The decaying exoskeleton of Alcatraz’s prison walls revealed layers of paint, harkening back to its glory days in the 30s, when the U.S. military first transferred the island to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Former prison guard Patrick Mahoney navigated his motorized wheelchair past the old prison’s broken windows and decaying plaster hull. He glanced around the long room, taking in his former workplace and home.
“I was here seven years,” Mahoney said of his time as a prison guard on the island. “My sons were born while we were here. On their birth certificate it says U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz.”
Mahoney’s was among the last group of guards working on the island when the prison closed 50 years ago on March, 21st, 1963. He was captain of the boat that carried the last shackled and chained prisoners from the island.
“I felt terrible that last day though, knowing that this was it,” Mahoney said. “When I seen that gun coming out of that tower, I knew that was it.”
|Former Alcatraz prison guard Jim Albright returned to the island to mark the 50th anniversary of the prison's closure. (Joe Rosato Jr.)|
That day marked the end of the island’s nearly 30-year run as a prison -- which enjoyed one of the most scenic locations ever for a penitentiary. Now, as tourists roamed the island, posing for photos in prison cells and taking in storied views of San Francisco, Mahoney recalled a day when two inmates got a hold of scissors inside the prison’s clothing factory.
“Out of the clear blue sky this guy grabbed a scissors and went right through him,” Mahoney said gesturing to his chest.
Former prison guard Jim Albright recalled the famous escape by three inmates, which is credited with helping to hasten the prison’s closure. The men were never found and their fates are still the subject of endless debate.
“Very fearful, very apprehensive, exciting,” recalled Albright of the escape. “Just everything was go, go, go.”
On the day the prison closed, a freelance photographer for Life Magazine named Leigh Wiener captured an image of Albright helping to escort some of the last prisoners out the prison’s front door.
“We normally took them out the kitchen basement,” Albright said. “But these were the last inmates, we took them right out the front door.”
In the end, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy closed the prison because of its high costs and low number of inmates. It was also a victim of some of the same features that made it an isolated destination for some of the worst of the worst criminals.
“In the 1960s you’re going to have this prison right across Fisherman’s Wharf and this very busy city?” said Golden Gate National Recreation Area Superintendent Frank Dean. “It just sort of didn’t make a lot of sense.”
In addition to inmates, the island was home to the families of administrators and guards. Linda Sather lived on the island with her husband who was one of the lighthouse keepers. She remembered once the prisoners left she got the run of the island, perhaps becoming its first tourist.
“Of course after the prison closed we had free range,” Sather said. “We went all through the prison buildings. We walked all around the island, it was really beautiful.”
On Thursday, the National Park Service held a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the prison’s closure. Wiener’s images of the last day were blown-up and on display in one of the decaying old buildings.
Albright steadied himself and peered up at the blown-up photo version of his younger self, leading the last shackled prisoners out of the prison.
After escorting the convicts to a Kansas prison Albright said he returned to the island for a short time. The silent, empty buildings echoed his own feelings about the prison’s closure.
“I’m sad because I’m coming back after I get them inmates in prisons,” Albright said. “And I have no home here anymore. I have no job here anymore.”