Updated: Oct 17, 2019
June 11, 1962
Four Alcatraz convicts had worked countless long nights together - over nearly seven months - carefully preparing for an overwhelming challenge, to escape the 'inescapable'. One or more of them may not have felt ready, but on this day, the decision was made . . .
‘we go tonight!‘
Frank Morris, prisoner #1441AZ - a veteran of twelve previous jail and prison escapes, was one of the four, and carried himself with a quiet confidence among the U.S.P. -Alcatraz population. Morris likely would have been the one to make this call - ultimately, often credited as the 'mastermind ' of America's most incredible prison break.
Morris and his accomplices may have grown nervous about a random cell-search, or possibly getting 'ratted on’ by a fellow convict. In either case, months of painstaking preparations would certainly be lost - as prison guards would discover fake cell air-vent covers, and secreted behind them – plaster ‘dummy-heads’, home-made flotation devices, and contraband tools – all to assist in a dramatic 'unauthorized' exit through the cell-house roof.
Morris’ accomplices, fellow bank-robbers John and Clarence Anglin, brothers ‘out of Florida’, and Allen West, an ‘unlicensed stolen-car dealer’ from New York, were his neighbors on the B-Block ‘flats’ - floor level, five-foot by nine-foot cells - often used for 'newbies'.
These very visible, one-man cells were among the least desirable for Alcatraz prisoners. Cells along the upper two tiers would have far less ‘traffic’ , and provided a degree more of privacy. These ground-floor ‘houses' were easily visible to the cell-house guards – who used these concrete corridors to travel between the administration offices and the rest of the prison. Prisoners called these ground floor open spaces – ‘the Range’.
"Home, home on the Range. . ."
The cramped five-foot by nine foot cells contained ‘all the amenities’ – a steel-frame cot, porcelain toilet and sink, and a small wall-mounted metal fold-down table. To round-out the Spartan furnishings, two narrow wooden-shelves adorned the rear wall and provided the only authorized storage space for folded uniform items, prison-issue reading materials, shaving supplies and a small mirror. Subtracting the floor-space covered by the 'furnishings', would leave the prisoner twenty square-feet to use for any restless pacing or exercise.
The four escape conspirators were all serving long sentences of ten plus years, and all were here for previous escapes or escape attempts. John Anglin assisted brother Clarence in an unsuccessful attempt at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, by hiding him in a stack of bread boxes. Allen West held a gun to an Associate Warden’s head at a Florida prison during a botched ‘break-out’. Frank Morris would be a natural leader for the team, based on an impressive history of successful escapes, starting from juvenile reformatories and including one from the formidable Louisiana State Penitentiary.
The fact that the Anglin brothers, and Morris and West, had been assigned adjacent cells were the first of a surprising series of administration blunders which would, inadvertently, create some 'daylight' for any aspiring escapees. U.S.P. - Alcatraz was America’s first, and only, ‘Super Maximum-Security‘ federal prison - often referred to as the 'End of the Line!'
Eight prisoners had been shot dead attempting to escape - by Alcatraz 'Correctional Officers' - who were just followed procedure. 'Shoot first, ask questions later . . .'
Two prisoners, Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole, broke out of a prison shop and managed to make it into the fridgid bay water - under the cover of dense fog, way back in 1936. With only empty cans for flotation devices, and unable to navigate due to zero visibility - the two
novice swimmers are likely to have succummed to the powerful tides and inevitable hypothermia.
Upon discovering the two men missing , the shop supervisor sounded an alarm and the prison was placed in 'lockdown'. A thorough search of the entire island was immediately launched - as the the two dangerous prisoners might be anywhere on the island. A search of the water was deemed too dangerous because of the limited visibility and the rocky shoreline. That part of their plot had worked just a Roe and Cole had presumably planned.
If the escapees did, in fact, perish in the deadly waters, the bodies were never found - predictably either having been drawn out to the Pacific Ocean, or consumed by the San Francisco Bay's healthy crab population.
The facility, inherited from the U.S. Army by the newly created Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933, had been extensively retrofitted at that time to be the world’s first ‘escape-proof’ prison.
Automated case-hardened steel ‘tool-proof’ cell doors and bars replaced the dated swing-doors and flat bars which the Army installed when the prison building was first completed in 1912.
When the Bureau of Prisons took over, the remodel included the addition of interior caged gun-galleries on the second and third tier levels at each end of the prison building. These secure perches allowed for armed guards to cover any movement around the cell-blocks, and outside the building six exterior ‘gun-towers’ were occupied ’24/7′ by trained marksmen officers. All were given orders to ‘shoot to kill’ any would-be escapees.
The four escape conspirators were all serving long sentences of ten to thirty years, and all were here for previous escapes or escape attempts. John Anglin assisted brother Clarence in an unsuccessful attempt at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, by hiding him in a stack of bread boxes. Allen West held a gun to an Associate Warden’s head at a Florida prison during a botched ‘break-out’. Frank Morris would be a natural leader for the team, based on an impressive history of successful escapes, including one from Louisiana State pen.
The fact that the Anglin brothers, as well as Morris and West, had been assigned adjacent cells were the first of a surprising series of administration blunders at America’s first and only ‘Super Maximum-Security‘ federal prison – United States Federal Penitentiary – Alcatraz..
The facility, inherited from the U.S. Army by the Bureau of Prisons in 1933, was then extensively retrofitted to become the world’s first ‘escape-proof’ prison. Automated case-hardened steel cell doors and bars replaced the dated swing-doors and flat bars which the Army installed when the building was first completed in 1912.
The Bureau's remodel also included the addition of interior caged 'gun-galleries' on the second and third tier levels at each end of the prison building. These secure perches allowed armed prison guards to cover any movement around the cell-blocks, and outside the building six exterior ‘gun-towers’ were occupied ’24/7′ by trained marksmen officers. All were given orders to ‘shoot to kill’ any would-be escapees.
