Breaking into Alcatraz

A former guard's inside look at America's most famous prison

"It caught the public's imagination," says Heaney. "We will be dead and gone for years, and people will still be saying, coming off the boat: 'That's Alcatraz.'" (iStockphoto)

Frank Heaney can't escape Alcatraz. In 1948, then just 21 years old, Heaney became the infamous federal prison's youngest guard ever. He later went back as a tour guide and still visits once a month to talk to people and autograph his book, Inside the Walls of Alcatraz. Which is where he takes us now.

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What made you want to be a prison guard?
I was born and raised in Berkeley, and from there you can see Alcatraz. In fact, there's a street in Berkeley called Alcatraz, and all the way down Alcatraz Street you can see Alcatraz.

I had a high interest in prisons because I had a cousin who worked in Folsom. I was in the service during World War II for a while, got out in '46 and was going to college in Berkeley. I was in the post office during a lunch break, and the post office had civil service postings. One said, "Correctional officer wanted on Alcatraz." They really emphasized during training class that there are no guards on Alcatraz, only correctional officers. They were always worried about their image.

What was a typical day for a guard, er, correctional officer?
It was a regular 40-hour week, 8-hour day. Three shifts. Somebody had to be there all the time. I went to training class for about a month. They teach you procedures, weapons training, jujitsu, how you should act. The different jobs were doing the counts, doing shakedown detail, going through cells, checking to see if there was any contraband, being a yard officer. Things like that.

Did you have to be a certain size and strength?
You didn't have to be a great big guy. You had to be big enough to take guys down. Just a normal man.

What was a typical day like for a prisoner?
Monday through Friday, we'd wake them up at 6:30 in the morning, and they'd have a half hour to get themselves dressed. Before that, we did a count. They had to stand in front of their cell, and we'd walk by and count them. As soon as that count was over, the lieutenant would blow a whistle, and by each tier on either side they would file into the dining room for breakfast, which was called Times Square.

There was no talking, before I was there, except on weekends in the yard. But that's a very hard rule to enforce. It lasted a few years. They call that the silent system. That ended and went into the quiet system. They could talk low or whisper, but not holler.

After breakfast they'd get ready to go to work. They had 15 minutes in their cells to put on a jacket. Alcatraz, particularly in the morning, was usually cold. They'd stand by the door and we'd make a quick count again, blow the whistle, then file out the same way out the door into the exercise yard. Then we'd count them down in the yard again. So from the yard they'd go downstairs to the prison industries, which consisted of a large military armory. Once down there, the officer in charge of the shop would make a count himself. They were always fearful of an escape.

They were down there till about a quarter to 12. Then they'd file back up, same routine, into the yard, into their cells to change. Then they were counted again and would go into the dining room for lunch. At one, they would then file back down again to go to work. At 4:30, quarter to 5, they'd go in for dinner. Then we'd lock them up, and that's their last lock-down. Until 9:30 they could read. After 9:30, no lights.

Where did the prisoners come from?
Alcatraz is in California, but it's a federal prison. There were inmates from all over the United States. Inmates were all sent there from other federal penitentiaries, not from courts. A warden might say, "If I see you one more time, you're going to Alcatraz."

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