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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Phyllis Hess (Twinney) lived on Alcatraz Island because her father was the Chief Medical Officer. She lived on the island from 1934-1939.
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko via email March 3, 2013.
When did you live on the island?
From 1934 through 1939. Like Moose, in Al Capone Does My Homework, I lived on Officer’s Row. Our Alcatraz home was built in the late 1800’s. It had Victorian architecture and dust and mold from the same era. I loved living there. The bells, whistles and fog horns were just part of comforting normal life.
What was your father’s job?
My father, Dr. George Hess, was the Chief Medical Officer on the island. We arrived on the island to help supervise the retrofitting of the prison hospital and stayed through the first few years of operation.
Did you have any contact with the prisoners?
Alcatraz was just like any street in any town in America. The only difference was we had high security convicts. Did I see them? Yes. Did I have direct contact with them? No.
Did you ever meet a pass man?
If by pass men, you mean the convict servants in the warden’s house, no I never met them. My father was not in favor of Warden Johnston having prisoners in white jackets doing servant duty in his house. Dad hired a housekeeper for us. She was Irish, her name was Lydia, and she came over on the first boat each morning. She taught me the “right way” to eat oatmeal; she had lots of “right ways” to do things.
What did your father think of Al Capone?
Al Capone was my father’s specially assigned patient. They met in Atlanta where Capone was held before Alcatraz. My father was aware Al was a highly demanding and very sick man. That only made my father more sensitive to Al’s plight.
What did Capone think of your father?
Al liked the bedside manner of my father and his assistant, Nurse Ping. (He threw hissy fits with the other medical staff.) With Al’s medical condition, he was choosey as to who he would let touch him, which meant my father got stuck with him from Atlanta to Alcatraz to Terminal Island. It all boiled down to “Let Dr. Hess handle him.”
Did you ever receive a gift from Al Capone?
Al Capone sent an occasional present via my father, who was Al’s doctor. Once he wrote a piece of music for me. He had heard I was born in Ohio, so he wrote a song called: “Beautiful Ohio” and signed it “for Doctor Hess’ little daughter from Al Capone.”
What else can you tell us about Capone?
The best story about Capone is that Dad and Nurse Charles Ping and a guard took Al by train back to his family in Florida. This trip was supposed to be top secret. Walter Winchell, the radio gossip columnist, broadcast the exact train, route and layover. No one to this day knows who leaked this information to Winchell. Since my dad did not have a radio, he was shocked to see the press out in full force when the train pulled into St. Louis. Don’t laugh, but it was Al who was the dodgiest of them all. He suggested that he and my father be handcuffed while Charlie and the guard put their guns (dismantled) under the seats, blast out onto the platform and bash cameras and create a distraction. Dad and Al hightailed it off the other side and ran, shackled together, to the next train for Al to get home.
What was the scariest place on the island?
There were no scary places for me on Alcatraz. The only person who scared the liver out of me was the Warden.
What do you miss most about Alcatraz?
I miss Alcatraz because there was such enormous good will among the families on the island. We understood our rules. They made sense. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived where I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. Life has been á la carte ever since.
Since Alcatraz, Phyllis has taught elementary school in four states; been an assistant in biology at Wayne State University in Detroit; and an editor for the Michigan Psychiatric Society.
George DeVincenzi worked as a guard on the island from 1950-1957 Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in San Francisco, CA, on February 15, 2013
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.
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.
Is there anything you miss about Alcatraz?
Nothing. I don’t miss it.
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.
Did you ever feel as if the convicts were conspiring against you?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I never recall winning a game against the Bird Man.
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.