MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
It was once the most feared federal prison in the country, Alcatraz. Located on rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the last stop for some of the country's most notorious criminals. The prison closed for good 44 years ago. Today, it's a national park.
And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, a recent renovation has shed new life on how the old prison worked.
RICHARD GONZALES: Take a 12-minute ferry ride from San Francisco out to Alcatraz and you can walk the same cold cell blocks that once housed notorious bad guys such as Al Capone and George "Machinegun" Kelly.
Ms. KATY OLDS (Assistant Director for Visitor Programs, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy): They were stripped, searched, showered, given prison-issued clothing, and given a number. And for the whole time they were on Alcatraz, they did not have a name anymore - they just had a number. That's what life on Alcatraz was about.
GONZALES: Our tour guide is Katy Olds of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. It's a non-profit partner of the park service, which raised $3.5 million to renovate Alcatraz.
The money was spent on new exhibits, a new bookstore and reclaimed gardens. But renovation also opened some dark corners of the rock that are revealing their secrets for the very first time.
Ms. OLDS: A few months ago, we moved that shelving unit to get it out and clean it and out dropped a foot-long shiv that had been hidden there by an inmate 44 or more years ago and the first time that it ever been seen by anyone besides an inmate. The history is still here - it's still coming out everyday.
GONZALES: Eighty-year-old George DeVincenzi is one of the few people who knows that history first hand. He has a grain pompadour and piercing blue eyes and still looks like he belongs in 1950. That's the year he came to Alcatraz as a 24-year-old rookie guard. In his first half-hour on the job, he saw one inmate kill another one.
Mr. GEORGE DEVINCENZI (Former Guard, Alcatraz): As Lieutenant Bergin(ph) said, you'd never seen anybody introduce to the prison service like I was. I got a lot of stories.
GONZALES: Like how he used to play checkers from midnight to dawn with Robert Stroud, better known as "The Birdman" of Alcatraz. But DeVincenzi says he always made sure a trusted guard had a gun trained on Stroud.
A new audio tour of Alcatraz feature stories like this from other guards and from inmates, like Jim Quillen. He describes how he tried to keep his sanity while locked in solitary confinement.
(Soundbite of cell bars banging)
Mr. JIM QUILLEN (Former Inmate, Alcatraz): Well, I'd go on the hole - what I use to do is I tear up that (Unintelligible) and I cover the hole. I flip it up in the air and I turn around in circle, then I get down on my hands and knees and I hunt for that button. And when I found the button, I'd stand up and I'd do it again.
GONZALES: The tour captures what it felt like to be incarcerated on a cold, foggy, windy rock with San Francisco gleaming like a jewel from across a short stretch of open but frigid water. Chris Tellis produced the audio tour.
Mr. CHRIS TELLIS (Producer): This quote by Quillen, there was never a day you didn't see what the hell you were losing and what you're missing, you know. It was all there...
Mr. QUILLEN: It was all there for you to see - there's light. There's everything I want in my life and it's there. It's a mile or a mile and a half away, and I can't get to that.
GONZALES: There were more than a dozen attempted escapes from Alcatraz, the most famous occurred in 1962 when three inmates disappeared into the Bay's treacherous currents. They were never heard from again. Most inmates were resigned into staying there for as long as the warden saw fit.
Mr. DARWIN COON (Former Inmate, Alcatraz): My name is Darwin Coon. Number 1422. I figured I'm never going to get out. Yeah, I'm going to sit right here until I die.
GONZALES: Today, Darwin Coon is back at Alcatraz. Sitting in a new gift shop, selling his memoir of his four-year stretch. Coon scoffs at the mention of the movies made about Alcatraz because he says there was nothing glamorous about life on The Rock.
Mr. COON: You'll learn real quick when you got here. Keep your mouth shut and walk with your back to the wall. Many inmates on this island needed to be at a mental institution rather in prison.
GONZALES: Chris Tellis, producer of the audio tour, says even the myths about Alcatraz are important.
Mr. TELLIS: It is the American tower of London. And it got that way because of the famous characters that are here. Al Capone, Creepy Carpus, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly. And you can see a process happening whether through films, some literature and oral histories and stories where these characters getting grain into the American psyche. And as those themes are built, one on top of another - that's how mythology is formed.
GONZALES: On most days of the year, visitors to Alcatraz can compare for themselves how mythology measures with reality on this beautiful yet harsh little island.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.