Six Heavily Armed Guntowers Circled USP-Alcatraz
Thirty-two other Alcatraz prisoners had attempted to escape in a dozen separate, failed attempts over the preceding twenty-eight years. Eight men had been shot and killed, one drowned and two others were ‘presumed drowned’. As far as any of the Alcatraz prisoners knew, no one had ever escaped to freedom. For most, to consider it – was a death-wish. After-all, this was the world’s first ‘Escape-Proof’ prison.
It’s been said that Alcatraz guards intentionally spread false rumors about ‘man-eating sharks’ in the surrounding bay – but as former prisoner Billy Boggs coyly noted: ‘didn’t scare me … hell, those sharks would have to take their chances’!
For Frank Morris, (see ‘mug shot’ below) and his co-conspirators however, the thought of serving out their long sentences in a 5′ x 9′ Alcatraz cell would make them ‘dead men walking’ anyway. They lived and worked among a sea of the ‘old timers’ – some who had been on ‘the Rock’ for twenty years or more – seemingly beaten, hopelessly enduring the unrelenting routine which was USP-Alcatraz. Day after day, month after month, year after year – hopelessness on two feet.
‘Then one day, a faint glimmer of hope appeared for the daring convicts who would create the greatest escape in U.S. History! A shared discovery that the plumbing system serving each cell, had vent pipes which travelled vertically up a narrow chase to the cell-block roof top, and that the matrix of pipes could serve as a virtual ladder to freedom. But, how to get into that three foot-wide, three story-high plumbing corridor? This was first of many challenges ahead.
The walls, ceiling and floor of each cell in the Alcatraz cell house were solid concrete, which appeared to be at least eight to ten inches thick. Water supply pipes for the sink and toilet in each cell were surrounded by this solid concrete, and the only opening was a metal air-vent recessed three-inches deep into the rear cell wall. And although this vent-grill did circulate air from the plumbing corridor -it was just six inches high, and nine inches wide. Very little hope there. Unless you were Frank Morris – there was always hope for an escape.
At just 5′ 7″ in height, and a scant 140 pounds, Frank Morris had slipped out of a lot of tight situations. Morris’ escape history started shortly after he was born, on September 1, 1926, when he escaped a most miserable childhood – with a mother who was frequently incarcerated herself – as she abandoned him at an orphanage. Young Frank never adjusted well to foster homes, and started running away from them as soon as he could.
es, at which young Frank was caught ‘pulling pranks’, sneaking around, and stealing extra food from the kitchen. Eventually, Frank Morris would slip away from each of these attempts to cage him.
Frank Morris was first arrested at age thirteen, for a series of home burglaries, and placed in detention at the National Training School for Boys in Washington D.C. A year later, fourteen year-old ‘Frankie’ was sentenced to six years and nine months for a separate burglary. A pattern of long incarcerations and reckless, crime-fueled short-periods of freedom was set in place at this early age . . . ultimate destination – U.S.P.- Alcatraz!
‘Frankie’ Morris is said to have been a ‘quiet con’. Fellow prisoners have said that he always appeared to be deep in thought, and if he did say something – it was never trivial. Although listed in the Alcatraz ‘Warden’s Report’ as a known escape risk, Morris was placed in ‘general population’, worked in the prison industries, and was only ‘written-up’ for minor infractions – like brewing coffee in his cell. Although, contraband coffee was not the only thing #1441AZ was ‘brewing’ in his cell . . . he was also ‘cooking-up’ the most incredible escape plan in American history .
The danger involved in any escape attempt from the America’s toughest prison was self-evident. Most surviving USP -Alcatraz prisoners easily recall their first impression of ‘the Rock’ – commonly the terrifying boat-ride to the island. Often shrouded in fog, Alcatraz Island is crowned by the prison Cell-house Building – which gradually appeared as a mysterious silhouette looming over the dark waters of San Francisco Bay. The prison’s island isolation was ironically signaled every forty seconds by a brief flash from a lighthouse beacon – and by the incessant moan of a Coast Guard foghorn – both struggling to escape the island’s hold.
As the prison launch neared Alcatraz Island – tall, dark rocky cliffs became visible – accented by contrasting flashes of bright white at their base – as waves crashed against a ring of jagged boulders like repeated warnings of the obvious danger.
Many former Alcatraz prisoners have confessed, in later years, that the trip out to the mysterious island prison was quite unsettling – even for tough guys – and many feared theirs might be a ‘one-way ticket’. One thing most knew on arrival, was that any thoughts of escaping this ‘pen’ – must deal with a successful crossing of more than a mile of choppy, frigid bay waters . . . ‘Welcome to ‘the Rock’ . . .’
Previous Escape Attempt
New arrivals to ‘the Rock’ in 1960 and ’61, like Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, would certainly hear of the most recent escape attempt – in September 0f 1958, by two seasoned ‘cons’ – Aaron Burgett, #991AZ, and Clyde Johnson, #864AZ. The younger Burgett was just six years into a twenty-five year sentence for a series of violent armed robberies in the St. Louis area, and the older Johnson was only eight years into a forty-year stint for bank and other armed robberies.
The two prisoners had been assigned to a clean-up detail along the south shoreline of the island – outside the fences – and with a tremendous and tempting view of the San Francisco skyline and waterfront.
Burgett and Johnson were supervised by just one un-armed officer, and as the detail progressed along the water’s edge, the trio would briefly disappear from the oversight of the dock gun-tower.
