A & E

Alcatraz: Life on the Rock

There are a lot of stories about life behind bars at Alcatraz photo: Alison Taggart-Barone / NPS

I’ve never chatted with a career criminal before,” I said, smiling at the soft-spoken 80-year-old man who was talking to me while eating scrumptious appetizers at San Francisco’s elegant Hyatt Regency Hotel. Bill Baker said he considers himself a “career convict,” not a criminal. The difference? “The career criminal is successful,” he grinned.

The Hyatt reception was the first event of a two-day annual weekend reunion of former guards and inmates of Alcatraz. Additionally, a never-before-seen Alcatraz photo collection, “Alcatraz: Life on the Rock” by renowned photographer Leigh Warner, adorned the enormous walls throughout the hotel’s massive atrium lobby.

The 79th anniversary in 2009 of Alcatraz Island’s opening as a federal penitentiary, a collaboration among Alcatraz Cruises, the Hyatt Regency and the National Park Service created a memorable event.

Baker described his life in Alcatraz in his book, Alcatraz 1959AZ (his prisoner number). “I wasn’t a great kid. I didn’t get along with family members, and I ran away a lot,” he said. In the end, it was his predilection for escape that landed him on Alcatraz. His first serious run-in with the law came when he stole a car and drove it from McNeil Island Federal Prison in Washington State to Portland, Ore., making it a federal crime. As an inmate at McNeil Island, he was being transferred to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. “I cut the link of the handcuff hooking me to the next guy, and got caught.” He was, therefore, a candidate for “the hole” in Leavenworth.

The hole is a dark, dank cell with no bed, no covers and no light. He was stripped naked and kept there for several months. “Two or three times a week I got an onion, a pea and some watery soup. The other days it was bread and water,” Baker said.

When prisoners were released from the hole in any Federal prison, they were put in segregation. It was a regular cell (though not the prisoner’s own), with three meals a day, a bed, light, and time to walk around but isolated from everyone else. No yard time. The prisoners had to demonstrate their rehabilitation before being allowed back to their own cells.

Robert Luke, another Alcatraz inmate, also described his life in his book, Entombed in Alcatraz #1118AZ, along with a DVD. A perennial runaway, Luke made his first real money by serving as lookout for a friend who was burglarizing St. Louis hotel rooms. Both eventually were caught, and because Luke was only 15, his captors put him on a bus for Los Angeles and told him never to come back to their city. “I never did,” he chuckled.

Luke had a hair-trigger temper, which usually led to physical confrontations. In addition to being extremely violent, he continued to rob banks and committed enough crimes to send him to San Quentin and other prisons before Alcatraz. For Luke, one of the biggest negatives about his time at Alcatraz was boredom. The hour in the yard, meals and voracious reading in his cell helped, but the rest of the day was dictated by the guards’ morning wakeups, meals, yard times, and lights out. One thing Luke particularly missed was the smell of freshly mowed lawn, and after his release, he would simply lie on a lawn and appreciate the aroma.

In some respects, as Luke pointed out, Alcatraz was a better place to be than some of the other prisons. It was smaller, for one. Alexandra Picavet, public affairs specialist with the National Parks Service, estimates that the prison population never reached its capacity of approximately 350, whereas Leavenworth and others held 2,500 men who were forced to share small cells.

Also, Luke said, the food at Alcatraz was excellent. Warden Johnson attributed some of the prison rioting at the turn of the 20th century not only to crowded conditions but also to bad food. He made sure that Alcatraz food was of high quality, which characterized the menu until the prison closed.

While Baker continued to practice his talent for forgery after his release from Alcatraz in 1963, Luke took a different path. Through contacts, he managed to get a job in Los Angeles with a company that gave him an opportunity to work. He nearly lost this opportunity when another employee taunted him, mainly to irritate him as the new guy. Luke responded by bashing the employee in his face. Fortunately, his employers were pleased with Luke’s work and kept him on.

Ashamed of his past, Luke told only his family and his first employers that he had been in Alcatraz. When he met the love of his life, Ida Marie, his background did not deter her and the two were married in 1973. Days for Bob and Ida Marie Luke are spent golfing, fishing and traveling. In the dedication to his book, Luke thanks Ida, his “best buddy,” for encouraging him to write about his past. He has had no legal trouble for 50 years.

Baker continued to ply his trade — forgery — after leaving Alcatraz. Currently on parole in Ohio, he required permission from Ohio officials to make the trip to the reunion. He had wanted to sleep in his old cell, which is what he did, and experience the thrill of walking out the next morning.

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