Alcatraz, as you may have heard, is notoriously known for being the most remote and isolated prison in the world. Situated on an island (located in San Francisco Bay), the prison was meant to be impossible to escape. In its history as a prison, 36 inmates have attempted to escape, yet none of them succeeded. That is, up until June of 1962.
Three men escaped “The Rock” by jumping into the turbulent waters of the San Francisco Bay and hoped for the best. Those men were never to be seen again – their fates unknown for over 50 years. Many believed they didn’t survive the swim. And then rumors started to spread about their surviving and changing their identities. But the jury was always out on what really happened to the three inmates.
Then in January of 2018, the police received a mysterious letter. The letter’s new information led the FBI to reopen the investigation. Care to know what happened? Here’s the remarkable and true story of The Great Escape.
A Great Escape
Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison, designed to keep the most dangerous criminals away from normal society. Yet, somehow three prisoners managed to dodge all of the prison’s security systems and actually escape. This famous Alcatraz escape has become one of American history’s most notorious unsolved crimes.
After the escape, local officials claimed that the three prisoners drowned. Recently, clues have surfaced that indicate that the prisoners (now elderly) may have actually survived and gotten away.
The clues came from a letter that arrived in 2018, causing the FBI to reopen the investigation, after 56 years.
Frank Lee Morris: the Mastermind
Frank Lee Morris, who you see pictured here, was one of the three prisoners. He was known for his intellect and ability for planning. He was cunning, skilled and very intelligent. He knew what he was doing. At the age of 11, Morris became an orphan, to which he went from foster home to foster home. It was during those years that he learned self-reliance and independence. Morris was drawn to trouble. When he was 13, he committed his first crime and was arrested.
And that was the start of his long criminal path that eventually led to Alcatraz, and ultimately to his escape. Morris was drawn to trouble. When he was 13, he committed his first crime and was arrested. And that was the start of his long criminal path that eventually led to Alcatraz, and ultimately to his escape.
Frank Morris will go down in history as the man who orchestrated the escape from Alcatraz.
The Anglin Brothers
With age, Frank Lee Morris continued in his criminal activities and served time in prisons all over the country, eventually ending up in Louisiana’s state penitentiary, known as the “Alcatraz of the South.” At the time, Frank Lee Morris was sentenced to 10 years for bank robbery, but it was during this sentence that he made his first escape. Morris successfully avoided the authorities for just under a year before he was caught while attempting another robbery. He was arrested taken back to prison. This time to Alcatraz.
Frank Lee Morris realized that a good prison break wouldn’t be successful if done alone. He needed a team. It was in “The Rock”, that Morris met his accomplices – two brothers named John and Clarence Anglin, as well as another convict named Allen West. The Anglin brothers were born in Georgia but grew up in Florida. Their parents were farmers, and their families would travel the country in search of farming projects. The Anglin family, two parents, and 13 children would go North to pick cherries every June.
Little did these parents know what would become of their two sons…
John and Clarence, a Team from the Beginning
John and Clarence were inseparable as kids, thick as the thieves, as some might say. Every summer, when the family traveled North, the Anglin brothers would swim in the ice-cold waters of Lake Michigan, becoming known for their extraordinary swimming skills. Call it foreshadowing – these two were setting the scene for their future escape. In their early 20’s, the brothers started heading down a path of crime, pulling off small bank robberies together. They were caught and arrested in 1956. But that was just the beginning…
While the brothers served time at the Atlanta Penitentiary, they were caught trying to escape on many occasions, gaining a reputation rather quickly. They were sent to Alcatraz, the maximum-security prison. And it was there that they met Frank Lee Morris. The group of four, including Allen West, was a team of individuals who each had personal experience on escape attempts from more than one prison. They gathered their knowledge and started working on a plan.
The goal? To escape from Alcatraz.
The Ultimate Plan
Their plan to escape was quite simple, but the logistics involved and the means to pull it off were going to be close to impossible. The mission would entail the flawless coordination of the entire team to make it work. This was, let us remind you, not the first escape attempt of its kind. Over 30 inmates have tried to escape the prison island over the years, yet none were successfully executed. So what made them think their plan would be any different?
