Alcatraz Breakout: the Ultimate Prison Escape Story

Alcatraz, a prison built on an island surrounded by water where all the most dangerous criminals are sent to, is the most fortified and impregnable prison in the world. The prison witnessed many escape attempts, but they all failed except one that was dubbed the greatest prison break of all time 61 years ago. The prison break was meticulously planned and executed by a group of highly skilled individuals. It was described as the greatest prison break because of the impregnable fortified nature of the prison. 

The prison was built on an island surrounded by frigid seawater from all directions, and it was almost a mile and a quarter away from the San Francisco beach. This means that even if a prisoner managed to break out of the prison, it would be almost impossible to cross the frigid sea with the water temperature hovering around 53°F even in summer.

Moreover, the prison administration and the guards spread some myths to scare the prisoners and prevent them from even trying to think about a breakout. For instance, they used to tell the prisoners that there were sharks in the sea, so if anyone had ever managed to break out and swim in that cold water, he would be a delicious meal for the sharks. They had also told the prisoners that the prison guards were highly skilled at aiming and shooting, and they had orders to immediately shoot any prisoner who was trying to escape. 

 The prison administration kept spreading these myths and reinforcing them to strengthen the prison myth. Through those myths, the prison administration gave an implicit message to the prisoners that they would never be able to get out of prison before their sentences were over. Due to the high security of Alcatraz prison, many of the most dangerous criminals were put there to make them stop thinking about the outside world. Among the known names that were in Alcatraz prison was Al Capone, the famous American gang leader. Machine Gun Kelly is a known gangster and one of the most dangerous criminals. That prison was the end for many criminals. Despite all of this, do you think that the criminals would remain quiet and peaceful without trying a prison break? Of course not. 

During the period that Alcatraz was open, 14 prison break attempts took place, but they all failed and the prisoners either went back to prison or got executed except for one attempt, which is today’s story, the prison break that destroyed Alcatraz’s reputation.

The escape plan

 Let us first begin with the prisoners who planned and carried out this operation. There were four prisoners. The first was Allen W, the second was Frank Morris, and the third and fourth were brothers John and Clarence Anglin. If you had ever come across the history before, you would say that there were only three who escaped from Alcatraz Prison, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers. As for Alan W, there was a problem on the night of the escape. The four inmates had previous escape attempts because of which they got imprisoned, so they had been transferred to Alcatraz Prison to not try to escape again.

 The prisoners were assigned work inside the prison such as cleaning, carpentry, repairs, and others. One day Allen W was given the cell’s roof cleaning task. While cleaning, Allen noticed that there was a ventilation duct hole that led to the building roof and it wasn’t solid because it wasn’t covered with concrete. Like other holes, there were steel rods, but they were easy to cut or break. Therefore, if he was able to find a way to break or cut the steel rods, that would be a way to get out of prison.

Allen W went to inform Frank Morris, who was in the cell next to him, and their cells were almost beneath the ventilation hole found by Allen W. Frank Morris began to make an accurate plan to escape. It was indeed Allen’s idea, but Morris was the mastermind of the plan because he was the smartest of all of them. 

Morris the mastermind of the breakout

According to the prison records, Frank Morris has an IQ of 133, meaning that he is a very clever man. He hasn’t reached the level of genius, but his IQ level is considered to be among the top 2% of the world’s population. Frank Morris began to put together the escape plan. The first thing he did was invite the two brothers, John and Clarence Anglin, whose cells were next to his, to join them in the escape plan.

The fact that their cells were close to each other was one of the main factors that contributed to maintaining constant communication between them. The only way to reach that ventilation pipe hole, which was discovered by Allen W, was through a passageway behind their cells, meaning that behind their cells there were passageways for sanitary ducts. So they should first get out of their cells and get to that passageway, and then they could easily go up those ducts to reach the ventilation hole, cut the steel rods and they would be on the roof of the prison. 

How they get out of their cells 

In each cell there was a small ventilation opening, but it was so small that no one could go through it. However, Frank Morris, who became the operation leader and the mastermind of the plan, noticed that the long years without repairs had weakened the prison walls in addition to the salty sea water that affected them. Therefore, it was easy to dig in the walls, but they needed tools to dig. They had managed to get spoons, which they kept digging from day to day. Just like you may imagine, it took them months to widen the openings to get through them easily. 

