Life at The Rock

Life at The Rock

Like most of his fellow Alcatraz Island denizens, Phill Dollison had a bed crammed into a sleeping space not 6 feet wide and with no window, yet he could smell the salt air and feel the pulse of San Francisco barely a mile of bay away.

But when the 16-year-old Dollison awoke in his parent's apartment hallway, he and the other children of Alcatraz live-in employees would head out for school just like other teenagers of the 1950s.

But their address was The Rock, their school bus a federal ferry and collectively they comprised a small and largely overlooked hamlet of non-murderers and non-bank robbers living normal lives amid America's most notorious criminals.

"It was a great place to grow up," says Dollison, 74, who now lives in the Applegate Valley. "You tell people you lived on Alcatraz and nobody believed you.

"That place was a thriving community with the most notorious prison in the world right there, but it was still perfectly safe for us kids," he says.

Dollison is one of the former Alcatraz kids who spent time on The Rock while one or more of their parents worked at the federal facility between 1934 and 1963. While many of the buildings on the 12-acre National Park Service property either disappeared or became dilapidated in the ensuing decades, Dollison wants the Alcatraz of his youth restored.

He heads the Alcatraz Alumni Association, a collection of former Alcatraz child residents along with a smattering of former guards and inmates. They want, among other things, to see their old social hall turned into a museum, the island's lighthouse rebuilt and some original cells turned into bed-and-breakfast rentals.

"It's kind of unique," Dollison says. "You could probably sell those cells for $200 a night for people to say they spent the night on Alcatraz."

But the National Park Service says no dice.

"We tend not to reconstruct history, so a complete restoration like he's talking about at that scale is not something we are looking to do," says Alexandra Picavet, a public affairs specialist for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Alcatraz.

Dollison believes the Alcatraz alum could quickly raise the millions of dollars for rebuilding Alcatraz should the park service let him bring back the real Rock.

"My goal in the latter part of my life is not to safeguard ruins, but rebuild the structures that was our town," Dollison says.

Alcatraz sports quite a lengthy prologue in California history, before it became the barrel for the most rotten of apples in the land.

Named for its only original inhabitants — pelicans — the barren sandstone rock became home to the first lighthouse in the West in 1854 and later to a fortress intended to defend the bay.

It was turned into a military stockade and housed San Francisco's jail inmates immediately after the 1906 earthquake. In 1933, as the federal War Department began to consider it a financial albatross, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover came up with a plan for housing the country's worst and boldest inmates in one facility surrounded by one gigantic moat.

When the Alcatraz prison opened in 1934, convicted Chicago mobster Al Capone became inmate No. 85 amid a population that fluctuated between 250 and 300 and were ordered not to talk.

Over time, restrictions eased and a rather busy laundry and other prison industries were in place in 1953 when Dollison's father, Art Dollison, became superintendent of the industries, and the family moved to Alcatraz.

At age 16, the younger Dollison had the run of the joint. Family members were not allowed to fraternize with prisoners, but he had access to most of the island, except the actual prison, hospital and industries area.

The hub was a social hall that included a two-lane bowling alley, ping-pong and pool tables, a snack bar and a large auditorium for dinners, dances and Sunday night movies.

When not there, Dollison spent time exploring the cliffs and seashore and casting for striped bass that migrated in the bay.

Hourly ferries ran the 15-minute trip to and from the mainland, where San Francisco became the teens' personal playground — as long as they returned in time for the last boat home at 12:15 a.m.

Dollison recalls the prisoners and guards getting along quietly and peacefully, each eating the same food and prisoners remaining largely alone in their own cells.

"The officers had complete control of the place," he says. "There was no nonsense."

Dollison once had a tour of the prison by his father and ate with guards in their mess hall.

"I was probably the only kid that ever got to go through Alcatraz while it was a working prison," he says.

Dollison also recalls entering the prison hospital to meet Robert Stroud, the so-called "Bird Man of Alcatraz," who was sentenced to life in segregation after killing a guard in Leavenworth Penitentiary and whose life was made into a film released in 1962.

"I was pretty much in awe of The Birdman," Dollison says. "In the movie, Burt Lancaster made him look like a calm, gentle scholar, which he was. But he was also a sociopath."

His family moved off the island in 1958 when they could afford a house, then returned in 1961 when Art Dollison was promoted to associate warden and was required to live on Alcatraz.

The Dollisons remained until Attorney General Robert Kennedy pulled the plug on Alcatraz.

"When we turned the lights out, everything was working on that island," Dollison says.

Government crews tore down some buildings, and others were destroyed during the American Indian Movement occupation of the island from November 1969 to June 1971.

The National Park Service took over in 1972, and what's left of Alcatraz is entrenched as part of the "A List" of Bay Area tourism activities.

"We get 1.5 million visitors a year, and that's all the island can handle," Picavet says.

Phill Dollison spent a year as a guard at California's San Quentin penitentiary before returning to San Francisco, where he owned a private security firm. He retired in 1997, about the time the Alcatraz Alumni Association formed.

The group meets each summer on The Rock, aiding in tours and occasionally having members sleep in cells, Dollison says.

But the degradation of the facilities began to eat away at Dollison, and members began offering to restore some of the facilities there.

They garnered nonprofit status to partner with the park service, but were unable to agree with the federal agency on what improvements should be done on the island and under what conditions they would proceed.

Dollison insists there is wide public support for rebuilding Alcatraz if the park service would allow it.

"I'm convinced there's enough money in the Bay Area that it wouldn't be a problem at all," Dollison says. "But it's as if they could care less."

It's not an issue of care, but an issue of philosophy, Picavet says.

The park service is more interested in interpreting history, perpetuating the story of Alcatraz, not rebuilding it, she says.

Also, other buildings still there are in need of minor restoration to stabilize and make them safer, Picavet says.

"There are so many priorities for managing and renovating parts of Alcatraz, Picavet says. "We need to look at those priorities first."

The park service would like to see Dollison's collection of well over 100 Alcatraz in-house photos of inmates and guards set up in a smaller existing building so the story of the Alcatraz Kids remains a piece of The Rock.

"We understand and appreciate his advocacy," Picavet says. "His story will be told for generations to come, and it's an important story.

"Alcatraz is chock-full of stories," she says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email

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