All four members of this escape team were jailed at the Atlanta penitentiary at one point in time. It’s unknown, however, if they all knew each other from that prison before Alcatraz. But John and Clarence definitely met Frank Lee Morris while they were serving time in Atlanta. During their time in Alcatraz, the four inmates had adjoining cells which must have given them more of an opportunity to assemble and plan their big escape.
Another advantage for the team was their access to materials…
Access to Materials
Alcatraz, at that time, was a factory just as much as it was a prison, which actually turned out to be a good thing for the group. As part of their prison sentences, the inmates worked in the prison’s factory, which gave them access to all the materials at hand. Now, it’s safe to say that there was no shortage of objects as Alcatraz worked for the US military, producing furniture, clothing, and shoes.
Each of the four members were essentially non-violent offenders, which was something considered quite rare in a prison such as Alcatraz. This also gave the group of men an advantage of slightly less inspection from the guards. And thus they were allowed more freedom to operate.
Complicated Yet Ingenious
As time went by, the team started slowly putting their plan into action, which was quite complicated. However, some might even say that their plan was genius. Not only were they going to escape the fortress of Alcatraz, but they were also going to need to leave look-alike dummies in their place.
The plan was multi-faceted and layered; which meant that literally getting out of the prison was only part of it. The fact of the matter was that they also had to get off the island and dodge the guards. And back in those days, guards’ orders were to shoot on sight. Therefore, any escape attempt was a deadly risk.
To make sure they did it right, each member had his own task…
Each team member was responsible for a different part of the plot. The differences in their roles had to do with the night they chose to escape. Each inmate had to find a way to get out of his cell on the chosen night. The Anglin brothers had the responsibility of making fake heads which were to be left behind in the empty beds.
Are you wondering what the dummies were made of? The dummy heads were created from soap wax, toilet paper, and human hair that the men gathered and picked off the floor from the Alcatraz barbershop. Morris’s job was to fix up an instrument akin to an accordion for the purpose of inflating life vests and a raft.
Makeshift Digging Tools
The crew had a lot of work to do to get their escape done properly. They also worked together to make tools for digging themselves out of their cells and unscrewing the bolts from the vents. They actually managed to make picks and wrenches from items they found around the prison, like wood from the factory workshop and spoons from the cafeteria.
Their daily schedule started at 5:30 pm and they worked until 9:00 pm at night, chipping away at their cell walls making holes that would be big enough to fit through. To speed up the process, they removed the vents and used the picks to make the holes larger.
Luckily for the squad, the prison was in bad shape…
The Prison Was in Bad Shape
Fortunate for them, Alcatraz was an old prison and already in bad shape with weak walls that crumbled easily. The saltwater that would run through the pipes was slowly corroding the pipes and leaking into the prison walls. With time, the salt wore down the cement. Apparently, the prison authorities kept the water slightly warm to keep inmates from getting used to the cold temperatures of the ice cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.
You might be wondering how it’s possible to bang and chip away without making it obvious. Well, the group was clever in its approach. In the 1960s, the inmates were allowed an hour of music each day. It was during that time that they made a noise. Morris also played his accordion loudly whenever he could, which also concealed any noises they made making the holes. Those holes led to an unguarded utility corridor full of vertical pipes.
Those pipes were their way out…
Climbing to the Roof
What you’re seeing in this photo is the roof of the prison, and as you can see, some activity definitely went on up there. The utility corridor that they were going to land in was unguarded and full of pipes. Their plan was to climb the pipes up three stories to the roof. And once they were on the roof, they would hope for the best and continue their escape out to the water.
On the building’s roof, they had to use one of the large shafts for roof access. But they would be surprised to see that many shafts were sealed off with cement. They would end up finding an unsealed shaft and use their homemade wrench to pry it open.
In May of 1962, the brothers and Morris did a test run and broke through the walls of their cells and got out. The holes they made were just barely large enough for them to fit in, but they somehow managed to squeeze their way out. They made life vests and a raft by stitching and gluing raincoats together. They had to use more than 50 raincoats.
