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Mon October 14, 2013

A Night At The Rock: Former Alcatraz Inmate Journeys Back

Originally published on Mon October 14, 2013 5:19 pm

For 29 years, Alcatraz — the notorious prison off the coast of San Francisco — housed some of the nation's worst criminals: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Birdman Robert Stroud.

Today, 50 years after it closed, it's a museum. And earlier this year, the National Park Service gave Bill Baker, a former inmate, special permission to stay the night in his old cell. He was 24 when he was transferred to The Rock. Today, he's 80.

Baker, who was born in Kentucky during the Great Depression, has spent a lot of his life in and out of federal prison. Almost always for the same thing — cashing fraudulent checks.

By 1957, he was already an accomplished thief serving time in Leavenworth prison. He was never a violent criminal, but he had a penchant for escaping. So the federal Bureau of Prisons transferred him to Alcatraz to finish the last three years of his sentence.

Voyage To The Rock

It was a foggy January morning 56 years ago when he first boarded a boat to a prison built on an island. He never thought he would do it again half a century later — voluntarily, with tourists.

"I wasn't very happy the last time I was on a boat over here," he said as he began his recent journey. "We were all cuffed up and chained and we couldn't see shore from any direction because of the fog. And we didn't know where we were."

Once the boat docked at Alcatraz, he and the tourists funneled inside the prison and into the same dark, damp hallway he walked through as an inmate. Except now, instead of a shower room, the hallway ends in a gift shop.

At the front of the gift shop, Baker saw a former Alcatraz prison guard named Pat Mahoney, signing books at the author's desk with his wife.

He and Mahoney quickly sounded like old friends, chatting about people they remembered from years ago.

Baker then made his way up the stairs to the place he had come to see: the cell block. It has three tiers of faded yellow and green cells with peeling paint and rusting bars. But Baker said, to him, it looks almost the same.

He stood in the middle of a throng of tourists listening to an audio walking tour, while staring up at the cells.

"I don't know if it's hard or not," to be back inside Alcatraz, he said quietly. "I don't really know... I haven't analyzed that part of it yet and I intend to," he said. "One of the reasons I'm staying overnight is so maybe I can figure some things out."

And just like that, Baker started walking down one corridor to another, like he had been there yesterday.

Remembering His 'Shade Tree'

He walked to the prison rec yard, one of his favorite places while imprisoned here, stopping in front of a small patch of dirt. He said he once planted a tree there, and watered it everyday for weeks and watched it grow.

"I was going to have me a shade tree when it was over," he said.

But one day all that watering caught the eye of a guard.

"He watched me a lot [because] he hated me. And he came over and said 'What are you watering... these weeds for? They don't need watering.' I [said] 'Oh, just something to do, you know'," Baker recalled.

The next day, Baker said, all the weeds and his tree were gone.

"Oh I was mad. I was madder than hell," he said pausing. "It was something that was growing, you know it was life."

As a helicopter carrying tourists buzzed overhead, Baker stood in the prison yard and began to tremble. He cursed out loud about the guard until he fell against the prison wall crying.

He sat out in that concrete yard for a while, watching the boats pass under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Baker was raised mostly by relatives. His mother gave him up with he was three. She told him she could not afford to keep him. By 16, he was one his own.

He was married once; he doesn't have any children. He said he learned all his best tricks about how to cash bad checks here on Alcatraz — and kept at it long after he left.

Nighttime On The Rock

Back inside rangers were ushering the last of the tourists out the door. As darkness fell, there were only a few rangers left, locking the doors.

"It's getting weirder by the minute," Baker said as he stood in the middle of the empty prison. "Reckon there really is ghosts in here?"

Baker headed up to find his old cell. It was just as he remembered: small and cramped, a metal bed, a sink and a desk.

He said he spent most of the time in his cell day dreaming, "taking trips" in his mind to other places.

Being back, he said, was making him a little anxious.

"But see I know I'm leaving here tomorrow. I'm a short timer. I can count the hours down now," he said, sounding like he was trying to reassure himself.

He wandered around the prison late into the night, walking the deserted tiers and darkened hallways. He browsed the empty gift shop and checked out the warden's office, which Baker had never seen. He never saw any ghosts.

When he returned to his cell – sometime around 1 a.m. — park rangers had left him his prison file that they found in the archives.

"This is funny to read," he said flipping through the file. He read some of the comments: "Not in his cell during count, visiting another inmate's cells, and kicked a bowl or food."

"That is just so funny," Baker laughed.

He read another comment: "He apologized for his behavior."

"I don't think that's true," Baker said. "I don't remember ever apologizing for my behavior."

Sitting in his old cell, he thought about why he wanted to come back here.

