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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.