These coats were a crucial part of the scheme because they wouldn’t be able to survive the freezing waters without them.
The photo you see here is one of the cells in Cell Block B in Alcatraz. There is an officer showing people the inside of the removable section of the exit cover.
Once out, they had to wait for Allen, the fourth member…
Waiting for Allen West
The three were all set, but they had to wait for Allen West to finish getting his escape hole ready. Once West was ready, they were going to carry out the plan. By June of 1962, the time came, but things weren’t going as planned. West finally finished digging the hole. He informed the other members of his gang, but none of them would have predicted what happened once the escape was in action.
On June 11, 1962, the gang waited for lights out. All they could think about was if they would succeed and make it out alive. The risks were obvious, but the chance of freedom was just too tempting. Their possible death was worth the gamble. They were going to risk everything to get away from “The Rock”. Hearts racing, adrenaline coursing through their bodies, the night of the escape arrived. And as soon as the lights went out, the crew planted the dummies in their bunks and squeezed out of their cells.
But as they say, nothing goes as planned…
Things Take a Wrong Turn
Morris and the Anglin brothers successfully slipped out of their cells, but Allen West couldn’t get out of his. He needed to tell the others that the hole he made was ready, but it looks like a miscalculation was made of the size of the hole. Frank Lee Morris was working from the utility corridor while West was working from the inside. As much as they tried to get him through, the hole just wasn’t big enough, and West was essentially stuck. By 9:30 pm, they both decided that West would need to be left behind.
Deciding to leave West behind couldn’t have been an easy decision after many months of working together, but the group wasn’t left with many options. Time was of the essence at that point. West clearly didn’t want to stay behind, but he took one for the team and stayed behind, which made the escape more feasible for the three due to less weight on the raft.
The remaining escapees were ready to start their climb up to the roof…
On the Way Down
The climb up to the jailhouse roof went well for Morris and the brothers. But then they had yet another mission to accomplish. They had to cross over 100 feet of the rooftop before they could even begin their descent to the bay. The three men started climbing down 50 feet of piping on the side of the prison to reach the ground. At that point, they could only focus on getting down the pipes.
They reached the ground and snuck past the guards’ station. The three team members had to avoid all the other guards on duty as they made their way to the bay’s shore. It was at the shore that they had to inflate the raft and life vests.
Never to be Seen Again
It was after that day that Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers were never seen again. After they headed out to the bay in their makeshift raft at around 11:30 pm, they vanished. The prison guards didn’t even notice they were missing until the following morning. But by the next morning, sirens blared across the prison. There was total confusion and awe among the prisoners as well as the guards. Nobody imagined how anyone could actually escape “The Rock”.
They escaped, that was for sure. But now the question was: what happened to them?
Allen West didn’t give up on his plans to escape. Despite being left behind that night, he continued working on digging the hole in his cell and eventually managed to squeeze through. West left his cell and started to follow the rest of the team. After leaving his cell, West climbed up to the roof, but when he got to the top, the others were already gone. He had no raft, so he had to either swim for it (and risk losing his life) or going back to his cell.
Did He Tell Them Everything?
Allen West decided to play it safe, which meant going back. SO, he returned to his prison cell and decided to wait for the morning to see what happened to his team. And by the next morning, after the alarm was heard, every inch of the prison was searched. His heart was obviously racing and he wondered what would happen next.
West was given no choice but to cooperate with the authorities in the prison. And whether or not he told them everything is still unknown. He did claim, however, that his friends were on their way to Angel Island and were planning to steal clothes and a car.
The plan was for each man to go his separate way…
A Problem with His Confession
There was one problem with West’s “confession.” There was no car that was reported stolen in or around Angel Island within the twelve days following the group’s escape. That means that either they stopped at a different location (which meant that West had lied in his confession); that they landed somewhere else by accident; or that Morris and the brothers never even got to the shore.
In his confession, West boasted to the authorities that the whole scheme of getting out had actually been his idea and that he orchestrated the escape. It was then that the prison authorities got the FBI involved in the case. An official investigation was opened to determine if the three convicts survived or not.
