Last boat out of Alcatraz

Former prison guard recalls life on ‘The Rock’
2013-02-17T01:00:00Z Last boat out of AlcatrazBy Carla Freeman/Contributing Writer Santa Maria Times
February 17, 2013 1:00 am  • 

As a federal correctional officer March 21, 1963, Patrick Mahoney took the last boat full of convicts off Alcatraz Island.

Next month, the Vandenberg Village resident since 1967 will return to “The Rock” for the 50th anniversary of the prison’s closure.

Few, if any, of his colleagues from back then will be joining him.

“Basically, there’s nobody left but me,” he said. “They’re all gone.”

At 83, Mahoney is a substantial man with a voice that rivals John Wayne’s. One of six brothers, he grew up in Telluride, Colo. Later, he worked with his father — the county sheriff — and in the rough-and-tumble mines of the West. He was an interrogator in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

This ruggedness is warmed by congeniality, apparent in a turned-up smile and kindly lines at the corners of his eyes.

As captain of the “Warden Blackwell” from 1956 to 1963, Mahoney shuttled convicts, prison personnel and about 80 schoolchildren between Alcatraz and San Francisco.

“I absolutely loved the job,” he said. “My family and I lived in this beautiful apartment building with a view toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It was very expensive,” he joked. “Twenty-one dollars a month, everything furnished. Inmates even did our laundry.

“My three sons have ‘Alcatraz, U.S. Penitentiary,’ on their birth certificates. Kids loved it. They’d climb all over the place and got boat rides to school.”

Mahoney and his wife, Anna, liked the friendly, small-town feel of the community. Except for exposure to bitter winds coming off the water, islanders were well-protected. Mandatory “counts” day and night ensured that inmates stayed put. Nobody ate until the count was right — and they wanted to eat. Prison meals were said to be the best in the system.

“With such a harsh existence, something had to be done for morale,” Mahoney said. “Good food helped avoid trouble in the dining room. Things could get out of hand there. These were very dangerous people.”

Alcatraz became the first maximum-security U.S. penitentiary in 1934, housing infamous felons like Al “Scarface” Capone but mostly hard-core, un-famous ones. The population averaged about 280 convicts and 80 guards on duty, a tricky ratio, according to Mahoney.

“For some reason, things worked well with 280, but the type of people we had in there, when it got to 300 it wasn’t a good situation. You could see the tension.”

Despite the undercurrent of violence, guards didn’t carry weapons inside the prison. No guns, no clubs.

“You had one thing — your mind,” Mahoney said.

Inmates staffed four prison industries on Alcatraz: laundry, and glove-making, clothing and furniture factories. Mahoney viewed the well-run system as a “management tool.”

“When people work, they’re not in trouble,” he said. “Mind you, this was not rehabilitation — just work and time and lots of it. Nobody got paroled out of there.”

The grind of endless sentences, rigid discipline and isolation from the mainland, with San Francisco in clear sight, took its toll. Prisoners could be very brutal with each other but not usually with guards, according to Mahoney. They knew guards were there to stop violence.

“Although, this one day, I went down to the clothing factory,” he said. “I had to issue some scissors to the workers. My own inmate crew was waiting for me, to go work outside. I handed out these big scissors, and it was very quiet. Then, this guy stuck his scissors right through another guy! People were chopping at each other. We were all fighting, and I was alone with no backup.

“My inmate crew jumped in to help me break it up. They were always supposed to lay off to the side and let it happen, but not that day. Nobody died,” he added.

Afterward, the crew didn’t want anyone to know they’d helped him. Mahoney promised he’d keep it to himself. Honor was everything.

“Convicts liked me,” he said. “Once they knew you were honest, you were OK. Off duty, I’d go up to the dining room for breakfast and just shoot the breeze. They called me Mr. Mahoney. It was always ‘mister’ for the guards.”

Social life among personnel had its own brand of normalcy. All sorts of fun could be had at the Officers’ Club, from dining to bowling.

“We had a lot of big parties,” Mahoney said. “Sometimes, we’d have to run up the hill if there was trouble, like someone throwing stuff out of his cell. I’d go up there and say, ‘My pants are pressed and my shoes are shined, so you better act like a gentleman or you’re going right to The Hole (isolation).’ Then we’d go back to the party.”

Mahoney has probably told the story of the “Great Escape” a thousand times, but it’s still a great tale. On the morning of June 12, 1962, an officer was called to check on a prisoner who wouldn’t wake up.

“My old friend Bill Long, he went down to that cell and he said, ‘To the bars!’ Nothing happened. So he reached in to tap the guy’s head-and it fell on the floor.” Mahoney laughed. “Bill jumped about 4 feet.”

During months of preparation, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin dug with spoons through concrete walls at the back of their cells. The night before, they’d climbed from ventilation ducts to the roof and fled in a raft made of rubberized raincoats, leaving dummies with papier-mâché heads in their bunks.

“I looked for three weeks all over that bay,” Mahoney said. “Officers on both sides of the boat had sieves, for collecting. The rip currents made a froth and we found all kinds of debris, just floating, photos that belonged to them, and address books, a set of water wings. For three weeks, we still found things.”

The men had vanished. Mahoney said he doubts anyone survived. It may be the Irish in him that added, “But you just don’t know ... .”

Fifty years later, Mahoney still has a presence at Alcatraz, where his distinctive voice narrates the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour for 1.5 million visitors annually. Additionally, Mahoney said the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy is publishing his book, “My Dirty, Wonderful Job,” about Alcatraz.

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