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.


Raised on the Rock

Chuck Stucker grew up on Alcatraz Island because his father was a guard in the prison. He lived on the island from 1940-1943 and from 1948-1953. He is a well-respected Alcatraz historian and archivist.

Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Roseville, CA on February 20, 2013

Chuck Stucker

1. Did your parents ever worry about you living on the island?
  They never voiced any concern. We didn’t lock our doors. Not everybody opted to live on Alcatraz. Some felt the community on Alcatraz was too small. Everybody knew everybody’s business.
2. What was the scariest part of living on Alcatraz?
  My only fear was being caught in a place I shouldn’t have been. We heard that our fathers could be fired if we got in trouble.
3. What was your favorite Alcatraz prank?
 

There were two of them. The first happened on the 4th of July. Bill Hart and I bought fireworks in Chinatown. This was back when the fireworks were really large, nothing like they have today. We put one on the parade ground with a really long fuse. We lit the fuse then skedaddled back to our apartments. I was lying in bed when it went off. They investigated, but didn’t find out who did it. Someone asked my father and he said: “It couldn’t have been Chuck. He was asleep in his bed.”

The second one is a bit like you have in Al Capone Shines My Shoes. We were climbing between the floors of 64 building. Bill told me don’t step off the 2×4 supports. My foot slipped. It didn’t go through the ceiling but people noticed. They yelled “Earthquake.” When we got back, everyone asked us if we’d felt the earthquake. The crack is still there.

4. Did you ever break an Alcatraz rule?
  I broke all sign rules. Anything that said: DO NOT ENTER. Any fence or sign was subject to a violation.
  Chuck Stucker as a boy
5. Did you need to treat your father differently than you might have ordinarily?
  I was told never to jump out and say: “BOO.” We couldn’t surprise them because they were always on alert.
6. Did convicts ever seem like they knew you?
  We used to help the convicts load the laundry and the trash on the truck. They just seemed like adults to us. My sister was older and she remembers the cons that had trade talents—plumbers and electricians—coming into our home to help us out. Once a convict asked her if we were the Stuckers from Leavenworth. That upset her.
7. Did you ever meet a pass man? (a convict who works in the warden’s home)
  Yes. I met Montgomery who was a pass man for Warden Swope. I used to fish with Warden Swope’s wife. I would knock on the Warden’s door and Montgomery would answer.
8. Were you ever on the island during an escape attempt?
  Yes, but I was a baby at the time. I do remember hearing rebellious behavior in the cell block. The prison population would rattle cups on the bars, yell and scream. My sister remembers hearing the escape siren going off. The protocol was to lock yourself in your apartment and wait. The fear was that a convict would grab a hostage.
  Chuck Stucker as a baby
9. What do you miss the most?
  The social group and the fishing. There was no limit to the amount of fish you could catch. No game warden. You didn’t need a license. I caught capazoni, eel, perch, sting ray, sand and leopard sharks up to four and five feet long.
10. Any do-overs? What do you wish you’d done now that you didn’t do then?
 

Every kid wanted to go in the cellblock. You had to be twenty-one years old to get in there.

When I turned twenty-one, I came back to Alcatraz. Because the Warden’s daughter married my cousin, I was able to get a tour. I was in a boat with a group of about twenty-five other people. When I got off the boat, a convict who was working on the dock came up to me and grabbed my arm. He said: “Are you Ed Stucker’s son? Tell your father hello. I always liked the man.”

This was eight years after my father left Alcatraz. I wish I had asked that convict his name or his Alcatraz number. But I was so surprised, I didn’t. I don’t know how he picked me out of a group of twenty-five. The prisoners knew who everyone was.

11. Can you describe your first look inside the cell house?
  It was intimidating. It felt like I was in a zoo. I did not want to stare.
12. There are a million myths about Alcatraz. How would you like to set the record straight?
  The Alcatraz myths were created by the secrecy and Hollywood. In the thirties, media was not allowed on the island. The inmates who were released gave interviews, which only added to the mystery and the mystique. The press was never allowed to come and take a look.

To me the real events are more interesting than the fiction.

  Laundry
13. Why do you think you are so fascinated by the island?
  I guess I started collecting information about Alcatraz, because I saw the history was being lost. I wanted to make sure people’s stories were recorded. I wanted to be a keeper of information.
14. What is the strangest true story you know about Alcatraz?
  Prisoners on Alcatraz knew everything there was to know. Cons knew about Pearl Harbor before the guards did. They had their own sources of information.

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