just 1.25 miles offshore from the mainland, Alcatraz Island has had a number of functions, including a military fortress. But it's most famous 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 guards who patrolled the cell blocks.
And with them came their young families.
“As kids, we thought of it as being normal,” Steve Mahoney, now 60, told InsideEdition.com.
Until he was six, Mahoney lived on the island with his parents and his two younger brothers, leaving only when the prison closed in 1963.
While his siblings can boast of birth certificates that name "Alcatraz Island" as their home, it’s Mahoney who possesses the most enviable prize: Memories of their life on The Rock.
"We played baseball and flew kites and rode bikes on what had been the parade field," he said. "We’d get loaves of bread and feed them to small sharks. For us, it was a big playground."
Mahoney’s father was one of the 70 or so guards who lived on the island during the federal prison era. Guards applying to work on the island moved there with their families if they got the job.
"Their fathers were quite proud of their work [as corrections officers] and the mothers would say that was a dang good job, especially during the depression," author Claire Rudolf Murphy said. "Alcatraz just has that ring. The kids that I met, they loved it. You want to get a conversation going, say 'I lived on Alcatraz.'"
Murphy’s book, "The Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock," chronicled life on the island through the eyes of kids.
"They didn’t hate it at all," she said.
Life on Alcatraz was similar to any other place one would call home, former resident Chuck Stucker said. Most families on the island lived in Building 64 and spent most of their time interacting with each other.
“In retrospect, [the experience] was not a whole lot different than people who grew up on a small military base,” Stucker, 77, told InsideEdition.com.
He was 4 months old when his family moved onto the island in 1940.
His father came from a long line of law enforcement officials and when he arrived on Alcatraz in 1939, he followed in the footsteps of his brother who arrived to work at the facility when it opened in 1934.
Eventually a cousin joined what had become a family business on the island, where life, like in any community, took on a routine.
“There was a preschool on the island... a small commissary with milk, butter, bread... a post office," Mahoney said. “My dad had the first color TV on the island and it was a real popular thing for the adults. Most evenings, you were either at someone’s house for dinner or they were at yours."
But unsurprisingly, there were some differences when it came to life on Alcatraz.
“For the older kids, our school bus was the boat that took us to the main land,” Mahoney said. “School administrators, they were aware of the fear that we could be held hostage to try to get an inmate off the island, so we had small dog tags — IDs — that had our names and association with Alcatraz. You wore it with a small metal chain.”
Other classmates were aware but not particularly interested in the distinction.
"While you made friends in the city, your friends on Alcatraz were it," Stucker said.
And of course, there were the views.
“We lived in a beautiful apartment with views out both sides,” Mahoney said. “It overlooked San Francisco; out the other side, you could see Angel Island.”
Rent was about $18 per month, Mahoney recalled, a steal compared to the staggering cost of living in San Francisco, which was considered high even in the late '50s and early '60s.
"And that included laundry," he said with a laugh. "The convicts were doing it, and starching the [guards’] uniforms... Adults would say, 'Don’t you get in trouble because if we get kicked out of here, we can’t afford to live in San Francisco.'”
But children can only mind themselves for so long when faced with a treasure trove of places to uncover.
None of the children ever got in so much trouble their family was kicked off the island — but it was not for lack of trying.
“I mean, put yourself in my place: Only one-third of the island was accessible to you. Everything is marked, ‘Do not go here,’ ‘Danger,’ ‘Don’t go here.' What does a young kid do? You do exactly what you’re not supposed to do," Stucker said, laughing.
From the facility’s opening until 1941, children lived through what he described as the “golden years," as no fences kept youngsters from getting too close to the prison.
“They had soapbox derby cars that would take them down switchback roads and they’d end up on the docks,” Stucker said.
But even after a fence went up in 1941, kids found devious ways to occupy their time.
“We’d get the young teenage girls to go by one side of the island where the guard towers couldn’t see, and they’d wave at the sailboats, and [the sailors would] swing in as close as they could,” Stucker said. “We had these Goliath slings and we would try to pierce the sail. I often wondered why they didn’t wait for us at the docks, but I suppose they weren’t supposed to be that close to the island.”
And then there were the half-hearted attempts to break into the place so many had hoped to escape.
“We were able to get back into work areas where the convicts could be at different times,” Mahoney said, noting that only happened when it was empty. “No one ever made it into the main area where the inmates were confined. That was all myth.”