The Search of the Bay
Once the FBI got involved, they had to do things their way, which included another search. The bay around the prison was thoroughly searched, but no bodies were recovered, although some personal items were found floating in the water. The water on the night of the escape was cold, ranging from a temperature of 50 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to experts, an adult male would only be able to survive 20 minutes in the bitter waters before there would be a breakdown in bodily functions. And it’s not like the inmates would have been able to prepare physically for the temperatures at Alcatraz because the officials kept the water warm.
So what happened? Did they drown or did they make it out?
17 Years Later…
On December 31, 1979, which was 17 years after the escape, the FBI’s investigation was officially closed. They concluded that that the prisoners drowned in the San Francisco Bay, despite their bodies never being found. But the US Marshals, however, kept an ongoing investigation. The Deputy US Marshal said in an interview in 2009: “There’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people.”
About a month after the escape, there was a body that was spotted by a Norwegian cargo ship about 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. According to those on the ship, the body was in clothes that looked like a prison uniform. But that report took a while to be filed, and the body was never discovered.
Then in 2014, researchers used computer software to calculate the currents flowing on the night of the escape. According to their findings, if they headed out at midnight, the water currents would actually help them in the direction of the shore, and their chance of survival was actually pretty good.
Some New Startling Evidence
Eventually, a documentary was made which shed new light on the investigation…
In 2015, a History Channel documentary was aired on TV that brought to light new evidence that supported the theory that the Anglin brothers really did survive the escape. The new evidence? A signed Christmas card which was sent to their family was analyzed, and the handwriting was a match for the brothers. But no one could determine the date it was sent.
And then a new piece of evidence changed everything: a picture of the two brothers shot in Brazil in 1975 was found. Forensic experts analyzed the photo and stated that it was “more than likely” that both John and Clarence Anglin were in that picture.
A Death Bed Confession
Another piece of the puzzle was given by another Anglin brother who wasn’t in prison, let alone involved in the escape – Robert Anglin. Robert had confessed much later, on his deathbed, that he had been in touch with both his brothers John and Clarence from the years 1963 until 1987. However, he later lost touch with them.
The Anglin family never ended up seeking out their long-lost brothers in Brazil due to the fact that the escape was still an open investigation. And if the family were to locate their siblings and make contact, they would face dire repercussions. While the one Christmas card was a new piece of evidence, there was another piece of the puzzle.
Yet another letter was about to be discovered…
The Next Letter
The notorious great escape made news headlines in January 2018 when the FBI announced that they were reopening the case! The decades-old investigation was suddenly brought back to life due to intriguing new evidence. A letter was sent to the San Francisco Police Department in 2013, which was signed by a man claiming to be John Anglin. The reason why the letter wasn’t reported for five years is unknown, but its content was shocking.
The letter began: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes, we all made it that night but barely!” Anglin continued: “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.” Too many questions were left unanswered…
Is the letter from the real John Anglin? Where was he now? And why was he confessing?
Where was John Anglin?
The letter, supposedly written by John Anglin himself, continues with: “This is the real and honest truth. I could tell you that for seven years of living in Minot, North Dakota and a year in Fargo, North Dakota until 2003”. The letter was actually quite unreadable in some parts, but a special BBC report interpreted the letter’s contents and found that he wrote that he lived in Seattle “for most of my years after the Escape.” He went on to reveal even more…
The letter also revealed his current location in which he stated that he was “living in Southern California now.” It’s unbelievable that a fugitive from one of the greatest prison breaks of all time was currently living only a few hours from the prison island.
He claimed to be extremely ill and desperate for some help, aware that it could mean jail time. The letter concluded with a very unusual deal offered to the authorities.
Would they agree to his terms?
An Unusual Deal
The terms set in the letter were: “If you announce on TV that I will be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to let you know exactly where I am. This is no joke…” Before they even considered his proposal, the letter had to be investigated to determine its authenticity and origin. A thorough analysis was done, and every aspect of the letter was looked at.