Preparations for a planned escape was evident when Clyde Johnson pulled a hidden paring knife on Officer Harold Miller and the six-foot, two-inch Burgett grabbed and restrained him. Further evidence of a planned escape was clear when the convicts produced a roll of black electrical tape and a section of rope. The officer was bound, gagged and blind-folded before being tied to a tree on the hill-side with the rope. The young officer had been a prison-guard for less than a year, and USP-Alcatraz was his first assignment . . . ‘Welcome to the Rock!’
After double-checking the retraints on Officer Miller, Burgett strapped small, pre-made plywood ‘swim-fins’ to his work-shoes, and both would-be escapees inflated small plastic garbage bags they had secreted under their clothing. Evidently, the two ‘cons’ planned to use these home-made flotation devices to aid in their swim to the mainland. Former prisoner William Baker, #1259AZ, recalls witnessing Aaron Burgett inflating plastic-bags and testing them by submerging them in a workshop sink shortly before the attempt.
After several attempts at entering the tumultuous bay waters by both prisoners, Johnson decided it was impossible, and hunkered down in some brush to re-think his options. The home-sick Burgett decided it was ‘now or never’, overcame his fear, and entered the water a final time – and began thrashing towards the beckoning sight of San Francisco.
When Officer Miller failed to report on schedule, other dock officers responded – finding Mr. Miller in his humbling situation – and Clyde Johnson gave up without a struggle. The escape siren was sounded, all prisoners were quickly escorted back to their cells, and a massive man-hunt was launched. Staff families living on Alcatraz were confined to quarters – as search teams scoured the island, the bay, and the San Francisco waterfront. The search lasted for days, with the Alcatraz prisoners on lock-down – and Clyde Johnson sitting it out in ‘the hole’. No sign of Aaron Burgett anywhere.
After five days, the search was scaled down – and the prisoners were gradually allowed back to work, and to the dining hall for meals. Speculation about Burgett’s fate ran rampant among prison staff, their families, and the always optimistic convict population. No man was ever known to have succeeded in escaping this bastion – perhaps it would be the well-liked, young Nebraska ‘corn-husker’.
As the second week of the drama passed, speculation about the chances of Burgett’s survival continued inside and outside the walls of USP-Alcatraz. However, on the fourteenth day since his disappearance, Aaron Burgett did return to ‘the Rock’, . . . as his life-less body was spotted floating in the same area where he was last seen. Clearly, Aaron Burgett’s body had been dragged to the bottom of the bay and back – as his battered corpse was ‘eaten full of holes’ – presumably at the claws of the Bay’s prolific Dungeness crab.
Broken halves of his make-shift ‘swim-fins’ were still attached to his leather prison work-shoes, #991 was clearly visible on his uniform, and he had donned an extra pair of khaki pants imprinted with the prisoner #814, presumably taken from the prison laundry.
A crowded memorial service was held for Aaron Burgett a week later in the cell-house Chapel, and for many of his fellow con friends – was the only time they ever attended any religious services on ‘the Rock.’ Ironically, or perhaps with purpose, the barred windows of the second-story ‘Chapel’ provide a sweeping view of the exact area of bay waters which took their friend – and in the distance, the always beckoning skyline of San Francisco. Certainly some pondered their own chances on that water – but had any learned anything from Aaron Burgett’s plight?
Clyde Johnson received an additional five years, never attempted escape again, was released for a short time, and died in prison in 1995.
USP-Alcatraz, June, 1962
Despite the daunting stories of failed escape attempts – like the recent Johnson/Burgett humiliation – Morris, West and the Anglin brothers would discuss the innumerable challenges they would face in their emerging plan. With West and Morris in adjoining cells, as were brothers John and Clarence, their ability to communicate – and work in concert – would play a vital role in their efforts. As it was decided that removing the air-vent grill would be the critical first-step, the four were able to take turns working on the surrounding concrete – or as a ‘look-out’ for their ‘neighbor’.
One of the most important breaks the ‘would-be’ escapees would receive – was the decision by the new Warden, Olin Blackwell, to allow prisoners to purchase musical instruments by mail-order, keep them in their cells, and to enjoy a rare new privilege on ‘the Rock‘ – a cell-house ‘music hour’ following the evening meal. It is not difficult to imagine the cacauphony which resulted in the concrete and steel confines, as the cons pounded on cheap guitars and tambourines, and ‘blew off some steam’ into horns and harmonicas. As fellow convict Thomas Kent put it, ‘You could have run a jack-hammer in that cell-house and not been noticed’ . . . or perhaps, even a drill.
Of course, Frank Morris ordered an instrument something out of the ordinary, a ‘Concertina’, a miniature version of an accordion . . . ‘bellows and all!’
A common myth, as portrayed in the Hollywood movie – ‘Escape from Alcatraz‘ – infers that Frank Morris had discovered that the fifty year-old Alcatraz concrete had become softened by the ‘salt-air’ from the Pacific Ocean, and that Morris was able to chip away at it with a smuggled spoon-handle.
Visitors examining the cell-house concrete today, however, another fifty-plus years later, will find it still quite solid – and quickly realize it would have taken more than a spoon-handle to ‘fly this coop’!
Thomas Kent, #1443AZ, the ‘admitted’ co-conspirator states that the spoon story is roughly based in fact. Kent states that a motor was procured from a cell-house vacuum cleaner – which originally had two motors – one for the vacuum and one for the roller – and was modified by yet another ‘co-conspirator’ – to function with just one.
motor was then modified to hold a smuggled drill-bit – and that after drilling a series of pilot-holes around the vent – three spoon-handles would be inserted, then spread with a wooden wedge – fracturing the surrounding concrete. The small chips of cement and rock would then be smuggled out to the ‘yard’ in modified trouser pockets – before being emptied down the inside of a pant leg – disappearing around the ankles into the broken concrete and dirt ‘play-field’ which was the ‘recreation’ area.