One particularly memorable — and very real — incident on the island came at the hands of Stucker.
“At the time I grew up in the San Francisco area, you could go buy fireworks in Chinatown without a problem,” he said. ”When I was 12 years old, one day I bought so many fireworks, you couldn’t explode them in one day.”
So he and a friend took as much as they could carry back to Alcatraz, making sure the biggest pieces of the haul made it to the island.
"In the middle of the playground, we had a mass of these explosives," Stucker said. "We had a long fuse, and we lit it and went home. Boy, did it cause a blast!"
But by the time the fireworks went off, Stucker was in bed. It proved to be the perfect alibi when officials came knocking and asked his father — who was none the wiser — about his son’s whereabouts.
"In retrospect, I can understand why they were concerned," Stucker laughed.
Not everything about living on an island with prisoners as your only neighbors was idyllic.
Residents quickly learned the sound of an alarm meant only one thing: Trouble.
"It would happen maybe once a year, and it was associated with an escape or a riot of some sort," Mahoney said.
For the guards, it meant it was time to get to work. For their families, it was a time to remain calm and stay safe.
"We knew as kids, if you were on the playground and the alarm went off, you had to go home immediately," Mahoney said.
But he doesn’t remember the alarm causing any sort of panic, because like in any small town, word on the island traveled fast.
"You’d sit there, in your living room, waiting for guards to come do thorough inspections to make sure there was no escaped inmate hiding or no one was being held hostage," he said.
"You knew while you were waiting [for example], ‘Oh, someone was missing from the count.' I’m sure some [adults] had concerns, but from my side of it... I just didn’t want to be sitting on the couch."
The gravity of living on Alcatraz was never better understood than in the spring of 1946.
The Battle of Alcatraz, which lasted from May 2 to May 4, broke out between inmates and guards following a botched escape attempt.
Inmate Bernard Coy, a depression-era criminal who was serving out a 25-year sentence for bank robbery, was the first to decide he was going to make a break for it.
While working in the prison as a cell-house orderly, Coy noticed the gun gallery at the end of the cell-house was only protected by bars. He also realized the guards’ routines left a window open when the main cell block and the gallery were left unobserved.
So Coy and fellow inmates Marvin Hubbard, Joseph Cretzer and Clarence Carnes devised a plan to escape.
On May 2, 1946, while most inmates and guards were outside at workshops, Hubbard asked Officer William Miller to let him in from the kitchen. As he did, Coy ambushed him from behind and then the inmates released Cretzer and Carnes from their cells.
The men managed to widen the bars protecting the gun gallery enough that Coy could squeeze through and pass out a pistol, clubs, gas grenades and keys.
Coy used a weapon to force another officer to open the main cell house. About a dozen convicts were released as the ringleaders looked for a key to the yard. They planned to use officers as hostages to get a boat from the dock to San Francisco and then make their ultimate escape.
Stucker’s father was caught in the middle of the melee.
“I was only 6 when that happened, and it’s stuck with me,” Stucker said.
The family had moved off the island while their father served in World War II and were put on a waiting list to return once he resumed his post as a prison guard.
“My mother brought me down [to the water in San Francisco], and here’s a dock full of people, the island is on fire, and it looked like a war was going on,” he recalled.
From his vantage point, Stucker could see Warden James Johnson as he and a group of men staggered off a boat on to the dock in San Francisco. He could also see a sheet covering a body.
“The guards had been injured, and as they walked off, my mom stopped one bleeding from the nose,” Stucker said. “She said, 'How’s Ed doing?’ asking about my father. ‘Oh, he’s doing fine, he’s doing fine.’”
Ed Stucker was not doing fine.
Earlier that day, after sending an inmate who had finished showering and getting dressed upstairs, Ed Stucker was surprised to see him come barreling back down almost immediately.
“He wouldn’t tell my father why, so my father went up the stairs and looked down the cell block, and there’s an inmate with a rifle in his hands,” Stucker said. “Of course, that’s not supposed to happen.”
After being spotted by the gun-toting convict, Ed Stucker ran downstairs and pulled the alarm before holing up with a group of inmates.
It was then he realized his baton was missing from the desk in front of him.
"He told me he looked at these 18 inmates and said, 'I don’t think you guys want to be involved in this. I want my club back,'" Stucker said. "He said, 'When I turn my back, whoever has it will give it back.' When he turned around, the club was back on the desk."