The US Marshals handed over the letter to the FBI. They checked for traces of DNA, dusted for fingerprints, and ran a handwriting analysis using the three escapees writing samples from when they were in prison. According to San Francisco’s local CBS affiliate, KPIX, “the FBI’s results were inconclusive.” A security expert gave a quote as to the letter’s authenticity which said the FBI’s conclusion: “means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo.”
The US Marshals had his own opinion on the piece of evidence. His position on the letter was that “it is possible” that Morris and the Anglin brothers survived the escape. But after January 2018, one of the representatives questioned the legitimacy of the letter, claiming that he believed it was a fake.
A quote stated: “the Marshals Service has continued to investigate leads and said it will do so until the men are proven deceased, or until they turn 99.” The FBI didn’t agree as they decided to close the case in 1979. They stated: “For the 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive, either in the U.S. or overseas.”
The Last Man From Alcatraz
The man you see in this photo is Jim Albright. He was the very last guard to leave the Alcatraz prison, and he was interviewed by ABC 7 to commemorate 55 years of the prison’s closing in March of 2018. He worked in the prison during the notorious escape and so he was asked about his take regarding the men’s fate. He was very candid with his opinion.
He said this: “It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother. I believe they drowned; I really do.” Albright believed that whoever wrote the letter was a very sick man who indeed needed treatment for his cancer and was actually using the famous escapee’s name to get medical help.
The Fates of the Three
The fate of Frank Lee Morris and John and Clarence Anglin are still unknown, remaining a mystery. Law enforcement never revealed anything further about the letter. Time will tell, however, if they ever tried to contact the man. For now, even if the men were to be found, John Anglin would be 86 years old by this point, Clarence Anglin 87 and Frank Morris would be 90.
Despite their elderly statuses, each man is still a wanted fugitive and will be held accountable, regardless of their ages.
So tell me, are you curious as to what life in Alcatraz was really like? If you are, you should see what a former Alcatraz inmate revealed about what being in The Rock was really like…
Meet Brian Conway
This is the real story of a prisoner named Bryan Conway who was incarcerated at Alcatraz during the same time as Al Capone (you know him), one of the most notorious gangsters in history. This story was originally told in 1938 by Bryan Conway, prisoner No. 293, to T.H. Alexander and even appeared in the April 1938 issue of ‘Reader’s Digest.’
Alexander, the author and editor who transcribed Conway’s account, made a point of giving credibility to the ex-prisoner. He said “I know that Bryan Conway comes [from] an excellent family and that his Army record in France was good. Some of his comrades in the A.E.F. base told me Conway’s reputation was “a dangerous man, but not a liar.”
And the Story Begins…
Conway began his account by saying, “One who has just finished, as I have, a 12-year stretch for murder generally tries to soften the facts in his record. Personally, I have no alibi to advance. I killed an Army sergeant to protect my own life.” Conway was sentenced to ten years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, which he said was bad enough, and then two months in Alcatraz, which although was nothing in comparison to his sentence, was considerably worse.
As Conway put it, life was soft in Atlanta in comparison to Alcatraz’s prison. The routine in Atlanta’s prison was not so strict and the men even had the chance to make a few bucks to buy candy and cigarettes. And if they were able to make more money, they had “other privileges” too. Al Capone was also an inmate in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary before being transported to Alcatraz. He was known for living like a king in the prison, and all the inmates, including Conway, heard the rumors that Capone had money brought in from Chicago “by the suitcase-ful.”
They Warned Him Against Capone
Conway recalled seeing “several $100 bills which convicts told me Capone had given them for favors, and I know that he had a bodyguard composed of convicts.” He said that he found it comical to see Al Capone exercising in the prison yard surrounded by his guards, each one of them with a long knife or a blackjack, just in case a fight were to break out.
And apparently, these weapons were plentiful in Atlanta at that time. “All my friends had warned me against Capone,” Conway said. He was as unpopular at Alcatraz as he was at Atlanta, and not only because of the crimes he committed, but because he was “a weakling and can’t take it,” according to Conway.
