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Living Memories From The Last Days Of Alcatraz
Originally published on Sun March 31, 2013 6:28 pm
Fifty years ago, the notorious Alcatraz prison shut its gate behind guard Jim Albright as he escorted the last inmate off the island on March 21, 1963.
"As we're going out, I know, when I come back from this trip, I don't have a job, I don't have a home anymore," Albright remembers. "I didn't want the island to close, I didn't want to leave. I liked it there."
Since that day, Albright estimates that he's visited the island a dozen times, along with many other tourists to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. But even without prisoners, Alcatraz remains one of the most infamous prisons in America. It continues to capture the public's imagination, decades after it closed.
Remembering "The Rock"
Former inmate Robert Schibline was brought to Alcatraz in 1958, after he was caught robbing banks while on shore leave from the Navy — and using the aircraft carrier on which he was stationed as a getaway vehicle.
"Well, the reputation of Alcatraz went far and wide, even to us convicts," Schibline says. "I had a bit of a trepidation when I got off the bus, and seeing that thing sitting on the island, out in the bay, shrouded by fog, I thought, 'Oh boy, here I go again, into the world unknown!'"
Albright was also nervous on his first day on "The Rock."
"I remember I was only 24 when I started there, and I had no previous experience," he says. "So it was kinda fearful, and you'd be apprehensive and it was exciting and everything, especially when you walked through the door for the first time and they slammed the door behind you. Because you didn't know what to expect."
The Night Of The Escape
Albright and Schibline remember each other from those days, though guards and inmates did not socialize. They also recall the night when inmates Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin made history as the first successful escapees from "The Rock."
The daring trio placed homemade dummy heads in their beds to fool the guards, then climbed up onto the roof and into the San Francisco Bay on a raft made of raincoats. They were never heard from again.
"All the inmates felt like they made it and all the officers felt like they didn't make it," Albright recalls.
"Everybody was very happy that they made it out of the cell block and out of the prison," says Schibline, who did his own small part to help the Anglin brothers escape. "I was able to get access to the paper out of the garbage can and get the tide tables off to Clarence."
Whether or not that helped the escapees is uncertain, and most believe they drowned in the ocean. A year after the escape, Alcatraz prison was shut down.
Albright went on to work in other prisons for the next 22 years, and Schibline opened a successful scuba diving shop after his release from prison. Both are now retired.
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.
Coming up, the Canadian band Chic Gamine. But first, Alcatraz, perhaps the country's most famous prison. It shut its gates 50 years ago this month. Even after all these years, we're still fascinated by The Rock and with those who lived there.
We went in search of a former inmate and a former guard and found one of each: Robert Schibline and Jim Albright. Robert, let's start with you. Take us back there. What was it like?
ROBERT SCHIBLINE: Well, the reputation of Alcatraz was far and wide, even to us convicts. And I had a bit of a trepidation when I got on the bus and seen that thing sitting on the island out in the bay shrouded by fog. And I thought, oh, boy, here I go again into the world's unknown.
SULLIVAN: Jim Albright, you were one of the last guards off the island when it closed 50 years ago. What do you remember about Alcatraz? What was that job like?
JIM ALBRIGHT: I remember - I was only 24 when I started there, and I had no previous experience. And so it was kind of fearful, and you'd be apprehensive, and it was exciting and everything, especially when you walked through the door for the first time and they slammed the door behind you, because you didn't know what to expect. And I remember Robert was a young, tough kid with dark hair. And he was very personable.
SULLIVAN: Robert, do you remember Jim Albright?
SCHIBLINE: Yes, I do. I ain't going to say anything bad but nothing good.
SCHIBLINE: He was a guard. That's all I can say. I have a complete detest for all prison guards, especially Jim. He's still alive.
SULLIVAN: I would imagine it's difficult to be the inmate because you are there because you've committed a crime.
SCHIBLINE: Well, I realize that. I realize it was my fault I was there.
SULLIVAN: How did you - what crime did you commit?
SCHIBLINE: Bank robbery.
SULLIVAN: But I think there's a little bit of a story there, isn't there? It's 1958. I think you were also in the Navy at the time.
SCHIBLINE: Oh, yeah. Oh, you want the Navy story? Oh, yeah.
SULLIVAN: You were in the Navy at the time that you were a bank robber.
SCHIBLINE: Yeah. Well, when I was in the Navy, everybody go on the shore to do their drinking and honky-tonking. Well, me and my buddy would go and we would rob a bank. And we scampered back to the ship, our aircraft carrier. And next day when we pull out to go to a different port, we'd get all around the roadblocks by going out to sea.
SULLIVAN: Jim Albright, how would you describe the relationship between the guards and the inmates while you were there?
ALBRIGHT: I'd say for the circumstances, it was pretty good because I wasn't there to harass them. I was just there to make sure they didn't escape.
SULLIVAN: Well, while you were a guard on Alcatraz, there was the famous 1962 escape from Alcatraz where three inmates made a boat out of raincoats and attempted to sail off into the night. They were never seen or heard from again. Tell us about that night and what had happened.