Weekend days ‘on the yard’ provided unique opportunities for convicts to converse. Although armed guards watched their actions closely from ‘cat-walks’ atop the surrounding fifteen foot wall – and unarmed officers patrolled the grounds in pairs – the cons could huddle in groups, or walk together for even more privacy. Weekdays, prisoners were restricted to speaking only with cell-neighbors and co-workers, and these ‘yard-days’ offered a chance to see other friends and ‘associates’, and many knew one another from previous institutions. This nefarious ‘network’ would prove very critical in several aspects of the evolving escape plan.
materials would be needed for their escape plan. Fellow ‘cons’ would have to be asked to help – and for their silence. Drill bits, pry-bars, and other items would have to be ‘lifted’ from the shops, or provided by fellow prisoners with jobs involving access to tool-kits.
he ‘high-tech’ security of the time included crude, walk-through metal-detectors positioned in several locations around the island – including one at the base of the stairs leading to and from the Prison Industries building – the ‘shops’. Former cons have stated that smaller metal contraband could be transported in hollowed-out shoe heels – if one was very careful to drag his feet while passing through the device. Drill bits and screw-drivers would require something much more creative.
In 1996, we met with former ’62 Alcatraz prisoner William Boggs, – still ‘doing time’ in ‘Super-Max’ -USP-Lompoc, in Southern California. Cautious about discussing any of his own involvement in the famous escape, Boggs stated he knew all of the escapees, and wished them ‘the very best’.
Boggs was sent to Alcatraz on an international heroin smuggling conviction in 1955, so was quite familiar with the ‘operations’ of the guarded institution, including a secret method used to transport drill-bits, and other small metal objects from the shops – straight into the cell-house. Evidently, this was an out-dated transport method, as Boggs was willing to speak of it within the ‘not so private’ confines of the prison’s visitation room.
in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s, and USP-Alcatraz had plenty – tables, chairs, benches and other items. Of particular interest to Billy Boggs, and other calculating cons, were the wooden cell-house chairs with metal wire ‘stays’. As these chairs were in constant use by prison staff, they would become wobbly, and would frequently be sent down to the shops for straightening and tightening – by convict woodshop workers.
What interested the cons most, was that these chairs would be carried back up to the cell-house, through the much feared metal-detector, without a second look. Obviously, the metal wire stays, as well as metal skids on the bottom of each leg, would set-off the metal detector alarm – so they were routinely sent on their way without further inspection. Work-shop cons simply removed the metal skids, drilled out the legs, inserted a drill-bit, and replaced the skid. Cell-house workers at the other end of the ‘pipeline’ – would need little time to remove the contraband and complete the ‘shipment’.
Prison meals at USP-Alcatraz were served in a drab ‘Dining Hall’, which the convicts more appropriately dubbed the ‘mess hall’. Armed guards peered in through barred-windows, and tear-gas canisters hung from the concrete ceiling – ready to quell any disturbance.
mer cons still talk about how good the food was at USP-Alcatraz, as compared to other institutions. The Christmas menu shown below, features consommé, roast turkey, whipped potatoes, raisin-nut dressing, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce and for dessert . . . hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream!
me are convinced that they were being ‘fattened-up’ so they couldn’t make the swim to the mainland. In actuality, the meals served inside USP-Alcatraz were a ‘cut-above’ for other reasons. Primarily, the ‘pen’s‘ first Warden, James R. Johnston, knew from his previous institutions that most prison uprisings were over food quality and/or quantity, so he ordered that large quantities of high-quality ‘menu’ items be servedJ. Additionally, ‘Saltwater’ Johnston proclaimed – “take all that you want, but eat all that you take”. Prisoners whose ‘eyes were bigger than their stomachs’ – and failed to clear their plates – would have to sit out the next meal.
And although the fare was dished out freely, the utensils – including spoons – were watched very closely.
The ironically named ‘Holiday Meal’, was proudly served by the kitchen crew on Christmas day each year. In addition to the bountiful offering, as described at left, this lone special occasion also meant that prisoners would receive a long-awaited ‘Gift-Bag’ – filled with an array of hard candies, several candy bars and two packs of much cherished ‘Camel’ brand, non-filter cigarettes. These two precious packs of quality ‘smokes’ provided a rare taste of the outside world – and would become high-value ‘currency’ in the prison’s underground commerce system.
In an effort to eliminate tobacco-based betting and leveraging, Alcatraz convicts were each provided with three packs of cheap government issue ‘Wings’ brand cigarettes each week. Additionally, an endless supply of an even lower-grade ‘roll-your-own’ variety was dispensed from wooden tobacco-boxes located at the mess-hall end of each cell-block. The prisoners were provided ‘gum-less’ rolling-papers, and were ‘free’ to simply grab a handful of the government issue tobacco as they returned to their cells. The Administration’s idea worked very well to suppress covert trading activities, but also elevated the value of the once-yearly ration of ‘real’ cigarettes. These precious forty ‘smokes’ could be offered to settle sports bets, obtain favors, or be traded for contraband – which could, of course, include spoons . . .
Now, under the cover of the nightly music hour, the men were able to work with the crude electric drill, which was connected to the cell’s ceiling light-socket. Then, with spoon-handles as wedges, the progress in exposing the mesh grill would proceed relatively swiftly. The immediate challenge now would be hiding their excavation projects.
One of the most clever aspects of the escape operation, was the fabrication of imitation grills. The convincing fake grill-covers were painstakingly created from the wooden generic tobacco boxes, which presumably were tossed in cell-house trash cans when empty. Each facsimile required the creator to carve out dozens of diamond-shaped holes in the box bottoms, to match the appearance of the original steel mesh. A larger surrounding flange of thin wood paneling was also somehow procured, then attached to the recessed grill.
