Jolene Babyak lived on the Rock in 1954-1955 and also 1962. Her father was acting warden when Warden Blackwell was on vacation, which happened during the most famous escape attempt on Alcatraz. She is a premiere Alcatraz author and historian.
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Berkeley, California, on July 10, 2013
How did it feel to be the Associate Warden’s daughter?
My dad was just my dad. I was pretty unconscious at the age of 15. I was just trying to figure out who I was. If anything it might have embarrassed me a little bit.
Did you feel more responsible because you were the warden’s daughter?
Did you get special treatment?
The only thing I remember happening was once I missed the boat and the pilot, Pat Mahoney, turned the boat around to go back and get me. It was just a little turnaround but it was embarrassing at the time. Later I wondered if it was because I was the A.W.’s daughter. But he assured me that it was because he liked me!
Any downside to being the Warden’s daughter?
There was a girl on the island who I thought didn’t like me because it was rumored that her dad had been up for the job. But my father got the promotion instead.
Are you the person who determined which was Al Capone’s cell? And if so, how were you able to document this?
John Martini and I worked on this together. There were three different numbering systems on the cells. When Al Capone came to Alcatraz the original numbering system was in place. By creating a grid of all three numbering systems we were able to determine which was Al Capone’s cell. (Cell #181).
Given the mythology around Alcatraz, what are some of the guidelines you use to determine fact from fiction?
I only use primary sources and documents. I read books and newspapers for color (quotes, attitude) but generally not for facts.
What are some of the most surprising facts you’ve discovered about Alcatraz?
The size of the cells. (5’x 9’). I was shocked by how small they were. Also, I was surprised by how collegial some of the prisoners and the guards were. You can’t work in an environment that is hateful all the time. People found the humanity where they could.
Were there ever any kids on the island who you thought shouldn’t be there?
No, if you got in trouble, your dad got in trouble and then you’d be in trouble when you got home too.
In your book, Eyewitness on Alcatraz, you talk about getting a hand ball from a prisoner. You said “It was a proud moment; I had in my hand the most valuable item on Alcatraz—the coveted black handball that had rolled down the hill from the prison yard wall.” One of the questions kids always ask me, is what happened to that ball? They want to know if it’s on eBAY or what?
I don’t have that exact handball. But I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of another handball, also from a prisoner on Alcatraz. That one I still have.
You were living on the island during the 1962 Morris-Anglin escape; can you tell me what that felt like?
The escape was fun. If it had been two a.m. and there had been guns it would have been scary, but we found out at seven a.m. It was broad daylight. My mother came in and I could tell by her voice she was excited, because life would be different that day. We had to go into the cellar and I grabbed a paring knife. That part was a little scary. My mother made me go first.
Because I had the paring knife.
As an Alcatraz historian who has spent the better part of her life researching Alcatraz, is it your opinion that the men in the 1962 escape attempt, (the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris) drowned or do you think they made it?
The Anglin brothers were show-offs; it would have been impossible for them to hide out without telling anyone. (There’s no fun in that.)
Morris was quiet, but he had no relatives and few resources. They weren’t like James “Whitey” Bulger, who also spent time on the Rock. Years later, Bulger landed on the Ten Most Wanted list for almost two decades before he was caught in 2011. When found, he had stashed more than $800,000 in cash in his apartment. That’s after not working for two decades! Morris and the Anglins were small-time criminals with no money except what they could steal.
Jolene Babyak has published numerous books on Alcatraz including: Eyewitness on Alcatraz; Breaking the Rock, the Great Escape from Alcatraz; and Birdman: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud. She has interviewed scores of former residents, prisoners and guards, reviewed hundreds of Alcatraz files, and is currently working on another book about life on Alcatraz.
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.