Growing up on "The Rock": Novato woman spent childhood on Alcatraz

By Mary Southall
Marinscope Newspapers

Mary, Jeannie and Carol Comerford loved growing up on Alcatraz Island where their father, James “Jim” Comerford, was a prison guard.

“We lived in old Building 64 until they finished constructing the new apartment buildings named A, B and C,” remembers Mary, now Mary Marvier of Novato. “Then we moved to Building C on the third floor. We had a beautiful three-bedroom apartment, with new furniture and wood parquet floors.”

Named by the Spanish “La Isla de los Alcatraces” for the many brown pelicans that called it home, the isolated 12-acre island had stunning views of the Bay Area. “My parents’ bedroom and our living room looked out onto the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco; the other two bedrooms, our kitchen and dining room looked toward the East Bay.”

The 60 families who lived on the island had a post office, a convenience store, and “a wonderful social hall where we had Halloween parties and Christmas plays,” Marvier says. Getting to and from school was no problem, as regular boat runs were scheduled to the mainland.

She remembers the prisoners collecting the family’s dirty laundry and delivering it back to them, clean.

On the down side, cats and dogs were not allowed, but the girls did have turtles, hamsters and goldfish.

The play yard for the children living on Alcatraz Island felt like the safest place in the world.

“It was a great place to grow up because you knew everybody,” she says. “There were no cars (so no car accidents), and you never had to worry about any crime.”

That sense of safety came to a violent end in May 1946, when three hardened criminals put into action the escape plan they had spent months perfecting.

Prisoner Bernie Coy’s good behavior had been rewarded; he was out of his cell on a prison errand. Coy had noticed a daily 15-minute period when only two guards were on duty in his area. Coy overpowered one of the guards when the other was occupied elsewhere; then released his co-conspirators, Buddy Thompson and Marv Hubbard. The men then broke into the armory, obtaining enough guns to capture the remaining guards inside the huge cell block. They planned to use the guards as hostages and escape by overpowering the boat operators. The prisoners only needed the key that unlocked the cell block’s exterior door to make good their plan.

But they were foiled by the simplest of problems: Instead of being where it belonged, the key was in the shirt pocket of a guard who lay tied and locked into one of the prisoners’ own cells.

Infuriated that they couldn’t find the key to get out of the cell block, the prisoners fired their guns at anything and everything.

Marvier’s little sister Jeannie was napping, but then-five-year-old Marvier was playing outside when the escape siren sounded. Her frantic mother, Monica, could have been shot when she rushed outside to search for her daughter, and only retreated to safety when a neighbor hollered that all the kids were inside and accounted for.

Meanwhile, Jim Comerford had his own problems. An outside tower guard, he was one of the prisoners’ first targets. When they shot at him, he fell to the floor behind a shielded wall and pretended to be dead. He was rescued hours later.

Control of the prison didn’t occur for another day, when grenades and gas bombs dropped from the roof filled the cell block with shrapnel. Even so, the three original conspirators refused capture and fought to the death.

Although “The Rock” had a long history as a military prison, it served as a federal prison for only 29 years. Environmental concerns were one reason it was closed; pollution from the inmates and staff was a problem in the bay. “In those days we had incinerators; you just stepped outside and threw your garbage in there, and the prisoners burned it,” Marvier remembers.

Operating the prison was expensive, because everything had to be brought over by boat. Enormous quantities of water were needed because one of the prison facilities was a laundry for uniforms from nearby Bay Area facilities.

After 12 years, “My mother had had enough,” Marvier smiles. Her father found work on the mainland as a deputy marshal, and the family moved on.

Marvier was one of the crowd at Sunday’s 75th anniversary celebration of the opening of Alcatraz Island.

After the family left Alcatraz, Marvier “had not returned to the island until after the National Parks Service had taken it over,” she explains. “They had a Halloween party for us sometime in the 1990s.” The buildings had been “totally devastated; everything we knew and grew up with was gone. The wonderful old social hall was nothing but ruins. Big piles of rubble and cement were all you saw. It broke my heart,” she mourns.

Looking on the island with adult eyes was disconcerting, Marvier says; “in your mind as a child, everything looks so huge.”

But living there was great. “They were good memories,” she says.

Reprinted courtesy of Marinscope Newspapers, Inc.