SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - Alcatraz celebrated its 81st anniversary as a federal penitentiary on Sunday with a unique reunion of former prisoners and former prison guards.
"It still feels a little odd, doesn't it Jim," former prisoner Bob Luke asked former guard Jim Albright. "It's something that you just weren't used to."
Alcatraz was the last of Luke's six prisons. "Just another prison," Luke said. "It wasn't like the movies. It was just another prison." Both guards and inmates spoke to tourists in a day long program that added a bit of living history to the historic prison.
"People coming back would tell you about it so I knew about it long before coming out here," Luke told a gathered crowd. "And what I knew; you had your own cell, you had yard privileges, they had a big library, the food was good."
Luke served time in Alcatraz for an armed bank robbery. 'When I left Alcatraz and knew I was going to stay out," Luke explained, "I couldn't go back to the place or even people I knew from that life."
Now he returns each year for the reunion. Luke recalled the first reunion years ago. "They assigned me a ranger as my guide," he laughed. "And I asked myself 'what do I need a guide for?'"
"I was the last guard out and I escorted the last inmate out in 1963," Albright said. "The people in there spent all them years trying to get out and now everybody's trying to get in!"
Each year 1.5 million visitors tour Alcatraz. The tickets are sold out far in advance.
This year Trip Advisor ranks Alcatraz #1 on its People's Choice list of top tourist attractions in the United States, and #8 on the list of worldwide attractions.
That's in the same company as attractions like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal.
It takes work to preserve all those layers of history on Alcatraz.
On Sunday the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy presented a ceremonial check for $7.3 million towards restoration work on the historic structures on the island.
It's work that needs to be done to keep Alcatraz open, safe, and accessible to the public.