Her Father was a Guard and the Warden of San Quentin

Jean Meredith lived on Alcatraz from 1941-1944 and then 1946-1948. Her father was a guard on Alcatraz.

Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Walnut Creek, CA, on June 27, 2013.

Jean Meredith

1. You have said that on Alcatraz there were no places to play but the parade ground which was a “block of cement” … what kind of games did you play?
  We flew kites and roller-skated. We played crack-the-whip, hide-and-seek, and sardines (one person hides, when others find her, they hide with her). In the Social Hall, we bowled, played pool and ping pong, but we had to be invited to the Social Hall, we couldn’t just go there whenever we wanted.
2. Did you ever break the rules while on Alcatraz?
  The beach was off limits but sometimes we went down there. Once we “encouraged someone” to take the warden’s secretary’s shoes off of his porch and toss them in the bay.
3. If you wanted to have a friend come over, what did you need to do?
  We would get permission from our parents, who would submit the name and get approval from the prison administration. The friend would be given a boat time and they had to be on that boat. We would wait for them at the dock on Alcatraz and sign them in.
4. The convicts did your laundry. Did it ever come back mangled in any way?
  My father had a black and white striped basketball referee shirt. He sent that through the laundry and it didn’t come back. Later, he found pieces of it in various prison cells. Another time when he was relatively new, my father’s shirt came back with slashes in the back.
5. How did your father interpret this? Did something he did provoke the convicts to slash his shirt?
  No. He felt it was intended to scare him.
6. Did your father ever talk to you about the prisoners on Alcatraz?
  My father said sometimes the convicts were there because they had done terrible things. Other times they were escape-prone. People thought you couldn’t escape from Alcatraz.
7. Did you ever have a toy confiscated?
  Yes, my cap pistol. Toy guns were not allowed on the island. I never got it back, either.
8. Did you ever meet an inmate while he was collecting your garbage?
  No, but at San Quentin our gardener was an inmate. He was really chatty. He liked to entertain my friends.
9. At one point, your dad was the warden of San Quentin. Could you tell us what it was like to be the daughter of a warden?
 

I was already in college by then, but I did come and visit often. We had one inmate who worked for us. He was a murderer who was (by then) in his seventies. He’d get feisty in prison, and my father would put him at our house to straighten him out and my mother would order him around.

“Mom,” I said, “Don’t forget the last woman who yelled at him was his wife and he cut off her head.”

“Oh no,” she said “he’s not going to do that here.”

10. You lived on the island during the 1943 escape. Can you tell us about this?
  We knew a couple of convicts had escaped and had not yet been apprehended so we were supposed to stay inside. But I knew something was up because the boat had left the dock at an unspecified time. When it came back, two prisoners were on board. They were covered in axle grease, handcuffed with leg irons. They were scary looking. That’s not something I’ll ever forget.
11. What did the convicts think of your dad?
  They respected him. He got Father’s Day cards and birthday cards from inmates and former inmates. When he went back to visit San Quentin, many of them begged for him to come back and be warden again.

Jean raised 5 children; was a community volunteer; “stay at home mom”. In 1980 she ran a friend’s successful campaign for the State Assembly and headed his District Office for 11 years (got paid!); still volunteers in church, politics, and three non-profits; visits with 7 grandchildren whenever she can and enjoys life with her husband of 61 years, Peter, a retired Berkeley Police Lieutenant.


Toughest Convict on the Rock

Robert Luke, Alcatraz convict #1118, was on the island from 1954-1959. Alcatraz was his sixth prison. No trouble with the law since Alcatraz.

Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Cotati, CA, on February 23, 2013

Robert Luke

1. While on Alcatraz, did you dream of being free?
  All the time.
2. Were you afraid during your years on Alcatraz?
  Never. I had a reputation for being extremely violent. People were careful around me. The only time I was afraid on Alcatraz was when I came back a few years ago and the ranger asked me to speak to the public.
3. What did you do to pass the time on Alcatraz?
  I read two or three books a week. (Checked out from the cell house library). I like history. I must have read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three or four times. When I read a book, I actually become a part of it. My imagination helped, too. Sometimes I would take a trip up in my head.
4. Did you ever play baseball in the Rec Yard on Alcatraz?
  Yes. I was a fielder. There was only one fielder as we had six-man teams. There was no room in the recreation yard for more.
5. What happened when the ball went over the wall?
  If it went over the right field wall it was an automatic out. If it went over the center field wall it was a home run. If it went on the roof of the cell house it was good for two bases.
6. You have said your cell was “the size of a pool table “did it ever feel like home?
  No. We called it our house, but not a home.
7. I’ve heard you say that you didn’t seriously consider an escape from Alcatraz because as a US Navy man you understood how difficult it would be to swim to freedom given the currents in the bay and the temperature of the water. If you were to plan an escape from Alcatraz, how would you do it?
  The only chance would be if you worked outside. I was never allowed to work outside because I was an escape risk. The last warden was lax. He didn’t check the cells. That’s one of the reasons the (1962) escape happened.
8. What question do you get asked the most?
  Did you know Al Capone?
9. Capone died before your time on Alcatraz, of course.
  Yes. But if I had been in prison with him, I would have kept my distance. I stayed away from connected criminals because they often have influence over the police or the guards.
10. But you knew Machine Gun Kelly, right?
  Yes, he played bridge on the recreation yard.
11. Did you have visits on Alcatraz?
  Only one. I didn’t like visits because they reminded me too much of what it was like outside.
12. What was your worst day on Alcatraz?
  My worst days were the 29 days I spent in the disciplinary cells on Alcatraz.
13. Did you ever see the kids who lived on the island?
  No.
14. What jobs did you have while on Alcatraz?
  I worked in the mess hall, the laundry and the glove shop.
15. Did you ever see contraband come through the laundry?
 

No. They searched all the laundry. But if you wanted something, you could get it.

In your book, you mention the fact that you were a good student. School was always easy for you.

16. What do you think made you cross the line and begin stealing?
  The excitement. I got carried away. I met someone who was doing it and the life just sounded exciting to me. It becomes easier the more you do it.
17. Why do you think you ended up on Alcatraz?
  I made the wrong choices. We are all born with the ability to make our own choices. But once you make the wrong choice, other people make your decisions for you.
18. Are there any Alcatraz movies that are accurate?
  If there was a completely true movie about prison, no one would go to it because it would be so boring. It’s the boredom that gets you.
19. You were one of the few men who were released directly from Alcatraz. How did it feel to leave?
  The colors and immense distances seemed astounding. I had just come from a place that had no color, and the farthest you could walk in one direction was less than 100 yards. The whole experience was really overwhelming.

I felt better on the plane because it was a confined space.*

*Answer directly from Entombed In Alcatraz

20. What would you tell a kid growing up today?
  Go to school. Learn to read. The literacy rate of cons is so high. Make the right choices.
21.

I’ve heard you say that since your years on Alcatraz you’ve never been in any trouble. Though you write you had: “a hair-trigger temper.” You wrote a powerful poem about this which is on the back cover of your book.

 

A Lament

That dark man
Still lives
Deep inside me
Waiting
But his armor
Is rusting
And he will soon
Deteriorate
Into dust
And so will
I

—Robert Luke

22. How did you manage your temper after Alcatraz?
  It took time. I learned to walk away from an argument before trouble started. I had a few problems with it, but gradually I gained control.
23. After Alcatraz, did you dream about being in jail?
  Yes. For fifty-one years I dreamt about prison. The prison dreams only stopped when I went back to Alcatraz and began speaking to the public about my experience. Before that, only my family and my best friend knew.
24. In your book, you talk about the epiphany you had while on Alcatraz. You say that you realized “the truth, that no one was responsible for my actions but me.” If you could offer words of wisdom to your 14-year-old self, what would they be?
  Your choices will get you in trouble if you make the wrong ones. If you make a wrong choice, pull your foot back.