ALBRIGHT: Well, that was Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin. The alarm woke me up. And I had been over town playing ball the night before, and I twisted my knee, and I had crutches. And so I was out crutching up the hill, and I wanted to see what was going on. And I stepped up to the cell, and the dummy head was so real that at high noon, I thought I had the wrong cell and moved over to the next cell.
SULLIVAN: The dummy head is, of course, the heads that the inmates made out of wax and soap and a homemade paint that they put inside the beds so that the guards and officers would think that they were sleeping that night when they were actually crawling up the drainpipes and out onto the roof and out into the water. What went through your head when you realized that these three inmates had escaped?
ALBRIGHT: Well, of course, our first job was the search and try and find them.
SULLIVAN: Robert, do you remember?
SCHIBLINE: Oh, yeah.
SULLIVAN: Robert, what was the mood like the morning that the three men escaped?
SCHIBLINE: Oh, exhilaration. Everybody was very happy that they made it out of the cellblock and out of the prison. And I knew the Anglin brothers really, really well- John and Clarence. They're from Florida here. And Clarence Anglin worked in the barbershop, which is right across from my cell. And one of the guys (unintelligible), apparently, I didn't know this at the time, but he brought in a newspaper (unintelligible) when he worked out on the docks. And I was able to get access to that paper out of the garbage can and get the tide tables off to Clarence. And...
SULLIVAN: Robert, are you saying that you helped Clarence Anglin escape from Alcatraz?
SCHIBLINE: Yeah. I think out of 250-something people there, there must have been at least 150 who knew about the escape for six months before it happened.
SULLIVAN: Wow. Jim, does that surprise you?
ALBRIGHT: No, because they all wanted to feel like they was wanted, you know, and helped them escape.
SULLIVAN: They were never seen or heard from again and...
SULLIVAN: ...most people believe that they drowned in the bay or in the Pacific Ocean. Do you think they made it, Jim?
ALBRIGHT: Oh, no. No. If they did make it, why didn't they five years after they're not caught go turn themselves in? They'd be so famous. They'd be on Jay Leno's show and Oprah's show and "Today" shows and have books and movies. And...
ALBRIGHT: And all the inmates felt like they made it and all the officers felt like they didn't make it.
SCHIBLINE: Exactly. And I'm agreeing with Jim. For the first time in my life, I'm agreeing with a guard.
SULLIVAN: So we're finding some common ground between officer and inmate here.
SCHIBLINE: Yeah. (Unintelligible).
SULLIVAN: Fifty years will do that, I imagine. Well, let's talk about the food of Alcatraz.
SCHIBLINE: Oh, the best in the prison system, no matter where you go.
ALBRIGHT: Yeah. It was great. We had the best food of any prison in the United States.
SCHIBLINE: I'll testify to that.
SULLIVAN: Jim, what did you do after you left Alcatraz?
ALBRIGHT: Twenty-two years at four more prisons.
SULLIVAN: Wow. How does Alcatraz stand up to those other prisons?
ALBRIGHT: I would go back there right now if everything was equal.
SULLIVAN: Robert, I'm going to imagine that you would not like to go back to Alcatraz.
SCHIBLINE: No. But if I had to do time, I'd rather do it there.
SULLIVAN: And tell me about your last day, Robert, on Alcatraz.
SCHIBLINE: You're never forewarned about that stuff. They just said pack up your stuff. You're going.
SULLIVAN: And, Jim, what was your last day on Alcatraz like?
ALBRIGHT: I escorted the last inmate, Frank Weatherman, off the island and took him to town, put him on the airplane and flew him to Leavenworth in Atlanta. But as we're going out - and I know when I come back from this trip, I don't have a job, I don't have a home anymore.
SULLIVAN: Oh. What did you feel?
ALBRIGHT: Well, of course, it was sad. I didn't want the island to close. I didn't want to leave. I liked it there.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. How many times have you been back?
ALBRIGHT: Oh, probably a dozen.
SULLIVAN: Robert, have you ever been back?
SCHIBLINE: Yeah. I went back in 2005.
SULLIVAN: What was that like?
SCHIBLINE: I was amazed. They treated me like a rock star.
SULLIVAN: Robert, do you think after this conversation today that you don't hate the guards so much?
SCHIBLINE: No change in my head whatsoever. I'm (unintelligible). I'm over the elephant when it comes to that.
SULLIVAN: Jim, I hope that doesn't hurt your feelings too much.
ALBRIGHT: No, no, no, no. That's...
SCHIBLINE: Oh, it's nothing personal. It's just he's a guard.
ALBRIGHT: But I enjoyed talking to him.
SULLIVAN: Well, Robert Schibline and Jim Albright, a former inmate and a former guard, on the famous island of Alcatraz. Thank you both so much for talking to us today, and each other.
ALBRIGHT: You're welcome.
SCHIBLINE: My pleasure.
SULLIVAN: To see some photos of that last day on Alcatraz, visit our website, npr.org. And in case you were wondering, Robert Schibline opened a scuba diving shop after his release and ran it for 40 years. He is recently retired to Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.