The Aristocrats of Crime
Some might think that kidnappers and murderers are looked down upon by other prisoners. But that’s just not true. Or at least it wasn’t in those days. Some of the most popular inmates at Alcatraz were kidnappers. Take Alvin Karpis, Doc Barker, and Machine Gun Kelly, for example.
Conway recalled how “Old-time wardens say that murderers are the aristocrats of crime.” There was no formal or informal grading of prisoners by any social system. But there was one notable exception. Conway described the fact that in any American prison, “the men committed for sex crimes are not accepted in the company of the so-called decent element of criminals. The reason, however, is not that they have committed revolting crimes but that they are unstable, unreliable, and often actually insane.”
The Transfer to Atlanta
Conway recalled the he was transferred from Atlanta to Alcatraz because he wouldn’t testify when the government wanted him to be at the trial of a convict who had stabbed another prisoner to death. First impressions carry a heavyweight, and Conway’s first impression was memorable.
“The first glimpse of Alcatraz prison fills a convict with grim forebodings. That bare rock rising out of San Francisco Bay has little vegetation. It is subject to fogs and damp winds. I’ve seen guards wearing overcoats in midsummer,” he stated in his story. But he went on to say that a major part of a convict’s dread of going to Alcatraz was due to the I am certain that part of the convict’s dread of Alcatraz prison is due to clever propaganda of the terrors of “the Rock.”
A Warm Welcome… At First
Conway remembered his first day at The Rock: “In my cell block, I was given a warm welcome by the convicts, who seemed to know all about me. When I expressed amazement at their accurate knowledge, a convict in a cell near me whispered: ‘We knew you were coming last week and we knew you were a right guy, because you wouldn’t squeal on a pal’.”
Conway explained how word got through in the prison; it worked almost entirely through bribery of guards or convicts who had privileges. In Alcatraz, despite the lack of radios and newspapers, Conway and his fellow inmates followed the wars in China and Spain. And they even learned of news and changes in American prisons before they were officially announced.
A Day in the Life of an Alcatraz Prisoner
The first bell would ring at 6:00 a.m. and according to Conway, if it was your day to shave, you would have to put a matchbox outside the cell and a guard would put a razor blade on it. He described how a man had to be quick – super quick. He had to finish his shave within two or three minutes tops and put the blade back on the little shelf before the guard returned.
The next bell would come at 6:20 for the counting of the prisoners, which Conway relayed as “really serious business which is done every 30 minutes.”
When do they eat breakfast? The morning meal was then at 6:30 a.m., which usually consisted of coffee, coffee cake, and cereal.
Dinner at Alcatraz
If you were wondering what the cafeteria at Alcatraz looked like, this is a photo from the prison’s lunch room. Now, you can more easily have a picture in your head.
According to Conway, food at Alcatraz was much better than usual prison fare. For lunch, they had meat, beans, coffee, bread, and celery; for supper, it was chili, tomatoes, and apples with hot tea. Conway sat with his prisoner friends every meal.
“Seated at the same table with me were Machine Gun Kelly, Albert Bates, and others well known to the front page. And although talking at meals is prohibited, the men do manage to speak in a grumbling monotone out of the corners of their mouths,” Conway revealed in his account.
Machine Gun Kelly
Meet Machine Gun Kelly. And no, this isn’t the new age rapper that you may have heard about in the news or saw on MTV.
For those who may not know who he was, George Kelly Barnes, aka Machine Gun Kelly, was an American gangster from Memphis, Tennessee. He was around during the messy prohibition era in the 1920s.
Where did he get his nickname? Take a wild guess. Yes, he got his nickname came from his favorite weapon – a Thompson submachine gun.
He was best known for the kidnapping of the businessman and oil tycoon and Charles F. Urschel in July 1933. He and his gang collected a $200,000 ransom from that robbery. Kelly was eventually arrested in Memphis on September 26, 1933.
Al Capone Remembered Him
In Alcatraz, Conway was assigned to work in the laundry and he said he received a friendly welcome from the men there. Al Capone had remembered him from Atlanta but Conway brushed him off. “I didn’t encourage him. When he tried to give me a magazine I refused it and said: “Dummy up, Al, dummy up.” This is prison slang meaning “Don’t speak to me.”