Institutional green paint was obtained through the ‘network’ of cooperative fellow cons, and the critical ‘work’ covers were painted to blend in with the cell wall. Rubber cement was smuggled from the shops, so that the vent-covers could be glued in place each night to cover the progress.
The relaxing of numerous aspects of USP-Alcatraz protocol by the ‘new’ Warden, Olin Blackwell, would facilitate the blossoming escape plan in several critical aspects. That prisoners were now allowed to have musical instruments, also meant they would be permitted to have cases to store them in. The music-cases would be ‘innocently’ placed against the back wall to obscure the edges of the vent-covers, and the relaxed atmosphere also allowed the convicts to hang previously folded clothes from the rim of the sink.
In previous administrations, strict cell-house protocol meant every item which prisoners were allowed had a designated place to be stored. Photographs taken of the cell-house during the early sixties display conditions which would have made previous Wardens cringe.
In addition to musical instruments, the prisoners were now also allowed to purchase art supplies by mail order. Paint and brush sets, art paper, and easels were the medium of choice for many suddenly aspiring artists among the convict population. The new tolerance for ‘freedom of expression’, would again facilitate our busy ‘quartet’ in their quest for freedom.
John Anglin and Frank Morris were the first to succeed in removing their vent-grills, and began feverishly chipping away at the openings to enlarge them. The men contemplated the next phase of the plan – when they would be able to crawl into the plumbing corridor and begin exploring upward. These scouting missions would need to take place after each day’s final ‘standing-count’ and ‘lights-out’ – at 9:30 p.m.
Frank Morris may have learned the art of fabricating a ‘dummy-head’ as a youth in foster homes and reformatories. Blankets could be ruffled up to resemble the form of a sleeping body – and the placement of a convincing decoy on the pillow – may have facilitated after-hours exploits and adventures for the restless juvenile. Now facing the similar situation of ‘needing to be back for breakfast’, newly acquired painting supplies would provide for advancement of the art of dummy-head creation.
Glue could be obtained from the prison wood-shop, and when combined with paper and soap shavings, would produce the molding-clay for each sculpture. Clarence Anglin’s job as a cell-house barber, provided the actual hair which topped each of the four decoys. Each of the men even gave his creation an Alcatraz nickname, Morris called his ‘Oink’ – in tribute to a pronounced probiscus.
Taking turns leaving their cells after ‘lights-out’ – while the others kept watch – the men explored the plumbing corridor and made their way up to the roof of ‘C – Block’.
The three-story ‘building within a building’ also presented a perimeter of ‘tool-proof’ bars which reached to the ceiling of the cell-house building itself. Ventilation fans connected duct-work out through the concrete roof structure – presenting the only potential exit found.
Frank Morris determined that to gain entry into the twenty-inch diameter ducting, tools would be needed to remove numerous steel rivets. Work ‘up-top’ was risky – as the patrolling cell-house gun-gallery guards could see any movement there. The men were keenly aware that they must discover some way to cover their activities.
Morris had maneuvered into a daytime cell-house job cleaning and polishing the concrete cell-house corridors – known by cons as ‘the range’.
His position provided not only eyes on cell-house activities during the work-day, but also the necessity to interact with the guards. In general, for convicts, conversing with a ‘Screw’ was to be avoided – for fear of being labeled a ‘snitch’.
Alcatraz convicts working in the kitchen and the various shops, were under supervision by Prison Industries’ civilian employees – not the ‘Hacks’ who locked them in their cells each night. Speaking with Shop Supervisors was common and acceptable, as these men were ‘outsiders’ – and could be valuable sources for world news – and much sought-after sports updates.Conversely, the awkward dialog between prisoners and cell-house guards would generally be limited to task related comments, complaints and special requests. Frank Morris was a quiet con, but now he had an important idea which he needed to discuss with his cell-house supervisors.
In what may be the single most important factor in the entire escape scheme, Morris is credited with a ‘stroke of genius’ for concocting the virtual ‘smoke-screen’ which would soon effectively cover their activities on the cell-block roof.
The concrete Cell-house floors at USP-Alcatraz were fastidiously maintained by the ‘residents’ themselves – under the strict supervision of un-armed guards nearby and their armed counterparts stationed in the Gun Galleries.
Both Morris and West were part of the Cell-house detail, a usually unenviable job for a con. Most prisoners enjoyed the daily walk in the fresh air down to the shops building, and then the spectacular bay views from there.
Working in the Cell-house meant not leaving the building for days until the much awaited weekend. For Morris and West, this actually might have been a plus – as this enabled them to keep an eye on the guards, their routines, and to get longer looks at the ceiling above.
Alcatraz prisoners were surely aware that several of the island’s six Gun-towers had recently been decommissioned, and that the Cell-house roof-tower had been physically removed. Unknown to the cons, government budget-cuts had forced these changes – in what would really be – the ‘beginning of the end’ for USP-Alcatraz.
Previous to these changes, it would have been un-thinkable to attempt to escape via the Cell-house roof – as heavily armed guards were stationed in the ‘Roof Tower’ ’24/7′, 365 days a year.
Dozens of fellow Alcatraz convicts are thought to have assisted in the escape attempt over six or seven months of preparations. Some would have contributed tools and materials, and some just information. Jobs for prisoners were mostly in the Prison Industries building, but some were in other locations around the island. The removal of the Cell-house roof-tower could not have taken place with the ‘cons’ unaware. It is safe bet that the escape plan would have proceeded in an upwards direction without this knowledge.
Now accessing the Cell-block roof on night-time scouting missions, the risk of being spotted would be of tantamount concern to Morris and the others. Sweeping the Cell-house floors allowed Morris and West ground-level views of the relatively open space between the Cell-block roof and the building’s real ceiling. It also allowed Morris to share his idea with the Cell-house guards.