During the digging process, no one of the guards sees or hears them. They kept their work secret. It was claimed that they used to work while the inmates were playing their musical instruments every night. It was allowed for the inmates to play on their instruments for one hour, so it was believed that they most likely used to work during that time, taking advantage of the loud sound made by the instruments to remain unnoticed. Besides, sometimes there was maintenance work inside the prison which made some noise, so they started digging immediately. The four inmates used to date every time they felt that they were out of the guard’s sight, and they also used to assign one of them to keep his eyes on the corridor to see whether a guard was coming or not. 

Support from other inmates 

Because of the large number of guards in Alcatraz prison, it had the biggest number of guards, more than any other prison in the United States. The prison guards used to make a sudden count of all prisoners at any time. Moreover, the other inmates who were in the nearby cells knew about the escape plan. They were able to see them digging the ventilation openings, but no one had snitched on them. On the contrary, they used to help them. 

According to the FBI report, the number of inmates who knew about the escape plan was almost 80, and no one of them spoke about it. This number was almost half of the prisoners that were at Alcatraz during the digging process. They needed to hide the openings, so they made cartoon planks in the prison workshop, painted them the same color as their cell walls, and placed them on the openings using a bit of cement. They also used to put some of their items in front of the hole, like their instruments, clothes, or anything else to keep the hole invisible to the guards. 

The construction of an escape boat 

Eventually, after several months of work, they managed to make the opening suitable for their body shapes, but the digging process was only the first part of the plan. Their goal wasn’t only to find a way to get out of the prison, they also aimed at getting out of the island, and this was the toughest part. Seeing that they needed to cross the sea, they had to find a way to make a boat by any possible means at that time. In one of the mechanic magazines that were in the prison, they found an article that showed how to make a rubber boat and life jackets using raincoats which were abundant inside the prison. So they started collecting and stealing them from everywhere in the prison and the other inmates used to help them.

They had managed to get 50 raincoats, but the problem was where to store them and where to work on the rubber boats and the life jackets. They needed a space, like a workshop. The only space they found was on the roof of their cells, the place where Allen W discovered the ventilation duct opening. But there was another problem. That place was visible to the guards, and there were always guards there monitoring the inmates doing the prison work, Allen W instructed by Frank the mastermind made a very clever trick, and this could be the most important trick in the whole escape operation.

Allen W was in charge of cleaning that area above the cells constantly, so he managed to convince the guards to attach blankets and sheets to those spacebars so the dust wouldn’t get down while cleaning. He even kept throwing the dust to show them that it was a big problem and must be solved by covering the bars. The plan worked and the guards allowed him to attach blankets and sheets on the bars, so they got a very nice space covered in and out of the guard sights, which they could use as a workshop. 

This was an extremely fatal security error. This was a scandal for Alcatraz prison, which is supposed to be one of the most fortified and secured prisons in the world. That was shameful to the point that this incident wasn’t mentioned in the primary reports and it appeared only in 1990, meaning 20 years after the incident. 

How they make fake heads to deceive the guards 

The only problem they faced was their absence from their cells. The guards used to check the inmates suddenly, and if one of them was working, a guard came unexpectedly to his cell and didn’t find him. The plan would fail and for this reason, they made fake heads to deceive the guards into thinking they were sleeping. All their work was done at night, so they used to put the fake heads on their pillows and cover them with their blankets. 

When the guard would come to check, he would see a head on the pillow and move on immediately to the next cell. The images of the fake heads are still saved in the prison archive. 

How they got the materials to make fake heads

 All the materials were in their cells. All they needed was a bit of soap with the cement dust they got from the digging process. They brought toilet paper, a paste, and dyes they got from the prison workshop. They mixed them all and managed to make fake heads, but the only part that was tough to fake was the hair. Clarence Anglin, one of the two brothers who worked at the prison Barbershop. He is the one who brought hair to make fake heads every time he brought quantities of prisoners’ hair until they had enough hair for all the fake heads. This was the way they used to go up every night and work by turns in their secret workshop. 

