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Child of Alcatraz

Local resident Don Bowden spent time on Alcatraz in the 1950s, but not as a prisoner.
Bowden was just 13 when his family moved to Alcatraz so his father could work as a prison foreman there.
His memories of the three years he spent at Alcatraz are vivid, and the memorabilia in his possession is extensive.
Bowden has several Alcatraz Alumni Association yearbooks, a number of newspaper articles, a magazine containing an article about the children of Alcatraz and their daily trips to the mainland for school, boat schedules, the identification card that got him off the island to attend school every day, an old recipe book with a piece of the rock island attached, and much more.
Bowden said the cost of living on Alcatraz was reasonable – only $35 a month for his family to live in a spacious apartment overlooking the bay.
“That $35 also covered utilities and the laundry, but later, for $5 a month more, we moved into a new apartment with a view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge,” he recalled. “It was a beautiful place to live.”
Water was transported to the island by barge, and the inmates did the laundry. But using the prison laundry was not without risk. One of the letters in Bowman’s possession addresses the loss of a dress belonging to his mother.
Apparently an inmate damaged the garment beyond repair in an act of revenge against a shop foreman. The identity of the culprit was unknown at the time the letter was written, on Dec. 18, 1959.
The families lived on the far end of the island and were almost completely isolated from the compound where America’s most notorious criminals were housed. They were also physically isolated from the mainland, and had an extensive list of rules (a copy of which Bowden has in his possession) that had to be followed.
“Families of the prison guards had to live on the island,” Bowden said. “If there was an escape attempt, they had no way to get in touch with guards if they were living on the mainland and no way to get them back in time to be of much help.”
Children rode a passenger boat called the Warden Johnston to and from school every day in all kinds of weather.
some of Bowden’s favorite memories of his time on Alcatraz are of the big boat.
“All of the kids went to school in San Francisco,” he said. “Think about this: my brother started first grade in 1958 and he was probably 5 or 6-years-old. The first day my mother took him. The second day he gets on the boat with all the kids from Alcatraz, gets off at the long, curved pier out there, walks to the top of the hill there and crosses Bay Street and catches a city bus and rides half-way to Market Street and Bay Street, gets off the bus and walks about a block and a half to go to school in San Francisco, and then back that afternoon. There’s a scary thought, don’t you think?”
“And we rode through that heavy fog across the Bay with only a horn to let other ships know we were out there,” he continued, “but that is how we got to school every day.”
Named the Warden Johnston, the big boat transported employees, their families, and prisoners to the island, making fourteen trips a day, although Bowden doesn’t recall being on the boat at the same time as the prisoners. Passengers rode in a glassed-in cabin with a view, but prisoners were stowed below deck with only tiny portholes to see where they were headed, but he does remember seeing prisoners walking off the boat, their hands and feet shackled to prevent escape.
Some time ago, Bowden saw local model-builder Sandy Osgood on television, and was inspired to meet with him about building a model of the Warden Johnston.
“I saw him on TV and so I called him and later met with him to talk about the project,” said Bowden. “He said it would cost $600 to a $1,000 to build it, so I said, ‘let’s do it!’ Then I got in touch with the alumni association and told them about it and they said they wanted it and would buy it. Now I want him to build one for me, too.”
Bowden’s memories of Alcatraz have grown more precious with the passage of time, and he has returned to the island a number of times in recent years. He is active with the Alcatraz Alumni Association which includes former inmates, employees and their children. He is also a volunteer tour guide, taking visitors all over the notorious prison facility and sharing his memories of a remarkable childhood spent on the big rock in San Francisco’s Bay.