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Former Alcatraz Resident Darlyne Sheppeard Recalls Growing Up At America's Most Infamous Prison

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ALCATRAZ
AP

The Rock. Uncle Sam's Devil's Island. Hell on Earth. Alcatraz Island went by many names.

But for Darlyne Sheppeard, it only went by one: home.

Sheppeard, the daughter of an associate warden, lived on Alcatraz as a baby in 1934 and again as a teenager from 1949 to 1953. During her stay, fellow residents included Al Capone, "Machine Gun Kelly" and the "Birdman of Alcatraz" -- some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in American history.

This year, the former prison will commemorate 50 years since its closure in 1963. Sheppeard, now 79, will recognize the anniversary by traveling from her home at the Tallgrass Creek Retirement Community in Overland Park, Kan., all the way to San Francisco, Calif., for the annual Alcatraz Alumni Day, a reunion of former guards, residents and even inmates. ("The inmates get most of the attention," says Sheppeard.)

Sheppeard sat down with The Huffington Post to talk about growing up at the most infamous prison in America.

What was it like growing up on Alcatraz? It felt just like a very small town. Everybody there had to take the boat to San Francisco everywhere they went –- to school, to the grocery store, to go out to dinner. There was nothing but residents and a small store with a few essentials on the island. But because we spent so much time on the boat back and forth, it meant I spent a lot of time with my peers and we became very close.

Did you ever get stranded in San Francisco? One time I was on a date and missed the last boat by five minutes. There weren't any cell phones back then and all of the landlines on the island were internal. The only phone that wasn't was the prison phone. I had to call the prison and tell the guard to wake up my father and tell him I would be staying in the city.

Did you have any interactions with the inmates? Never on Alcatraz. When we lived at (United States Penitentiary) Levenworth the inmates would work around the property and sometimes we would talk with them. But they kept them very separate on the island. Even when inmates were working on the dock and the boat would come in, they'd have them line up out of sight and we would go through a separate entrance.

Check out a clip of the 2008 Alcatraz alumni reunion below (CAUTION: video contains strong language). Story continues below...

Were you ever afraid? Actually, no. One time I had a friend in high school and I wanted her to come over and spend the night, but her father wouldn't let her. My father called hers and said, "We know who the bad people are on Alcatraz, but you don't know who they are in San Francisco."

Any riots or escapes? There was an uprising once –- something about the food in the dining hall. The inmates set their mattresses on fire in protest and you could see the smoke coming out of the windows. I asked my father what they were going to do about it. He said, "If they don't want to sleep on mattresses, they don't have to."

Tell me about an "only on Alcatraz" experience. The island was split into three levels: the dock, the residential area and the prison. The residential area was surrounded by gates that were padlocked at night. Now, I was in my late teens when I lived on Alcatraz and the lighthouse keeper had a son who was my age who lived outside the residential area. So one of the first things I learned was how to pick a padlock with a hairpin.

The annual Alcatraz reunion is coming up this month. Tell me about that. I've been about half a dozen times over the years. Most of the people I grew up with are dead now, but in the past it was quite the reunion. I've met inmates who knew my father. The mood among attending inmates is usually positive, as the ones who want to come back have almost always made a life for themselves and are happy to be out of prison. It's the 50th anniversary of the closure and my son and grandchildren are coming so I'm very excited. I'll tell my grandchildren, "This is where your grandmother learned to pick locks."

Another version of this article omitted Sheppeard's first residence on Alcatraz in 1934 for length, but has been added back to clarify her residence overlapping with Al Capone's.

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