Jim Albright was the last person to leave Alcatraz the day it closed as a federal penitentiary. Given the choice, though, he’d go back.
The 77-year-old former prison guard started his career on The Rock and learned many things there, including how to be aware of prisoners slipping one another potential material for weapons and how to ignore the lure of prisoners’ stories. He enjoyed life on the island and the structure of his job.
“I loved it here,” Albright said. “If all prisons were on an even playing field, and Alcatraz reopened, I’d come back.”
Albright was at Alcatraz on Thursday morning, 50 years to the day the prison closed for good. He was joined by the island’s official boat driver and dozens of former residents who grew up on the island. No former inmates were able to make it to the event
Kim Stearns took her first steps on the island and recalled, years later, the sounds of the sirens that would go off when an inmate had potentially escaped.
“I never gave much thought about living on Alcatraz until I was an adult,” she said. “Then you realize how few people lived here.”
After 29 years as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz closed on March 21, 1963. The island was then occupied by Native Americans from 1969 through 1971 and taken over by the National Park Service in 1972. Today as many as 1.5 million people visit the island each year.
The island’s alumni also were treated to newly uncovered photos of their last day on the island. Photos by freelance photographer Leigh Wiener, donated by his son, Devik Wiener, were displayed in the island’s New Industries building, which once housed a clothing factory, a dry-cleaning facility and a furniture plant.
The black-and-white photos showed prisoners in shackles being loaded onto boats, guards with guns wandering the grounds and even children running through the cellblocks once the buildings were clear.
Devik Wiener said one of his favorite images was of the empty recreation yard.
“It just looks like the inmates dropped what they were doing and left,” he said.
Former resident Tom Reeves spotted a photograph of his father on a boat surrounded by five other men and women from Alcatraz. His father was the hospital administrator for the prison, Reeves recalled.
Being confined to a 2.2-acre island at age 14 wasn’t ideal, Reeves said, and he took every opportunity to visit Fort Mason or the Marina to be with his friends. But he also found a way to cash in on his novel home, charging his classmates at Marina Middle School and Galileo High School $1 for a trip to the island. Reeves said he was making up to $20 each weekend by giving children from The City the chance to come to Alcatraz, but he had to stop once the warden caught wind of the operation.
“I made more money doing that than my brother who was in college did,” he recalled.