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A Night At The Rock: Former Alcatraz Inmate Journeys Back

Bill Baker returned to Alcatraz for the first time since he was an inmate there more than 50 years ago.
Laura Sullivan
Bill Baker returned to Alcatraz for the first time since he was an inmate there more than 50 years ago.

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.

Alcatraz, located in the San Francisco Bay, stopped operating as a prison 50 years ago.
Laura Sullivan / NPR
Alcatraz, located in the San Francisco Bay, stopped operating as a prison 50 years ago.

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."

Bill Baker stares up at the rows of empty cells during his visit to the prison.
Laura Sullivan / NPR
Bill Baker stares up at the rows of empty cells during his visit to the prison.

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.

Bill Baker, now 80, arrived at The Rock as an inmate in 1957. He has written about his experiences at the prison in the book <em>Alcatraz-1259</em>.
Laura Sullivan / NPR
Bill Baker, now 80, arrived at The Rock as an inmate in 1957. He has written about his experiences at the prison in the book Alcatraz-1259.

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.

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Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.