Inside Alcatraz: As a new supernatural drama set on the notorious island prison begins, one former guard reveals the dangers he faced every day
22:31 GMT, 9 March 2012
What is it about the name Alcatraz that still sends a shiver down the spine I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have 50 questions to ask me when they discover I know ‘The Rock’ – the world’s most notorious prison – better than most.
The truth is, most of the stuff you think you know about Alcatraz just isn’t true. Do you think the Birdman of Alcatraz actually tended birds there
Sorry to burst the bubble, but he didn’t. Nor did the real-life Birdman, psychotic killer Robert Stroud, look anything like Burt Lancaster, who played him in the film. Do you think the place was full of squalor and rats Sorry again – it was spotless.
The cast of Alcatraz in front of the island
I can’t blame film directors for putting
a spin on it though. If they made an authentic movie about my life
there, for instance, they’d probably focus on the dramatic bits – the
murders, knifings and fights; all the stuff that still gives me
nightmares – and leave out the mundane bits.
This new TV series, which stars Sam Neill, Parminder Nagra and Jorge Garcia from Lost, is based around the inmates and guards of Alcatraz, but with a pretty big supernatural twist. Its premise is, ‘What if, when Alcatraz closed in 1963, it wasn’t for the safety reasons cited by the government, but because the prisoners and guards had simply vanished into thin air. And what if they then suddenly started to reappear back in the present day’
They wanted to know about real daily life in there from me, not the myths that have been portrayed before. To be honest, I ended up working in Alcatraz because I, too, was swept up in the aura of the place. It was the escape-proof prison, where the most dangerous inmates from all over the US were kept, including the biggest gangsters of the 1930s and 40s, Al Capone among them. I grew up on the movies that glamorised Alcatraz.
Frank said for the families that lived on the island, it was like a community
I was 21 when I got a job as a correctional officer there in 1948, and my first day is etched in my memory; going through the first holding area, then the three locked doors to the inner section. I remember walking down Broadway – the main corridor between the three-storey cell blocks. Of course I was frightened, but the overriding memory is of trying not to show my fear. The inmates were quiet at first, then they started shouting obscene remarks, giving me what we called ‘the treatment’. It’s what all the new guards got, and you just couldn’t react.
‘Don’t let them see it gets to you,’ I was told. Once an inmate thought he’d got under your skin, it was over. It was hard though, being given a finger gesture by an inmate who then insisted he was scratching his nose. Or they’d blow kisses at me, which freaked me out, but what could you do
The inmates were quiet at first, then they started shouting obscene remarks, giving me what we called ‘the treatment’
I worked at Alcatraz for three years.
I lived on the island, in bachelor quarters, as did half the staff; the
other half lived on the mainland. We had about 50 families in Alcatraz,
it was like a community. You could eat the same food as the inmates, or
eat with one of the families. You could also have visitors to stay, and
everyone wanted to come. I never knew I had so many friends.
key to the job itself was never forgetting how dangerous it was. I once
got reprimanded for having my hands in my pockets – you could never
allow yourself to be distracted, ever. There were 12 prisoner counts a
day, as the authorities were terrified of an escape.
One of the
challenges was not making the routine routine. If you were patrolling
the cells, for instance, you altered the direction you walked. If you
worked in a gun gallery – where the prison’s weapons were stored and you
had armed guards covering you – you didn’t go to the toilet at the same
time each day.
Former prison guard Frank Heaney
first ‘difficult’ day came about a month in when a prisoner started
screaming in his cell. I was sent in first, and the prisoner grabbed me
and threw me against the wall. The lieutenant with me hit him round the
head with his truncheon, then we put a straitjacket on him. There were
plenty more hairy moments, mostly knifings. In prison, it’s hard to
fight someone without the guards seeing, but stabbings are much easier
to arrange, especially with improvised weapons such as a ‘shiv’, a blade
carved from wood. You can easily get friends to surround a guy in the
yard, stick it in him, then drop the blade and walk away.
came to know some of the highest-profile prisoners. One of my jobs was
to guard Robert Stroud – who spent 54 years in prison, 44 of them in
isolation – as he had a bath. And I had to search his cell. He’d just
stand there, staring at me intently. He’d killed a guard at his previous
prison and I never felt comfortable around him, yet he was the most
intelligent man I’d ever met.
never been able to escape from Alcatraz. Today, I still go over to the
island and show visitors round. People come from all over the world to
walk the corridors I once did. They all say the place gives them the
shivers. I understand that, because I feel it too.
Alcatraz starts this Tuesday at 9pm on Watch