Original publish date: October 23, 2009 Reissue date: July 9, 2020
This column was first published 11 years ago. Last weekend, I traveled to Terre Haute to check on it’s subject. Next, week, in Parts 2, 3 & 4, I will bring you up to speed on Jim Albright, the last guard to leave the notorious San Francisco Bay island prison know as “The Rock.”
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened 75 years ago on August 11, 1934. I covered my visit to the “The Rock” in an earlier “Eastside Voice” article. As I stood on the same Alcatraz boat dock that received the likes of Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Robert Stroud aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz” my attention was caught by a distinguished looking gentleman with what appeared to be a uniform draped over his arm and an Alcatraz prison guard hat in his hand. I asked one of the Park Rangers standing near me what the story was and he identified the man as a former Alcatraz guard from Terre Haute, Indiana and realizing that I was on the island for a story on an Indianapolis inmate, he followed that up with, “Oh yeah, you might want to talk to him. He was the last guard off the island.” I barely heard the last line as I was race walking across the dock towards him.
As soon as I approached, the man saw my Indiana University hat and immediately extended his hand in a friendly greeting. “Indiana, huh? I’m from Terre Haute” he said, “I’m Jim Albright and I was here for 4 years until the prison closed in 1963.” He went on to tell me that he gained a unique designation as the last guard off the island when he and his family left on June 22, 1963, over 3 months AFTER the prison closed on March 21, 1963. At that moment, the V.I.P. tram arrived to escort Jim and his lovely wife Catherine up the winding 130 foot hill that covers a steep quarter mile series of roads up to the cell house where Jim was here to sign copies of his book’ “Last Guard Out“. You can imagine my distress at having just heard and comprehended this tasty nugget as the tram was pulling away. Just as I was contemplating the idea of chasing after the tram to complete the interview, I was whisked away into the bowels of building 64 under the old officer’s quarters that act as the backdrop for arrival.
Here I awaited Alcatraz park ranger John Cantwell in what once was a gun port of old “Fortress Alcatraz” with the gun ports still plainly visible in the walls. The building now acts as the Ranger’s research station and library. Cantwell graciously answered all of my questions and then led me on a tour of several areas that are strictly off limits to the general public. A dedicated public servant and a true asset to the National Park Service, Cantwell then took me up to meet up again with Jim and his wife Cathy who were busily autographing copies of the book for guests on the island in the huge new bookstore humorously referred to as the “Alcatraz Wal-Mart” by island employees. It’s interesting to note that the bookstore is located in the basement below the old kitchen, an area previously off limits to visitors probably best remembered by true Alcatraz buffs as the area where inmate / author Jim Quilllen attempted his breakout through the tunnel housing the steam pipes for the cell house. Jim greeted me wearing his original Alcatraz guard’s uniform from head to toe and looking pretty sharp I must say. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could fit into the same clothes I wore 20 years ago, let alone 50 years after I wore them.
Jim and Cathy had driven across country from Terre Haute to San Francisco with their nine grandchildren in tow (complete with sleeping bags & luggage) to attend the 75th anniversary celebration on “The Rock“. The grandkids got the thrill of a lifetime when the whole family spent the night in the cells on “D block” together with the other guests and families attending the official ceremonies. With a sparkle in his eye, Jim told how he made sure the family slept in the cells on the middle tier of D block because “that’s the only tier that you can see all of the San Francisco shoreline from.” He paused for a moment to make sure that I knew it was the first time he’d ever slept in a cell. Jim lamented how he sometimes runs into young people who have never heard of Alcatraz, which is hard to imagine.
In between autographs, Jim told me the story of his time on Alcatraz. He proudly pointed out that he was hired as a guard 50 years ago that very month (August 1959) as a 24 year old Iowa farm boy with no previous law enforcement experience. He was loading milk cans for Sealtest Dairy in Denver, Colorado when his corrections officer brother-in-law asked if he had ever considered a change of career. Alcatraz sounded a lot more exciting than milk cans, so in 1956 Jim, Cathy and their son Kenneth packed everything they owned into the back of a 1956 Chevy Nomad and drove out to the city by the bay. Jim took one look at the fog covered rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay and wondered what they had gotten themselves into. He was proud of the fact that both of his daughters, Vicki Lynn (Harland) and Donna Sue (Hinzman) were born on the island and their birth certificates list “Alcatraz” as their place of birth.
