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Living Memories From The Last Days Of Alcatraz


By NPR Staff

Listen Now:
Sunday, March 31, 2013

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.

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