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Daughter of Alcatraz

An Oakland woman once called the notorious island prison her home.


Published:

Robyn Twomey

On a recent Sunday, Jolene Babyak was at her usual spot in the bookstore on Alcatraz Island, answering questions from visitors hungry for the inside scoop on the fabled prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

“What happened if anyone died here?” asked a woman with a British accent. “Were the prisoners buried here? I didn’t see any cemetery.”

It’s a morbid question but appropriate, considering that the woman is asking about the former penitentiary that once held the federal prison system’s most dangerous gangsters, killers, and bank robbers, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Bird Man” Stroud. In any case, Babyak is happy to relate unsavory details about a place she once called home.

During the ’50s and early ’60s, Babyak, now 60 and an Oakland resident, was among the 75 or so children who lived on Alcatraz because their fathers worked at the prison. Babyak’s father, Arthur Dollison, headed the prison’s work programs, later served as associate warden, and was in charge the morning of the famed escape from Alcatraz in 1962.

Having to describe where the bodies are buried doesn’t ruffle the petite Babyak. She responds with friendliness, authority, and the kind of gallows humor you’d expect from a cop or a crime writer. She explains that it was impossible to bury anyone on Alcatraz because, as its moniker suggests, the island is a rock. When the family of a deceased inmate didn’t want to pay funeral costs, the body wound up in a pauper’s grave in one of the many cemeteries in Colma, south of San Francisco. “A number of Alcatraz inmates are buried in Colma,” Babyak says.

On most Sundays and Mondays, Babyak volunteers to share these insights with visitors to the island, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. She has transformed her personal connection to Alcatraz into professional expertise, including authoring insightful profiles of key inmates. Her biography of the “Bird Man” challenges the image of him—popularized by the 1962 Burt Lancaster film—as a sympathetic amateur ornithologist. To Babyak, he was a “raw avowed psychopath who murdered two men” and who actually raised his canaries in another federal prison, not Alcatraz. 

Although the inmates were not allowed to talk to or approach the kids, Babyak had an encounter with an inmate when she was eight. As she describes in another of her books, Eyewitness on Alcatraz, “A prisoner found a hard rubber ball in the weeds and beckoned to me. I shyly approached, as the guard stood there, and the man pushed the ball through the fence. … It was my first ‘real life’ conflict—whether to say thank you to an adult or to not speak to a convict.”

For Babyak, keeping her distance from the inmates, plus the fact that her parents never spoke about them in a disparaging way, generated “a childlike feeling of awe and wariness, as if prisoners were special people. Special but dangerous.”
She and other Alcatraz kids, who commuted to school in San Francisco via a 12-minute boat ride, had fun bringing friends over to look up at the notorious cell house on the top of the island. She also has fond memories of the sense of community among residents, recalling kids’ baseball games on the parade grounds and weekly movie nights in a second-floor room of the administration wing of the prison that, on Sundays, served as the inmates’ chapel.Babyak (pictured in right with hat) with five other Alcatraz children -- Photo by Corinne Edwards

Of course, living next door to a maximum-security prison had its drawbacks. Babyak recalls the time two teenage boys from the island climbed the rocks on the shore along the Golden Gate Bridge side. This area was strictly off-limits, and the warden chewed out the boys, telling them that guards could have mistaken them for escaping inmates and opened fire. Security concerns also meant that kids were forbidden to have toy guns, and residents could not discard cutlery, razor blades, glassware, or tools in the regular trash.

Babyak says residents rarely feared harm from the inmates, confident of the walls, gates, and fences securing the cell house. She remembers, though, the morning of June 12, 1962, when three inmates were found missing from their cells.
With the warden on vacation, Babyak’s father was in charge. “I awoke to an unfamiliar sound of the escape siren. My father had already left for up top, and Mother and I did the obligatory search of our house and basement. The island was still; for a while, it seemed like a ghost town.”

The three inmates, whose scheme was immortalized in Clint Eastwood’s 1979 film, Escape from Alcatraz, were suspected of building a raft out of raincoats to float over to Marin County. But, no raft was ever recovered, and it’s still a mystery whether the inmates made it to shore or drowned. 

The incident renewed ongoing concerns that Alcatraz was outdated. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons shut the prison the following year and transferred Babyak’s father to a minimum-security prison in Texas.
Babyak was heartbroken to leave. “It was perhaps the most beautiful home I’ve ever had,” she says. Yet, Babyak adjusted to the move with her family, finished high school in Texas, studied speech pathology in college, married but lost her husband in the Vietnam War, and pursued a career in journalism.

She didn’t think much about Alcatraz until a visit in 1975, two years after the new national park had opened to tourists. Babyak’s visit marked her first chance to go inside areas previously off-limits to families.

It also revived happy memories of her time on the island and her childhood fascination for her one-time criminal neighbors. “The more I started looking into their lives, the more interesting it became.”

From her post in the bookstore, on the cell house’s ground floor, she meets people from all over the world, some who share her personal connection to the island—such as the woman who said her father’s kidnapper served time there. “They want to know if I know of these people, and then they start telling me their stories. It’s fun.”

Your visit
If you go to Alcatraz during the day, Babyak suggests asking for a behind-the-scenes tour upon arriving. If a staff member is available, you can see the rarely visited hospital ward, home of the isolation cell where Robert “Bird Man” Stroud lived for 11 years. Tour and ticket information is available at alcatrazcruises.com or (415) 981-7625.

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