Happy Wanderer: Inmates, guards, others recall life on ‘the Rock’


INSIDEBAYAREA.COM: August 30, 2013

For 1.3 million tourists a year, Alcatraz is an adventure. For Bob Luke, it’s hell. “There’s no good memories,” says the man who spent five years (1954-59) incarcerated on “the Rock.” “The only good memory was the day I left.”

Luke returned to Alcatraz on Aug. 11 for a reunion with fellow inmate Bill Baker, several guards and a smattering of children who grew up on the island. Tourists who booked trips for that day heard firsthand tales about one of the world’s most infamous prisons. Guard George DeVincenzi (1950-57) says he was aware of the danger from the first day he reported for duty and a haircut.

“The inmates were barbers,” he says, recalling how one con was cutting another con’s hair when he suddenly went after his “customer” with scissors. “Me, like a damn fool, I’m trying to separate ’em,” DeVincenzi says. “We swung around, knocked the table over, knocked the second barber’s chair over and me on top of ’em and he kept plunging his scissors into the black inmate’s heart, lung and chest. That was my first murder.”

To this day, Luke still remembers his identification number — 1118. He was shipped to “the Rock” after an escape attempt from Leavenworth.

“I was extremely hotheaded and violent in those days, and young — 26 or 27 years old. One night, I broke my cell up. Everything. Set fire to everything, including my clothes. The guards came, they took me over to D block, stripped me, searched me and stuck me in one of those dark holes — with no clothes.”

He counted 29 days in solitary confinement and kept his nose clean after that.

DeVincenzi and Luke remember a military prisoner who was serving 40 years for mutiny and riot. He had it in for a fellow con, and one day that con turned up in the shower room, not knowing his nemesis worked there.

“He never took a shower — let’s put it that way. He was dead within a minute on the floor,” says DeVincenzi.

All this went on inside the prison walls. Yet outside, life was — at least to the kids growing up on Alcatraz — idyllic. “There were about 75 or 80 kids who lived on the island, and it was really wonderful,” says Jolene Babyak. “We were free to come and go as if we were in a military base.”

She says all the kids went to school in San Francisco.

“We’d get off the boat at Van Ness and go into the city, then come back in the afternoon,” she says. And she fondly remembers the teenage dances at the Alcatraz social hall — where she got her first kiss at age 15.

At least 19 movies have been made about Alcatraz, creating this larger-than-life image. National Park Service spokeswoman Alexandria Picavet says at least part of the buzz has been intentional.

“Alcatraz marketed itself during the penitentiary years as ‘the Rock.’ It was the worst of the worst — it almost was a class thing among prisoners. Once you did time in Alcatraz, you were ‘there.’ ”


“Alcatraz: Life on the Rock” will be featured throughout Hyatt Regency San Francisco’s Guinness Book of World Records’ “largest atrium lobby” through Oct. 25. Alcatraz tours can be booked at www.alcatrazcruises.com.


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