He and the 18 inmates barricaded themselves in the room and didn’t budge for three days and two nights.
"They stayed there without water, food, through tear gas and whatnot," Stucker said. "He was lucky to be alive."
Two corrections officers and three inmates were killed in the battle. Two more inmates were later executed for their roles in the escape attempt.
Seventeen of the 18 inmates who rode out the battle with Ed Stucker were later transferred to lower security prisons for their good behavior during the crisis.
“I asked my father, ‘What about the 18th?’ He said, ‘The damn fool broke a rule before he could be sent back!" Stucker said.
Sixteen years later, Mahoney also found himself looking on as his father played an integral role in one of the island’s most famous events.
Between the late hours of June 11 and early morning of June 12, 1962, inmates Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris tucked dummy heads into their beds.
The men then slipped through holes they had carved out at the backs of their cells and made their way out of the prison. They slipped into the water and out into the bay on rafts they had stitched together and were never seen again.
"The guard who discovered the inmates escaped... was a very good friend of my father’s," Mahoney said.
The officer was doing checks in the middle of the night and realized one of the inmates was not answering.
"He poked him with a bit of his stick and a papier-mâché, fake head they built fell out of the bed," Mahoney said.
It wasn’t long until the familiar sound of an alarm rang out.
"We had to get up and confirm we were there, that there were no inmates around," he said. "Several times they came in to reconfirm there was no one there."
Mahoney’s father captained the boat that searched the waters for weeks for any sign of the three men.
"I can remember, at the end of every day, my dad coming back from being on the boat and my mom, the first question was, 'Well, did you find them?' He’d say, 'No we didn’t, but we’re still going to go looking tomorrow,'" Mahoney said. "After the first couple of days, you’re not looking for human beings, so much as you were looking for evidence."
Mahoney’s father and others searching for any signs of the men would go on to find a paddle, a wallet with the names, addresses and photos of the Anglins’ friends and relatives, shreds of raincoat material believed to have been remnants of the raft and a deflated lifejacket.
"He was frustrated in not finding them... but it was a good feeling when they found something here, found something there,” Mahoney said.
A semblance of normalcy returned to the island, but many were still on edge about the possibility of an escaped convict, including the children.
“As a kid, you’re thinking, 'Are they actually in my closet, even though they checked?' You’d ask yourself that," he said.
Soon, that fear faded, as common sense dictated the last thing any escaped convicts would do is willingly return to the island.
"It was the people on the shore who had the real concerns," Mahoney said. "These were supposedly dangerous guys. People were afraid."
Prison officials made the determination the men had likely drowned several weeks later, and the FBI came to the same conclusion in the closing of their investigation in 1979.
Guards and their families who lived on the island at the time of the escape firmly believe the men died in their attempts to get away.
"These guys were Houdinis," Mahoney said. "These guys could’ve made a lot of money by selling their story... No, they drowned and became fish food."
Though these significant moments engulfed their families, guards weren’t always ready to share the experiences of their day-to-day work.
"Their dads rarely talked about their work, but of course that was an era that your dad didn’t talk about their job much anyway," "Children of Alcatraz" author Rudolf Murphy said.
And though the boundaries of what the family could talk about were never explicitly explained, Stucker was careful to respect them.
"I was never allowed to surprise him," Stucker said. "[I was told] 'Don’t jump out from a doorway, don’t surprise him. That was impressed upon me."
Others took the opportunity to impart on their children life lessons that would stick for decades.
“They were exposed to the worst of the worst in the prison service and it led to lots of discussion around the table about the nature of the convicts and what they had done," Mahoney said. "That they were people."
Of the many questions surrounding life on Alcatraz, those who once lived on the island are most often asked about the inmates. But the responses are blasé.
"I paid no attention to them," Stucker said.
Inmates on work details that brought them outside prison walls would often be seen collecting items needing pick up at the residences, including trash and laundry.
It was during those times kids could find themselves face-to-face with their neighbors from the other side of the wall.
"They were just the adults in gray clothing," Stucker said. "I’d help them load our garbage and I’d help them collect our white [clothing items]. I didn’t care. They were adults and it was something to do."
More often than not, prisoners did not exceed the reputation of Alcatraz itself.
"People thought, 'It’s got to be worst of the worst,'" Rudolph Murphy said. "Well, the Birdman of Alcatraz was there, but really no one else... and kids knew nothing about him. It was a prison for those who liked to escape, because the bay waters and because of the storm current, it was almost impossible to escape from."
