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.