San Francisco Tour Tales

Kids Rock

By Lisa Harrington

“California, here I come,” thought Jolene Babyak as her family traveled from Indiana to San Francisco in 1954. Her mother promised her an airplane ride, boat ride, and chance to live on an island. But after stepping off the Van Ness dock and onto the boat, they were lost in fog. Minutes later the jagged cliffs of Alcatraz appeared. “

My mother oversold us,” laughs Jolene, who lived on the island from ages 7 to 9, and again at 15. Her father was the prison’s Associate Warden when 60 families lived on the 22-acre rock. The place was teeming with kids. It was like living in a small town with a jail on top, report alumni who gather on Alcatraz every August to celebrate the prison’s opening. The reunion offers a chance to swap childhood stories: tales of fishing for striped bass, roller-skating, bowling, picnics in Golden Gate Park, trips to the Russian River, Western roundups, and holiday skits and dances that kept kids of all ages busy and out of trouble.

Days began with prison powerboats ferrying kids to the city, where they hopped on buses to school. Jolene went to St. Brigid’s and later Presentation High. Her classmates jumped at invitations to come home with her. Teens often spent more free time in the city than on the island, taking afterschool jobs. Guards whose wives gave birth in city hospitals (since there were no facilities for this on the island) often asked to have “Alcatraz” put on their newborn’s birth certificate.

Sundays and Mondays Jolene is back on the rock with the Alcatraz Authors Program. Her fifth book will update her bestseller Eyewitness on Alcatraz: Life on The Rock as told by the Guards, Families & Prisoners (1988). Asked about the island’s impact on her life, she says: “There’s a certain irony in setting a prison exactly opposite one of the world’s most beautiful cities. No prisoner, guard, or family leaves Alcatraz unchanged by it.”

La Isla de los Alcatraces

Mapping the San Francisco Bay in 1775, Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala named the island after the brown pelicans that nested there. In 1859 Alcatraz became the first U.S. Army fort on the West Coast. In 1863, the capture of a Confederate ship in the Bay prompted the building of a temporary wooden prison. In 1865, the island’s cannons were fired for the official mourning following Lincoln’s assassination. In 1912 a new cell house of reinforced concrete was completed with convict labor.

In 1934 this building became the U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz. In its 29 years, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 men—23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed, and 2 drowned. In 1962, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin put papier-mâché heads in their beds, crawled through ventilation shafts, and took off in the night, never to be seen again. In 1963, the prison was closed. From 1969 to 1971 American Indians occupied the island, to illuminate the plight of Native Americans. Now managed by the National Park Service, Alcatraz draws 1.4 million visitors each year for daytime and evening tours: Alcatraz ferries leave from Pier 33:


Eyewitness on Alcatraz: Life on The Rock as told by the Guards, Families & Prisoners (1988) – Jolene Babyak

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the September, 2013 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.