Monday, August 10, 2009

Alcatraz Alumni at 75th Anniversary - Stories of the Rock's Notorious Inmates and Residents

A former Alcatraz guard who used to sit and play checkers with notorious inmate, 'Birdman' Robert Stroud, was giving his story on the Rock yesterday.

He was one of over 75 Alcatraz Alumni, including an ex-con, former guards and residents, gathered there to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the federal penitentiary...see previous blogs

The guard was 83-year-old George De Vincenzi.

'George knew him best of anyone because George spent time in the hospital,' said one of the Rangers.

George is also the guard with the epithet of the 'most dramatic introduction to working there' in the history of Alcatraz.

Playing checkers with Stroud wasn't allowed on the basis that it constituted socializing with an inmate, especially such a high-security one.

'It was prohibited to do what I did,' said George. But he did it. 'We both were bored, and it was an opportunity to pass a little time occasionally.'

Stroud, said George describing the hospital scene, was 'behind a barred door with a chain and lock on it, I did not even have the key. I put a little table against the barred door and he played with his hands through the bars.'

Security for Stroud was so tight that before George could push the table up to the bars he had first to open another door, a thick oak one with a glass window at the top. When the oak door was closed, Stroud would stand behind the window 'to look out and try to get your attention,' he said.

George, however, was always very aware of the dangers of socializing with inmates. Of conversation with Stroud he said, 'I kept that to a minimum. I didn't want it to get personal. If you get too close they begin to want something from you. The next thing you know, they want you to bring a letter out, or something in. I was very wary of that.'

'He would ask me questions sometimes about my family. I knew what I was doing. I just answered what I had to.'

The idea of playing checkers had been passed on by a fellow officer who also played occasionally. The clandestine games took place only when George was confident he could trust other officers to watch out for him and warn him if senior officers were about. 'If I couldn't trust them, I wouldn't do it,' he said.

Had he been caught, 'I probably would have been given thirty days off, possibly fired.'

Who won the games?

'He did! I don't believe I won one. He beat me at checkers, he won all the time.'

Stroud, the 'Birdman', was considered to have a high IQ score of 134, and researched and wrote on birds that he had kept in his former prison in Kansas. He spent a record 44 years in isolation, 17 years of that in Alcatraz, for his brutality.

He killed a barman, assaulted a prison orderly, stabbed a prison inmate, made threats against prisoners and finally murdered a prison officer. Deemed a risk to other prisoners, for most of his time there he was only let out when they were locked up, a feature that used to annoy many of the prisoners, said George.

He was also a known homosexual and a psychopath. 'He was a psychopath. Definitely,' confirmed George.

But though George used to supervise him in the bathroom without the protection of metal bars, he never feared for his personal safety.

'I was always leery of him, but I got to know him quite well, and I got along fine with him,' he said.

Which wasn't the case with all prisoners. His first morning's work there would have sent many a man scurrying back to the dole queue.

George had returned to America from service in the navy during the Second World War. He needed employment and decided to take a short intensive training course to become a Correctional Officer, as guards were called, on Alcatraz.

Three weeks later, Monday morning at 9 am with 'starched shirt and shiny shoes', he reported for his first duty. He was given the innocuous-sounding task of supervising at the barber's, a place where inmates cut each other's hair. It would serve as a sharp lesson that nowhere on the Rock was safer than any other.

There were two black inmates there, Freddie Lee 'Curly' Thomas, barber for black inmates, and in the chair, Joseph Barsock. Both were murderers.

They were whispering together, George recounted. 'I began to get a little suspicious,' he said.

Without warning, suddenly the barber plunged his shears into Barsock's neck, heart and lungs.

'I jumped in like a damn fool,' said George, who risked his life to try and separate them. Barsock collapsed on the floor.

'And then a very strange thing happened,' said George. The barber knelt down, kissed the dying man on the side of the face and whispered "I love you."

The attack was a lovers' tiff, and the time was 9.35 am. George was 24-years-old and had completed his first 35 minutes on duty.

As officers rushed into the room, George, who now cannot recall how he came to have the bloodied shears in his hands but presumes he must have picked them up, handed the gruesome evidence over to an officer.

Nor was it to be the only murder that he witnessed. Five years later, and George had been promoted and given more responsibility. One morning he was ascribed the role of Acting Lieutenant. He had to go to D-Block, the isolation unit, with two other officers to fetch a prisoner who had been in there for two years for his own protection.

He was one of two inmates who had both been sentenced to 40 years in jail for mutiny in the army. Again, it was a lovers' quarrel and one had threatened the other. After two years, and with space needed in the special treatment unit, officers thought that the grievance would have melted away.

George brought the prisoner into the shower and clothing room to kit him out for his return to the main cell block. But who should be working there that morning? His ex-lover. Before George could realize what was happening, the ex-lover had pulled a knife and stabbed his former partner.

'Within thirty seconds, he was dead,' said George.

Over his time there, he was on duty when other terrible things happened, including the incident when an inmate slit his throat with glass from a light bulb.

How did the murders impact George, especially the first one with the barber?

'I'm not the kind of person that falls apart with something like that,' he replied. In part, he was strengthened by his war service, in part he had a resilience and strength of personality that enabled him to cope.

'I've seen potential officers go over there and when they enter inside they say "this is not for me, I don't want the job."'

'You've got to be a certain type of person to do it.'

During the Anniversary day, George related some of his experiences before an audience. Asked by someone if he had any regrets, he replied, 'It doesn't seem as bad (now) as it did then.

'Looking back, it was quite an experience!'

pic by Chris

more stories to follow...

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