Even the most notorious of all of Alcatraz’s inmates — Al Capone — was thought of as little more than an interesting character.
“He had syphilis by then and... some dementia; he was not a danger, and he wasn’t interacting with the kids," Rudolph Murphy said.
For the most part, that is.
Several children would be to able one day boast to have come into contact with the infamous gangster, including Stucker’s friend.
A fellow son of a guard, Roy "Rocky" Chandler, suffered from asthma attacks so bad that he would need to be treated at the prison hospital.
"One time, he was having a difficult time, so his father brought him in through the back door," Stucker said.
"Inside, there was an inmate mopping the floor up. Roy’s father introduced him, and said, 'Hey, Al, this is my son.'"
Stucker learned of the interaction in the ‘80s.
“He said, 'I can still remember the warmth of this man’s hand when I shook it,'" Stucker said.
Other interactions between inmates and the residents took place often, and while they perhaps were not as memorable, they still made a lasting impression.
"My dad made it a point to have me meet with convicts and talk to them," Mahoney said. "They did what they did. To be around prisoners and to be around convicts was a normal thing. We weren’t even locking our doors; it was just normal."
But it eventually came to an end.
Expensive to run, hard to maintain and the subject of heated investigations, officials finally decided to close Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on March 21, 1963.
"My parents, they were sad because they found it to be a great place to live," said Mahoney, whose family was still living on the island when the prison closed. "For the people who lived on the island, on the guard side of it, life was unique and wonderful. It was tough when it closed."
It took that separation to make some, in particular the children, realize how good life was on the island.
"I had no appreciation for the view until years later," Stucker said. "It took me a long time to figure out it was something special."
Many guards who worked together tried to keep in touch, and with the desire to keep the memories they made together alive, the Alcatraz Alumni Association was born.
"Really, it was for those who remained in the San Francisco area in one form of another, but it built up as time went by," Mahoney said.
Mahoney now serves as the president of the Alumni Association, which holds its annual reunion every summer. At least 20 former guards and their children count themselves as members.
"It lasts for about two and a half days, and we have dinners and get a chance to reminisce and talk with each other," Mahoney said.
The reunion takes place in San Francisco and gives former residents — both guards and inmates alike — a chance to revisit Alcatraz and connect with each other in a way not possible when in their former roles.
"Convicts, for the few who were released who come back, it’s a very different experience," Mahoney said. "One convict, Bill Baker, I remember distinctly sitting down with him. He had went back to spend a night in the cell."
It was all too much for Baker, who instead decided to spend the night outside.
"He sat out on a bench through the night," Mahoney said. "I stayed with him and we just talked. He saw [Alcatraz] as part of a low point for his life, and he had finally gotten out of that low point. For families coming back, it was different. But coming back as a released convict, he was a big-time rock star. It was surreal for him."
Though their experiences on Alcatraz could not be more different, residents and inmates are generally received by tourists in the same manner.
“When we go there for a reunion, you’re treated like a special person,” Mahoney said. “For those very few acres of the earth, I’m a rock star.”
At least 55 years have passed since Alcatraz was their home, but those raised there have not yet tired of looking back on their time on The Rock.
"They love talking about it, because they didn’t get to there," Rudolf Murphy said. "There was a silence code — you were not to talk about living on Alcatraz."
The former children of Alcatraz understand the world’s fascination with their old neighborhood.
“One [reason] is it was a secretive place, as far as the media was concerned; you were unable to get in there and peel away the layers to see what was going on," Stucker said. "Second, it’s in the middle San Francisco Bay observed by every traveler who comes through. And third, Hollywood has utilized it in so many fictional stories throughout the years... creating a mystery."
The fascination with the island only amplified when it opened to the public, and those with a true understanding of the place knew what telling their stories would mean.
"The organization is slowly fading away," Mahoney said of the Alumni Association. "Bit by bit, the guards and the spouses are dying from old age. Those voices are eventually, in the next few years, going to be gone. Right now, there’s still a living history."
Many of the original members of the Alumni Association are now gone. Building 64, where most lived, has been torn down.
And though their legacies are carried on by surviving family and friends, the memories they helped create have gone with them.
Stucker said he can "count on one hand" those who remember the island as he does.
"They’ve all passed away," he said. "The island was a very special place. If it was possible to do it again... sure; it would be fun to go back. But my island is gone."
Video produced by Leigh Scheps
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