Oct 05

Panel of Alcatraz Experts Talk About ‘Life on the Rock’ at NECA 2015 San Francisco


NECA 2015 San Francisco attendees heard about the history and some common misconceptions surrounding Alcatraz, one of the most infamous prisons in the world, from a panel of experts at a special session held on Monday.

The panel included a former prisoner on the Alcatraz, a former guard, a daughter of a former guard and an expert on the island.

The former prisoner, Robert Luke, was released from Alcatraz 56 years ago (and has been married for 42 of those years).

As he described his experiences on the island, he mentioned that one of the downsides of Alcatraz was the smallness of the prison.

“There was no place to go,” he said.

He struggled with violent tendencies and was moved around several times during his stay. But he worked jobs and read every chance he got, sometimes two or three books a week.

As the daughter of an Alcatraz warden who moved to the island at age 7, Jolene Babyak had fond memories of the place. She went to school in the city, and friends could come to visit.

“It was a fabulous place to live,” she recalled. “People sacrificed careers to stay there because it was so beautiful.”

Most escapes happened at the other side of the island during the day, when she and her peers were at school. Her family moved away and then back when she was 15 in 1962. It was then that she experienced dealing with a prison escape – she and her family were safe – and her first kiss.

Georgie De Vincenzi, a former prison guard on the island, said he had pleasant memories as well.

But some memories were also very violent, as he described at the panel. He witnessed two murders within his first few years on the job and dealt with well-known inmates such as Robert Stroud, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Billy Cook.

John Martini delved into the history of the island, which closed in 1963. It was occupied by Native Americans for a year and a half before coming part of the National Park Service. Approximately 1,500 men were incarcerated there.

Martini said movies have created a “mythological Alcatraz” because of its isolated nature. “The real Alcatraz is a far cry from that,” he said.

Luke agreed. “It’s either very exciting or very dull, mostly dull,” he said.

There was very little gang activity or drug use, he added, and the underground units stopped being used in 1938.

So why did Alcatraz shut down?

“It was very expensive,” Martini said. “It’s a rock. By the 1960s, it lost its reason for being.”

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