"I just wonder if I can confront that crazy kid in this cell," he said. Baker said he would tell his younger self "you stupid son of a bitch what's wrong with you."

He continues: "But it ain't that I don't understand a little bit... I still like a little excitement," he said.

But, Baker said, he wouldn't change his life. He just wishes he knew earlier what he knows now.

"If I could go back and have my same brain as it is right now in the body of a young kid, I would do it entirely different. But I know without a doubt that no one could, if I still had the brain of that kid, you couldn't tell me nothing.," he said.

He tried to go to sleep on the rusty metal beds so many others had slept on 50 years before, but he couldn't.

He had an idea. He realized he had never been outside at night.

He found his way to the front of the prison.

"Look at that," he said as the fog was rolling in over the Bay.

The lights of San Francisco were sparkling in the water.

"Look at that view we missed all those years."

The next morning, at the crack of dawn, thousands of birds woke up. Baker wasn't in his cell. It wasn't hard to guess where an ex-convict would go if he woke up again in prison — outside.

"[I've] been out here since 5:30," he said.

He doesn't remember there being so many birds.

"I guess they figure it's theirs now," he said.

But when he's asked if he's happy to give the island back over to them, he responds:

"You know what? I feel like I own part of this island. I don't know if that's a good thing or not, but I do. I feel like I have squatters rights or something, you know, it's part mine."

Baker then sat down on a bench in the morning fog, on an empty island in the middle of the San Francisco bay.

He's no longer an inmate, but not quite a tourist.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Alcatraz, the notorious prison off the coast of San Francisco, closed 50 years ago. For almost three decades, it housed some of the nation's worst criminals. Today, it's a museum. Earlier this year, the National Park Service granted one former inmate special permission to spend the night in his old cell.

His name is Bill Baker. He was 24 when he was transferred to The Rock. Today, he's 80. NPR's Laura Sullivan went with him. And a word of caution: This story contains some strong language.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Bill Baker has spent a lot of his life in and out of federal prison, almost always for the same thing: cashing fraudulent checks. By 1957, he was already an accomplished thief, serving time in Leavenworth prison. He's never been a violent criminal, and he wasn't then. So it came as a great shock when officials from the Federal Bureau of Prisons told him they were transferring him to Alcatraz.

See, there was something else about Bill Baker - he loved escaping from prison, and prison officials had had enough. So on a foggy January morning, he boarded a boat to a prison built on an island.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOTORBOAT)

SULLIVAN: He never thought he would do it again half a century later voluntarily, with tourists.

BILL BAKER: I wasn't very happy the last time I was on a boat over here. We were all cuffed up and chained. And we couldn't see shore from any direction because of the fog. And, you know, we didn't know where we were.

SULLIVAN: The boat docked, and we funnel inside the prison, into the same dark, damp hallway Bill Baker walked through as an inmate - except instead of a shower room, the hallway now ends in a gift shop.

BAKER: I mean, they've got all kinds of souvenirs here, don't they.

SULLIVAN: At the front of the gift shop, Baker sees a former Alcatraz prison guard named Pat Mahoney, signing books at the author's desk with his wife. They quickly sounded like old friends.

(LAUGHTER)

PAT MAHONEY: You remember old Buppy Johnson(ph)?

BAKER: Yes, he always had a good story. And then Blackie Oddette(ph) that worked our mess hall.

MAHONEY: Oh yeah, Blackie Oddette.

BAKER: Blackie was something else.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

BAKER: Remember Punchy Bailey(ph)?

MAHONEY: Yeah.

BAKER: He worked with you, didn't he?

MAHONEY: I think so, yeah.

BAKER: There's about two of us left. The rest are all - got Alzheimer's and (unintelligible) what the hell is what.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: Do you ever think 60 years ago that the two of you were going to be standing over the...

BAKER: Never.

MAHONEY: No.

SULLIVAN: ...the book table at the Alcatraz gift shop?

BAKER: Not in my wildest dreams.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: We make our way up the stairs to the place Baker has come to see: the cell block.

BAKER: OK, by golly. Here we are.

SULLIVAN: It's three tiers of faded yellow and green cells with peeling paint and rusting bars. Baker is no longer talking. He's just looking at the cells.

Is it hard to be back here?

BAKER: Don't really know. I haven't analyzed that part of it yet. One of the reasons I'm staying overnight here is so that I can maybe figure some things out.

SULLIVAN: And just like that, Baker starts walking, heading down one corridor to another, like he was just here yesterday.

BAKER: I want to go around the other side close to (unintelligible) once were.

SULLIVAN: We head to what was one of Baker's favorite places, the prison rec yard.