On the final day of the breakout

After two months of working on the rubber boat and the life jackets, finally D-Day came. The greatest prison break was on the night of June 11, 1962. It’s time to sleep. The prison lights were switched off At 9:30 PM. The four inmates began carrying out their escape plan. Each one of them put the fake head he had on his bed and covered it with his blanket.

They opened the ventilation openings that they had dug during the last months and went to the back corridor of their cells, which would lead them to their workshop and then to the ventilation duct opening through which they would go to reach the prison roof. However, only three of them managed to get out of the cells. Alan couldn’t open his ventilation opening. He overused cement to cover the hole and it had hardened. Narrowing the hole and it wasn’t easy to dig again. The three other men told him that they would keep moving forward, and he had to try following them as soon as possible. Allen kept trying to widen the opening while the other kept moving on.

They removed the steel rods that were at the ventilation duct opening. By the time they finished their preparations, Alan hadn’t managed to get out of his cell yet. Therefore they decided to leave him behind. They had agreed before that if something happened to any of them, the others would go on without him. Well, the three other men, Frank Morris and the brothers Anglin, managed to reach the roof of the prison and they sneaked quietly until they reached the prison walls, which were just fences. They cut them easily and went to the beach. At the beach, they were able to inflate their boat using an instrument that belonged to Frank Morris. They had already modified it to make no sound, but only air. 

The discovery of their breakout 

At 7:00 AM, the wake-up bell rang in the prison and the usual morning count for prisoners began. Each inmate had to stand up inside his cell. When the guards came to Frank Morris’s cell, they began calling him three times. Then a guard got his hand in to move his head and he was shocked when the head fell and rolled in front of him on the ground straight away.

The prison warden was informed and the sirens worked. Then a large search operation was conducted. The authorities were informed and a large team of the FBI came to help in the search and investigation process. The first to be questioned was Alan because they saw the opening in his cell so he could hide nothing. It was clear that he was one of the inmates they were planning to escape while questioning. Alan was cooperative because he had no other option left, but it was believed that he hid some of the information he knew to keep them unaware of what their friends would do.

The ultimate search for the prisoners  

Alcatraz guards surveyed the entire island and found no trace of them, which confirms that they entered the sea on their boat. The authorities and the FBI, using their boats, made a comprehensive survey of all areas surrounding the island while the officers were questioning the inmates, but no one of them wanted to talk or give any useful information. The search process kept expanding gradually, and it was considered one of the largest search processes that had ever been conducted by the FBI. The three inmates had vanished. No trace of them was found until now. Indeed, Alcatraz’s complicated prison break was successful. Of course, the investigation didn’t stop and lasted for many years. The FBI kept investigating this case for 15 years and then they handed it over to the local police.

 The FBI investigation officially ended with the fact that those 3 inmates had drowned in the sea. The most important evidence they were using to support this theory that was found after the searches were bags that were made of the same materials used to make raincoats that the escaped inmates used to make their rubber boats and life jackets. By the way, they found the life jackets but didn’t find the boat. Inside the bags that were found, some photos and letters belonged to the Anglin brothers. They were photos of them and their families and letters they used to write to them in prison. The contents of the bag were precious to the brothers, and they wouldn’t lose them easily unless they died in the middle of the sea, which is considered conclusive evidence of their drowning. 

Expert reviews 

Many experts disagree with this theory, saying that it is impossible that none of the three bodies floated on the sea or were found during the extensive searches, so it seemed illogical to many of the experts. There was a famous photo of the two brothers that appeared in 1975 and it was said that the photo was taken in Brazil, meaning that after their escape they went to Brazil and lived there. But this picture is also not certain whether it is theirs or not. Nothing is certain.

It was also said that the mother of the two brothers often receives a bouquet of roses from an unknown source. Besides, in 2013, it is said that there was a letter sent to the FBI in which someone pretending to be John Anglin, one of the two brothers, said that he escaped from the Alcatraz prison with two other inmates. But he is currently in a bad situation getting older. He is 83 years old and suffering from cancer, and he is ready to surrender himself in return for treatment. There were many events, theories, and explanations for what happened after the Alcatraz prison break, but nothing was sure until now.

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