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)

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As the youngest guard ever, did you get picked on?
That was my big problem. I was 21, and they would try to take advantage of my age. I just had to overlook it. They'd give me the finger. I knew if I called them on it, they'd say, "Oh, I was just scratching my nose." They'd blow kisses at me. How can you tell on that? The administration would have said, we made a mistake hiring you. I ignored it, and that was the best way.

There was also the doom-and-gloom despair, the despondency that prevailed in the place. I was more sensitive to it. I left during the Korean War—that was my escape from Alcatraz.

You knew the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud. (Stroud raised canaries in his cell at Leavenworth prison and was the subject of the 1962 film, Birdman of Alcatraz.)
I knew him in the hospital. He was developing Bright's disease, a kidney condition, and needed further medical treatment. They put him into a special room—it wasn't a cell, it was a small room for utilities, but they made it into a cell so he could be by himself. The only contact he had was with people like myself, working in there. They did watch him closer than other inmates. A few times I was in there by myself, and I was warned—he stabbed an officer to death at Leavenworth.

Did you know any other interesting characters?
There was this one guy, George "Machine-Gun" Kelly, that everybody liked. He was a banker, a bootlegger, a kidnapper. He had a very good personality. A very affable Irishman. Unlike any inmate I knew there, he had a couple years of college and came from a pretty good family in Memphis, Tennessee. He was a typical case that got caught up during the Prohibition period. When that ended, he was already in it. You turn out to be what you're hanging around with. As far as I know, he never shot anybody. The movies show he did, but movies are the worst way to get any kind of truth.

So I take it you didn't like The Shawshank Redemption.
It was so ridiculous. Remember when the captain beats the guy to death in front of all those guys? I'm saying, come on now, this is a state prison in New England getting away with this stuff.

The worst movie, and my name is in the credits, is Murder in the First. I worked with Kevin Bacon. It's so ridiculous, it almost made me throw up. People thought it was so real. We were constantly beating them in that movie. The way I remember it, it was just a bunch of guys trying to do a job.

And Birdman of Alcatraz?
The portrayal by Burt Lancaster—I got mad at the movie because it sympathetically showed Stroud. But after seeing it a few more times, I liked it. I just disregarded the truth, then I enjoyed it.

In Shawshank, one inmate had a hard time leaving because he was so used to the conditions inside. Did you find that to be the case?
That's not an exaggeration, that's true. One inmate who was there for 15 years, going on beyond that, he was getting ready to be released. He was so nervous. Some of these guys could con a doctor into giving them sleeping pills. They gave him some sleeping pills. He was highly nervous about getting out. He didn't know how he'd be.

Is it true that everyone inside thinks he's innocent?
Yes, to a certain extent. I don't know whether they conned themselves into thinking they were innocent. Alcatraz was unique, because those suckers have so many raps against them. Some of them did try to convince me.

What is it about Alcatraz that the public finds so fascinating?
Where could you find a place that has so much notoriety? This is starting way back when it began with Al Capone being one of our first inmates, in August 1934. It's in the middle of the bay; at nighttime, when it's foggy, you see the lighthouse going around. All that conjures up, what's going on is so mysterious, and it was kept that way deliberately. All the mystery that surrounded it. If it was a prison on land, I don't think it'd have half the mystique it has.

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