The next step in the escape plot was a well-conceived ruse – a clever deception which the cell-house guards fell for ‘hook, line, and sinker”! This was a brilliant ploy which would effectively blind-fold the guards by day and – more importantly – by night!
Morris and West held jobs on the cell-house cleaning crew which, ironically, afforded them the opportunity to keep an eye on their keepers – and on their cells. Most Alcatraz prisoners held jobs down in the Prison Industries building, and might not know if the guards checked their cells.
A much-feared cell-house ‘shakedown’ would be catastrophic to the now progressing plan, and even a simple cell-search of any of the four ‘escape cells’ would end their efforts. If any of the over 400 cells in the Prison Building were searched, Morris, West, and the Anglins wanted to know about it!
This work situation also provided the opportunity for the above mentioned ‘ruse’ . Cell-house workers could engage supervising officers in job related dialog, and perhaps – ‘throw out some bait” . . .
While performing the repetitive task of sweeping and polishing the cell-house floors, one of the men apparently summoned a cell-house officer and a short conversation – something like the following – evidently took place:
Convict: “I’m trying to figure out where all this damn dust comes from . . . ?”
Guard: “Your job is to clean it up, Einstein – not to figure out where it comes from!”
Con: “Well, I think it’s blowin’ down from the top of the cell-blocks! Those damn windows are always open – even when when it’s cold and windy out!”
Guard: “Yeah, well – that’s just to keep all of you ‘hot-heads’ cool!”
Con: “You know how the wind whips through here – it’s blowin’ the dust down from up top! I wonder if anybody has ever swept the cell-block roofs up there?
Guard: “Well, not since I’ve been here anyway. . . hmmm, well – maybe we should have a look, I’ll call for a ladder.”
And, with that short conversation, a major milestone was accomplished. After the prisoners hauled the ladder up to the third tier, a guard had the first look. Sure enough, it appeared to the inspecting guard as though no one had ever cleaned the interior roof-tops – there was thick dust everywhere.
Now, the ‘clean-up’ would begin. First was ‘A-Block’, which was the worst, as it had not been remodeled like ‘B’ and ‘C’ when the ‘Feds’ took over the place in 1933. The dust on top of ‘A’ might go back as far as 1912 – when the Army first opened these ‘Disciplinary Barracks’. Morris and West would now have their first chance to inspect the cell-block roof and the second roof above. They would also discover the the top of the plumbing corridor was wide-open.
‘B-Block’ was next, and this was the one that mattered. This cell-block was home to our escape-plan partners down on the ground-floor – also known as the ‘Flats’. And, as we now know, these ‘cell-house custodians’ might not even be around to clean up ‘C’ block!
Once the cell-block roof clean-up was underway, Morris and West were reminded just how visible any night-time activities up there would be to the gun-gallery guards.
This is where the true genius of this deceptive ploy comes into play. According to Thomas Kent, Frank Morris swept some dust into a pile near the edge of the roof-top, then waited for a cell-house guard to pass below.
And, with a deft and accurate stroke, Morris sent the pile of dust cascading over the edge, out over the walkway – and then raining down on the unsuspecting officer!
The dated dust practically glimmered on the shoulders of the officer’s nicely pressed Navy-blue blazer! Now looking up, the red-faced guard shrieked, “Damn it Morris! Your getting dust all over me! Jeez! Try to be more careful! Damn, the wife is gonna be pissed!”
“Oh damn, I’m sorry, I’ll try to be more careful!” – Morris coyly yelled down, then continued; “There’s a ton of dust up here”, he continued, “but, I think I have have an idea we could try. . .”
“Oh yeah? What’s that Morris?” – the still half-chuckling cell-house supervisor piped in from a safe location nearby.
“I was just thinkin’ . . . when all that stuff goes over the edge – we’re just gonna have to sweep it up again down there! Y’know, if y’all were to send up some blankets, – we could hang ’em from the bars to keep the dust in . . .”
“Hey, your’re not quite as dumb as I had you made out to be Morris”, the ‘supe’responded, “that’s a lot better idea than stealing six-grand in nickels I’d say! . . . OK, we’ll send up some blankets – just try to keep all that crap up there Morris!”
“It was sixty-five hundred, and they was DIMES!” Morris clarified, referring to the unexpected weighty bank-vault heist that had earned him this federal ‘rap’.
And so, as ‘Frankie’ Morris started hanging the dark, woolen blankets along the south end of the B-Block roof cage – directly across from the imposing gun-gallery – he was figuratively, and literally, ‘pulling the wool’ over his keeper’s eyes . . . !
Morris and West then convinced the guards to send up enough blankets to enclose a significant portion of the south end of the ‘roof-cage’. Their eyes were now focused on the cell-block’s rooftop ventilation fan and the attached air-ducting which exited through the actual cell-house roof. The duct was an inviting 18 – 20 inches in diameter, and appeared just large enough for a man to crawl through.
Getting inside the duct-work would be a major challenge. The sections of the tubular sheet-metal ducting were firmly secured in place with solid steel rivets – and would have to be sawed apart one at a time. This work would also be time-consuming, but the newly hung wool blankets created a privacy-curtain, making this particular challenge much less ‘impossible’.
Undoubtably, the Gun-Gallery guards would have noticed the blankets immediately, but ‘nothing ever happened up there anyway’ . . .
At the same time, numerous other aspects of the plan were being executed. With the special new ‘curtains’ installed ‘up top’, work on a raft and personal flotation devices could now take place in their new roof-top ‘workshop’. The plan was to construct a four-man inflatable raft from the rubberized raincoats issued to all prisoners.
Dozens of rubberized raincoats were donated by fellow cons – who would simply wear them to the exercise yard on weekend days – and return to the cell-house without them. The escape team would do the converse. The coats could then be secreted in the plumbing corridor by rolling them up tightly and simply stuffing through the now expanded cell air-vents.
