He soon questioned that decision.
"I had to remind myself, 'There's no one out here but me. So just put that stuff out of your mind.' "
BETWEEN 1934 and 1963, the Civil War-era military fortress turned penitentiary provided many inmates with the hardest time they ever did, in part because San Francisco's twinkling cityscape reminded them of the freedom they'd lost. Some found it too painful to even look at the skyline.
George DeVincenzi, a guard at Alcatraz from 1950 to 1957, said the proximity of the California culture drove many prisoners nearly insane. "Yachts circled the island, and men on the third tier of C and B blocks could see girls in bikinis drinking cocktails," he said. "It was so near, and yet so far."
The mind games got crueler. "After dark, it got colder and danker," DeVincenzi said. "You could hear the bellow of the fog horns. It was a lonely, sometimes scary sound, even for the murderers among us."
In all, eight people were killed by inmates at Alcatraz. One guard was murdered in an assault in the prison's laundry room in the late 1930s, and two others died during an attempted breakout in 1946. Five inmates were killed in random attacks. Five other prisoners committed suicide.
DeVincenzi witnessed a killing on his first day as a guard. He'd been assigned to the prison's barbershop. Easy duty, he figured. Early in his shift, as he was watching an inmate shave another with a straight razor, all hell broke loose.
"The barber's name was Freddie Lee Thomas, and suddenly he takes his shears and starts stabbing the man in the chair," DeVincenzi recalled. "He's slashing his neck and arms, and I'm blowing my whistle. Within moments, the man is dead, lying in a pool of blood. I guess the two were lovers.
"Freddie hands me the bloody shears. Then he leans over the body and kisses the dead man on the forehead. "Goodbye," he said. "I love you."
Years after the prison shut its doors, the island's sense of seclusion remains. Until the use of cellphones, night watchmen relied on a dated ship-to-shore phone to reach the mainland, making many feel marooned at sea.
Erik Novencido worked the island night shift for 10 years. The worst part was walking inside the electroshock therapy room. Once he took a picture at night to show friends. When he developed the film, he says, the snapshot showed a face in the room staring back at him.
He never figured out what it was.
"Sometimes I was just overwhelmed by fear," he said. "The rangers told me stories about the things that happened here. And I'd say, 'Keep that to yourself. I've got my sanity to keep.' "
Veteran park ranger Craig Glassner has been afraid even during the day. "Once on an isolated spot I heard this 'Whooooo, whooooo,' like someone blowing on a big Coke bottle," he said.
"I thought, 'Do I run?' Then I saw it was the wind blowing across the stanchions of a fence. It really freaked me out."
Mary McClure, who spent 12 years working nights on Alcatraz until last fall, preferred the isolation. She couldn't wait for the last tourist to leave. "It was the standard fantasy of being alone on an island," she said. "Well, maybe not Alcatraz."
Even so, there were strange events. "Many times, at night in the cell house, I had the distinct sensation of being pinched on the butt," said McClure, 52, a former paramedic. "It happened with great regularity. I have no explanation for it, and I don't talk to people about it, because I know it makes me sound crazy."
Former inmate John Banner spent four years here in the 1950s. He still recalls the squeal of the wind at night.