Criminal history prior to Alcatraz: robbing banks, burglary, car theft and assault.

Sent to Alcatraz for attempted escape at Leavenworth.

No trouble with the law after Alcatraz. He has lived a happy, productive life for the last 54 years.

Author of Entombed on Alcatraz


Everybody’s Favorite Guard

George DeVincenzi worked as a guard on the island from 1950-1957
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in San Francisco, CA, on February 15, 2013

George DiVincenzi

1. What was your favorite part of the job?
  Working in the cell house hospital. It was more interesting. There were dental appointments, medical treatments, sometimes force feeding of inmates. The routine was more varied.
2. What was the scariest part of your position as a guard?
  Yard duty. You were walking around with hundreds of convicts milling around. Convicts sometimes played baseball so they had baseball bats which could be used as a weapon. Fights broke out … like once I was on the yard when Simco went after DogMan. Anything could happen.
3. Is there anything you miss about Alcatraz?
  Nothing. I don’t miss it.
4. What surprised you most about the job?
  When I was on night duty at the cell house I had trouble staying awake. One night I fell asleep at the cell house desk. I was awakened by crumpled pieces of paper being thrown at my head. I looked up and saw that a convict named Jimmy Groves was trying to wake me up. Jimmy was one of the most hated inmates on Alcatraz – a very vicious prisoner who always had a smile on his face. I never did figure out why he decided to help me that night.
5. Did you ever feel as if the convicts were conspiring against you?
  No.
6. Did it worry you that there were kids living on the island?
  No. They were on the opposite end of the island from the convicts. They were behind fences protected by a guard tower.
7. Were you a guard before you began work on Alcatraz?
  No. I came home from the war along with thousands of other young men who were all looking for jobs. I took the civil service test thinking I might get a job in the post office or the customs office. I was pretty surprised when they called from Alcatraz.
8. What kind of training did you receive?
  I had about four weeks of training: in-service lectures, movies, tests, hand-to-hand combat, firearms. After we were trained, our first positions were in more custodial guard jobs like in the guard towers or the west end gun gallery. It took a while before we were allowed out with the prisoners.
9. What was a typical day like as a guard on Alcatraz?
  Very monotonous! Everything was timed down to the minute. It was very repetitious. It drove the guards crazy, just like it did the prisoners.
10. Was there any guard duty you dreaded?
  Up on the yard wall as it was always cold and windy. We had these heavy overcoats that weighed a ton and huge guns. The wind beat at you at all times and they played this cowboy music over the loud speakers that drove me crazy. Plus, it was stressful keeping my eye on the guards down there with all those prisoners.
11. Were there prisoners you trusted?
  Not really. There were some I felt half way comfortable with. Some I held conversations with; others would have nothing to do with any of the guards. You had to be careful though. One day, two FBI men came over on the boat. They went into the warden’s office and when they came out they had two officers in handcuffs. It turns out they had gotten too friendly with some of the prisoners and began bringing contraband in to them. The two officers both got five years in prison. The thing was once you gave something to a con, you were vulnerable because then the con had something on you. The only thing you could do at that point was quit.
12. Did you play checkers with the Bird Man of Alcatraz?
  Yep. It was usually around two or three or four in the morning when I had hospital duty. I only did it when I knew and trusted the officer in the gun gallery because he could see me from there. I didn’t worry about my boss, because I had the key. He couldn’t come into the hospital, unless I let him in.
13. Who won?
  I never recall winning a game against the Bird Man.
14. Why did you leave Alcatraz?
  There were always stories going around about how they were going to close Alcatraz. I didn’t know if they were true or not, but I was born and raised in San Francisco. I didn’t want to have to move to Leavenworth, Kansas. I tried to transfer to the Customs Department, but Warden Swope wouldn’t let me go. It was only when he was replaced by Warden Madigan that I was allowed to transfer.