Steam-heating pipes conveniently ran along the cell-block roof, and with glue taken from the shops, the raft’s seams could be ‘vulcanized’ by pressing them against the 140 degree pipes for several minutes. Work also commenced on inflatable life-vests similar to the boating variety – which were amusingly referred to as – ‘Mae West’s’.
Clarence Anglin was nearing completion of his grill removal, while Alan West was making much slower progress. Drilling and chipping continued during the evening music hour for these two, with John Anglin and Morris acting as ‘look-outs’.
With the blankets now hung, John Anglin and Frank Morris could begin the roof-top projects after ‘lights-out’ each night. Removing their fake vent-covers, then squeezing out through the rough openings, they would then pull the ‘grills’ back into place, and begin navigating upward via a menagerie of iron pipes.
The grill covers were created from discarded wooden tobacco boxes which dispensed free government-issue Bull Durham at the end of each cell-block. USP-Alcatraz prisoners were free to grab a handful when returning to their cells from work or meals. Rolling papers were also thankfully provided!
Small diamond-shaped holes were cut into the boxes’ bottoms to simulate the steel mesh screens which had been removed. Institutional green paint could be created with the paint-sets the Warden had recently allowed the prisoners to purchase by mail-order – and keep in their cells!
Once again, rubber-cement from the prison industries was used to temporarily secure the fake grill-covers to the chipped concrete.
Unsure of exactly how they would escape the forboding concrete walls and case- hardened bars covering every window and door in the building, the team’s scouts began scrutinizing the Prison Building’s expansive concrete ceiling.
Expansive skylights were included when the structure was originally built in 1912, running almost the entire length of the cell-house. This feature provided for a bright cell-house during daylight hours, and perhaps some moonlight for clandestine night-time ‘projects’.
The skylights featured heavy barred frames and were directly over the corridors – some thirty feet over the concrete floor. No ‘daylight’ here. The duct-work would be their only hope. The men began to examine the roof-top blower and its’ exhaust-ducting, which appeared to exit through the formidable concrete cell-house roof.
The solid steel rivets connecting the sections of sheet-metal ducting would need to be cut. A hack-saw, or at least a hack-saw blade, would be required.
As in all prisons and jails, convicts will develop their own clandestine systems for transportation of contraband items to each other – and from one area to another. The Hollywood characterization of a prisoner Trustee making ‘deliveries’ while dispensing reading materials from a book-cart, is one of their least fictional portrayals. According to several former Alcatraz cons, this system was used for years on ‘the Rock’.
Such an involved escape attempt as this, would require some ingenuity well beyond passing notes or cigarettes by way of the ubiquitous book-cart Trustee. After all, this was America’s ‘Escape-proof’ prison . . .
Guards armed with 30.06 rifles and searchlights surveyed the ground from six metal ‘Gun-Towers’ –watching every move. Movements by prisoners to the work shops, the yard and to the prison Dining Hall required they pass through six-foot high metal detectors.
There was also one guard on-duty for every three prisoners – twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Sixteen ‘head-counts’ were conducted each and every day, and frequent and random cell searches would usually discover any hidden contraband. These cell-checks always included testing the cell’s bars for any tampering.
Guards thumped each tool-proof steel bar with a mallet – to discover any hidden sawing attempts. If a bar didn’t ‘ring’ like the others, it would be thoroughly inspected.
Not one U.S.P. -Alcatraz prisoner was ever known to have successfully escaped to the ‘mainland’. This ‘full-on’ attempt would require that numerous materials be successfully transported to the four men determined to be the first.
Several innovative smuggling techniques have been shared by the former prisoners who were ‘in the know’ on the operation.
Former prisoner Darwin Coon stated that items from the prison’s kitchen were sent down a ‘rigged’ pipe to the cell-house basement. There, other prisoners could quickly detach an elbow in the pipe, then secret the item under their clothes or in their shoes for the trip back upstairs. Other B-Block prisoners who celled past the four escape cells – would likely have been the ‘mules’, as ‘free-roaming’ was never allowed in this prison, unlike other Federal detention facilities.
Rubber cement, presumably procured through the shops, was used to temporarily attach the fake-grills between the nocturnal trips ‘up-top’. Industrial glue would also be required to ‘vulcanize’ the seams on the raft and the life-preservers. Screws and nails would be critical for creating home-made wrenches and other tools. The escape team would have to have friends in many different jobs on the island. Evidently, they did.
Contact with friends and ‘associates’ among Alcatraz prisoners would generally take place on weekend days in the prison’s ‘Recreation Area’, or ‘Yard’ – as the cons called it. Unless the prisoners celled next to each other – or worked together – the ‘Yard’ would be the place to catch up on news, make bets, or exchange contraband.
Weekend ‘Time on the Yard’meant opportunities for the escape team to discuss their operation face-to-face, and to seek willing contributors from the small prison population.
Drizzly weather on weekend days offered the escape team the opportunity to obtain rain-coats for the raft and flotation devices from those willing to ‘lose’ theirs. This was not a great sacrifice, as on true rainy weekend days, the ‘cons’ would be kept in their cells.
Many other special contributions from the escape team’s ‘associates’ would prove to be vital components of the eventual successful exit from their cells, the prison building,and from the island itself. Some appear to have provided contact names and phone numbers for friends and relatives living in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
The greatest contributions to the effort were the supply of hack-saw blades, the acquisition of an electric motor from a cell-house vacuum cleaner, and most importantly – the provision of highly critical information about the potentially deadly tidal action surrounding Alcatraz Island.