As Jim signed books, took pictures with guests and chatted with fans, I was able to talk to Cathy about her time on the Island. Most people unfamiliar with Alcatraz do not realize that the families of the guards lived on the island alongside the inmates; although Catherine pointed out that they rarely came into contact with each other. “There were 3 inmates that worked in the mess hall and from our windows we could see the 5 inmates that worked on the dock, but that was about it. Of course, there were no women employed on the island. The only women here were housewives and mothers.” she said. When asked what, if anything, made Alcatraz special, Catherine replied that it was the feeling of “Community” that she remembers most. Everyone knew everyone and there was always someone willing to help whenever you needed it. She remembers that she had one of the girls at 3 am and before she could pack an overnight bag for her trip to the hospital, 2 neighbors were in the apartment to help.
The Albrights remembered that the island had its own grocery store, bowling alley and movie theatre with a new movie showing every Sunday night. Jim & Cathy lived in an apartment in San Francisco for the first 6 weeks while waiting for housing to open up on the island, Cathy remembers that it was hard to find housing in the city by the bay as most apartments would allow pets, but no children. Someone had told the Albrights that the apartments on the island were furnished, so the family sold all of their furniture only to find that, when they moved in, the rooms were bare. Jim smiles broadly when he recalls that rent on the island apartment was $ 27.50 per month and included laundry, dry cleaning and utilities. Along with his uniform, Jim brought along several artifacts from his years on Alcatraz including his 1959 ID card, whistle, leather key strap, Alcatraz key “chit” tag that was exchanged for cell door keys and perhaps most interesting a couple of shiny brass Post / PX / Store tokens from the old military post years. Jim recalled how the launch boat used to dock on the west side of the island where he found the tokens shining in the moonlight in about 6 inches of water near the dock one night.
Jim then told me the story of how he gained the designation as Alcatraz Island’s “Last Guard Out“. When the prison closed on March 21, 1963, the Albright’s daughter Donna Sue was only 11 days old and suffering from a foot abnormality that required surgery. The child could not be moved in her fragile condition, so the family remained on the island for 3 more months before leaving on June 22, 1963. The Albrights were the only family left on the island aside from a night watchman and a handful of government workers left behind to remove any useful equipment that could be transferred to other prisons or facilities. In late June of 1963, Jim was one of 10 Alcatraz guards handpicked by the Warden to be transferred to the new “Supermax” prison in Marion, Illinois which was built to replace “The Rock“.
I asked Jim if being known as a former Alcatraz guard carried any weight at other facilities and he quickly replied “Oh, yes. With both guards AND Prisoners.” He remembered how he went from Alcatraz, which had 1 guard for every 3 inmates, to Marion where he worked alone from Midnight to 6 am watching 212 inmates armed only with a telephone in a prison so new that it had no doors on the cells and the containment fence that was supposed to surround the prison was incomplete. “That’s when the Alcatraz reputation made a difference. The inmates just didn’t mess with that.” He said. After Marion, Jim worked for a time at the Federal Prison in Petersburg, Virginia. Jim and Cathy Albright were transferred to the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1972 and, aside from 4 years spent at a Milan, Michigan facility (1979 to 1983), they’ve been Hoosiers ever since. Jim retired as a Terre Haute Federal Prison guard in 1985.
It was on a visit to Alcatraz Island in 1998 that Jim’s identity as an Alcatraz treasure was discovered. Jim was visiting “The Rock” as a tourist with his family, having purchased a ticket just like everyone else to visit his old home and workplace. Ranger John Cantwell asked the crowd if there were anyone present with a connection to the island and Jim, humble as always, didn’t say anything. It was Jim’s brother-in-law, John Peters, who finally spoke up to reveal Jim’s past as an Island guard. For years, everyone who knew Jim’s story urged him to write a book, now Ranger Cantwell himself contributed his voice to those urgings. The end result is the 2008 book “Last Guard Out –A riveting account by the last guard to leave Alcatraz” covering Jim Albright’s years of service on “The Rock.”
In case you’re wondering, yes I bought one and gleefully asked Jim & Cathy to sign my copy and date it on that historic 75th anniversary day. Now you will have the same opportunity as I did to meet and talk with Jim and Cathy Albright right here in Irvington. The Albrights will be in Irvington for the Halloween festival, signing copies of his book “Last Guard Out” at Book Mamas book store located at 9 South Johnson Avenue in Irvington from 3 PM to 4 PM on Saturday October 31. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet a true Hoosier legend.
The book’s a great read made even better now that I know the author and his wife. Of course, I would not be true to the “spirit” of this column if I didn’t ask Jim about the ghosts of Alcatraz. Jim thought for a moment and said, “You know, I worked on this Island for 4 years at all hours of the night and day. Midnight, 3 am, 4 am, every possible time slot and I never heard anything that I could call a ghost.” It does make me wonder though, what do you think those 9 grandkids who spent the night in Alcatraz’s legendary spooky cells of D block would say if I asked them the same thing?