BAKER: This was the ball field right here - the bases and everything. And people would walk the yard, back and forth there.

SULLIVAN: He stops in front of a small patch of dirt. And he says he once planted a tree right here. He pulled it up by its roots one day outside the workshop. And he says he watered it every day, for weeks.

Was it growing?

BAKER: It was taking to the dirt, yeah. I was going to have me a shade tree...

(LAUGHTER)

BAKER: ...when it was over.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: But one day, all that watering caught the eye of a guard.

BAKER: He watched me a lot because he hated me. And he came over and said: What are you watering these weeds for? They don't need watering. I said oh, it's just something to do. You know, I mean...

SULLIVAN: The next day, he went to water his tree. All the weeds, and his tree, were gone.

BAKER: Oh, I was mad.

(LAUGHTER)

BAKER: You know, I was madder than hell. It was something that was growing, you know. It was life.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HELICOPTER)

SULLIVAN: As a helicopter carrying tourists buzzed overhead, Bill Baker stood in the prison yard and began to tremble.

BAKER: Son of a bitch... (Crying)

SULLIVAN: Baker fell against the prison wall and cried. We sat there, out in the concrete yard, watching the sailboats pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. Baker told me he was born during the Great Depression in Kentucky. When he was 3, his mother said she couldn't afford to keep him, and he bounced around with relatives. At 16, he was on his own.

After a while, we headed back inside. The tourists were all gone. There were just a few rangers left, locking doors.

Sure is empty right now.

BAKER: Yes. It's weird, too. It's getting weirder by the minute.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: I agree with you.

BAKER: Quiet. Holy smoke, reckon there really is ghosts in here?

SULLIVAN: Well, I don't know. I guess we'll find out.

We grabbed our sleeping bags and headed up to the cells.

How old do you think these beds are?

BAKER: I don't know - pretty old. I'll tell you something, that's probably a better mattress than we had.

SULLIVAN: This is a better mattress than what you had, 'cause these mattresses look like they're about a half a century old.

(LAUGHTER)

BAKER: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: We sat in Baker's old cell, barely big enough to hold the both of us.

What did you do in here all day?

BAKER: Very little. (Laughter) You know, can you imagine - 24 hours a day?

SULLIVAN: He was quiet for a minute.

BAKER: Well, see, I know I'm leaving here tomorrow. (Laughter) You know, I'm a short-timer. I can count the hours down now.

SULLIVAN: It's interesting because that thought has not even crossed my mind - that I would stay here.

BAKER: Yeah, you wouldn't even think to think that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SULLIVAN: We wandered around the prison late into the night, walking the deserted tiers and darkened hallways. We browsed the empty gift shop; and we checked out the warden's office, which Baker had never seen. We never saw any ghosts.

Sometime around 1 in the morning, we came back to his cell. Park rangers had left him his prison file. They found it in the archives.

BAKER: (Laughter) This is funny to read: Not in his cell during count, visiting another inmate's cell, and kicked a bowl of food. (Laughter) That's just so funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLIPPING PAGES)

BAKER: (Reading) He apologized for his behavior.

I don't think that's true. I don't remember ever apologizing for my behavior.

SULLIVAN: Why do you think you wanted to come back here?

BAKER: I don't know, you know? I just wonder if I can confront that crazy kid in this cell: You stupid son of a bitch, what's wrong with you? (Laughter) But it ain't that I don't understand a little bit, you know. I still like a little excitement.

SULLIVAN: Do you think if you could do it over, would you live a different life?

BAKER: No. If I - you know, if I could go back and have my same brain as it is right now in the body of a young kid, I would do it entirely different. But I know without a doubt that if I still had the brain of that kid, that you couldn't tell me nothing.

SULLIVAN: We tried to sleep on the rusty metal beds that so many others had slept on before. But neither of us could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)

SULLIVAN: The next morning, at the crack of dawn, thousands of birds woke up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)

SULLIVAN: Baker wasn't in his cell. But it wasn't hard to guess where an ex-convict would go if he woke up again in prison.

BAKER: (Laughter) Good morning.

SULLIVAN: Morning. I thought I might find you out here.

BAKER: Yeah, I've been out here since 5:30.

SULLIVAN: Were the birds this loud when you were here?

BAKER: No, they weren't. There weren't this many. I guess they figure it's theirs now.

SULLIVAN: Are you happy to give the island back over to them?

BAKER: You know what? I feel like I own part of this island. (Laughter) I don't know whether that's a good thing or not, but I do. I have squatter's rights, or something. You know, it's part mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)

SULLIVAN: Bill Baker sat on a bench in the morning fog, on an empty island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. No longer an inmate, not quite a tourist.

Laura Sullivan. NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.