Former prisoner Robert Schibline, #1355AZ, discussed the tide-tables he had shared with Frank Morris ‘on the yard’ shortly before the men disappeared. Although this was some of the most crucial assistance the team would receive, Frank Morris thanked ‘Banker Bob’ for his assistance, but added that they would go ‘when they were ready’.
The ‘Mastermind’ Morris may have under-estimated the respect due for the daily tides. Modern ‘Alcatraz Triathlon’ swimmers hold their annual event to coincide with ‘slack-tides’ – the brief calm water between the powerful ebbs and flows which can drag the unwary out to sea, or push you back towards the East Bay.
Competitive open-water swimmers who take part in the popular ‘Escape from Alcatraz’event each year, also avoid the island’s treacherous, rocky shoreline – as they enter the water from chartered tour-boats moored over two hundred yards off-shore. Needless to say, these modern day ‘escapees’ make their crossing during daylight hours and under the supervision and added safety of ‘spotting’ vessels. Most also wear high-tech wet-suits.
The all-important bay tides can ramp-up to velocities of over three miles per hour, as the combined volumes of two major rivers – the Sacramento and the San Joaquin – squeeze through the narrow Golden Gate Strait to join the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to the challenge of crossing the bay, the trek down from the prison building to the water’s edge would require its’ own ingenuity, daring and luck.
In an ironic twist, Alcatraz was originally developed by the U.S. Army as a military fortress – designed to keep people out – not as a place to keep people in. Construction of ‘Fort Alcatraz’ in the 1850’s included the creation of high brick fortification walls and the blasting of the perimeter of the island to create foreboding, jagged cliffs where gentle slopes had previously met the water.
These man-made rocky cliffs would prevent any maritime invaders from landing on the island anywhere except the established dock area – and would ultimately stifle several prison-era escape attempts.
A thorough knowledge of the geography of Alcatraz Island would be critical to any successful break-out – but very difficult to obtain. The prisoners, when not confined to their cells for fourteen hours a day, were essentially confined by the yellow lines painted on the floors of the cell-house, the shops, and the concrete surface of the rec-yard. For USP-Alcatraz prisoners, to step outside of these lines could result in an officer’s ‘write-up’ – and a loss of some precious ‘good-time’.
With three of the four conspirators holding cell-house jobs, only John Anglin could do limited scouting between the prison building and the work-shops on the northwest end of the island. John would also be the ‘point-man’ for procuring hardware and tools from these shops – usually with the assistance of fellow cons.
Other prisoners, such as Bob Schibline, held jobs in other areas around the island, and provided descriptions of the island geography, guard-tower positions, old fortification walls and the multiple layers of perimeter fencing.
“They picked big guys like me for most of the jobs down on the dock”, Schibline recalls, “mostly because of the heavy bags of Army laundry we had to load off of – and back onto the barges. It was good work though – mostly because we were out in the fresh air – and especially nice whenever the sun would come out – which wasn’t very often!”
‘Dock-workers’ would line up in the rec-yard, along-side the ‘Shops’ workers, before each shift, and would take the service-road from the west-side of the island to the south-east dock area. This ten-minute walk would take them along the western exposure of the sizable ‘New Industries’ building, where they could take in the unobstructed view of the spectacular Golden Gate and examine the forboding rocky cliffs descending one-hundred feet to the rough and frigid surf below.
A double set of gates in the sixteen foot-high. galvanized-steel cyclone-fencing would act as a ‘sally-port’, as the first gate would be opened for the crew to enter this area – then be closed behind them – before the second could be opened – permitting their supervised passage down the hill to the dock-area.
The panoramic views afforded by this route included the San Francisco waterfront and skyline directly to the south, the sprawling Presidio Army Base and Golden Gate Bridge to the West, Marin County to the north – including the waterfront communities of Sausalito and Tiburon, and perhaps most significantly, to the north-east – where the bay’s horizon was the transition to California’s largest waterway – the Sacramento River.
A beautiful panorama for today’s National Park-site visitors, this two-hundred seventy degree vista was a grim reminder to Alcatraz prisoners of the seemingly in-escapable predicament they found themselves in. The bay waters were yet another ‘wall’ between these captives and freedom.
Former USP-Alcatraz prisoner Bill Baker, shared this observation, “I know that people who come here think that’s a beautiful view, but to us, it was ugly, San Francisco was ugly, and all that water was like the biggest prison wall in the world. That water had swallowed up other men like ourselves, and one of them was my friend, Aaron Burgette. He was a big, strapping Nebraska farm-boy, a good-guy, and much too young to die.”
The dock-workers would pass close by the island’s Powerhouse, a three story concrete structure with a ninety-foot smokestack. Some of these workers would also be assigned to construction details on improvements to the Powerhouse, such as construction of sizable diesel-fuel storage-tanks at the northern end of the building. ‘Banker Bob’ Schibline was quick to volunteer for heavy construction assignments such as these, as “a hard day’s work meant you would sleep good at night. . .” he explains.
The site of this construction project afforded a very close look at Angel Island – just over one mile to the north-east. Angel Island is the largest island on San Francisco Bay and unlike ‘the Rock’, is covered with wild grasses, shrubs and trees. ‘Angel’ also features several sand and pebble beaches – two clearly visible from the east-side of Alcatraz. And, just over the eastern shoulder of Angel Island, lay a clear view of the confluence of the bay and the Sacramento River. One could almost see California’s eight-hundred mile-long Central Valley from here …
In an exclusive interview on Alcatraz in 1995, former prisoner Thomas Kent claimed to be involved in the escape planning, but backed out when construction of a sizable raft was abandoned, in favor of a single pontoon, which the escapees would use like a ‘kick-board’. Kent, a Bostonian had never learned to swim. Kent did provide some valuable incite into several key components of the plan’s execution – and these seemed to corroborate his purported direct involvement.