Armando Mendoza, 78, was one of seven former inmates, 10 onetime guards, and 73 men and women who were children of correctional officers who came back to Alcatraz Island Saturday for an annual alumni reunion. The San Franciso Chronicls says the even is one of the strangest alumni gatherings imagiable. Ex-guards greeted ex- cons like old friends, people told stories about the cold weather, murders and stabbings; the warden’s daughter recalled how the place was so safe outside the main cell block that Alcatraz families never locked their doors. This year’s reunion was the biggest one yet. Ranger John Cantwell said it was timed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the first federal prisoners on the Rock, in the summer of 1934. The place became famous as the end-of-the-line of the prison system, the worst place in the country. Al Capone served time there, as did Alvin Karpas, Public Enemy No. 1, and Robert Stroud, the Birdman.
Most were like Mendoza, a drug dealer from East Los Angeles, a tough, hard guy who went directly from a county jail to Alcatraz. When he arrived there in 1957, “I had lost my family — I had lost my soul. I had 30 years to do, no parole. I felt like a dead man.” There is nothing sentimental about his view of Alcatraz; he doesn’t talk about reform or rehabilitation. “I don’t care what legends or stories you heard,” he told an audience of tourists, rangers, and other alumni in the prison’s decaying chapel. “If you think there was anything good about Alcatraz, then God bless you.”