Capone looked at him for a moment and then replied with, “OK, pal.” According to Conway, Capone got lonely because he didn’t come in contact with many other men. Conway recalled how Capone lost weight and was in fear for his life in Alcatraz. Apparently, he was deprived of the privileges he used to have in Atlanta.
The Only Time Men Would Laugh
Conway recalled the first time he saw an electric device known as the “snitch box.” Do you know what a snitch box is? It was something that was designed to detect any metal on the prisoners as they passed through it. You can think of it as a primitive metal detector. He said that was “The only time I ever saw men laughing at Alcatraz prison was over these snitch boxes.”
One day, the snitch box sounded an alarm on every inmate that walked out of the laundry room. The guards snatched each man out of line, searched him, and essentially found nothing. It turns out the detector was so strong that it was detecting the metal pieces in the men’s shoes.
Every 12th Man
But a few days later, when the snitch box was silent, there were prisoners who had their own bright ideas. Two prisoners passed through with knives in their pockets. Conway explained how the guards weren’t as dumb as the prisoners may have thought. The truth ism the guards didn’t trust the “electric eye.” He said that they also searched every 12th man, whether the alarm sounded or not.
But other than security, the prisoners were given some freedom to relax and read. “After we were locked in our cells in the evening, and until “lights out” at about nine o’clock, there was plenty of time for reading,” Conway recalled. The convicts preferred daily newspapers and detective magazines, which were forbidden.
The most prized possessions in Alcatraz, as Conway described, were the newspaper clippings that the prisoners would get their hands on. The newspapers were passed from hand to hand until they were completely worn out by all the handling. What was so precious about the papers? It was because most of those clippings concerned prison breaks and crimes. The prisoners, the famous ones at least, would love to see their stories in the news.
In terms of correspondence, the inmates were allowed to write only one letter of no more than two pages each week. And the recipient had to be a blood relative. Conway said, “No inmate could write to his sweetheart. We never saw the incoming letters, just copies or rewrites typed at the prison office.”
Visiting Was Highly Regulated
Conway explained what visiting the prison was like for both prisoners and visitors. Visiting was drastically regulated. No visitor was allowed to shake hands with a prisoner or touch him. And the process was a lot like the visiting practices that we see in movies. As we have seen in movies, Alcatraz had the glass screen that separated the prisoner and visitor and their conversation was carried out by shouting through a tube. In addition to that, there was also one guard standing behind the visitor and another guard behind the convict.
Alcatraz was notorious for being a dreaded place to go. But why? Conway said it was, “Because the discipline is as severe as it can possibly be. Literally, you leave all hope behind, for clemency is all but unknown; only a few short-timers get out.” Conway illustrated how the men would go slowly insane “under the exquisite torture of restricted and undeviating routine.”
Out of a total of 317 prisoners, 14 of them went violently insane during his last year in the Rock. And a bunch of others were what he referred to as “stir crazy.”
Aside from agonizing routine, one of the worst forms of mental torture, according to Conway, is the target practice of the guards which was carried on outside the cell house. He said, “This is an almost nightly occurrence, after the men are locked in their cells. Men cannot sleep while these bombardments are going on.”
The guards would shoot at dummies that looked like humans and they would leave them sprawled along the walkways with bullet holes them as silent lessons to the inmates who might be thinking of breaking out.
Trouble Began to Brew
Conway recalled how trouble began to brew in Alcatraz in 1936. A revolt started by the prisoners who were demanding the same privileges they received in other federal prisons. And this uprising took time and planning. The leaders spent weeks choosing men for the outbreak. “You can’t trust everybody, and sometimes even the strong weaken and reveal the secrets of their crowd. But almost half the prison population finally joined in,” Conway disclosed. And when the work call was sounded on September 15th, five men refused to come out of their cells as a form of protest.
They were subsequently taken to solitary confinement. The next day, ten men refused to work, sitting still at their machines, and 30 men took action in the laundry. A few days later, 139 men were in a full out defiance and were punished by being locked up on a diet of bread and water. Conway remembered hearing the groans and yells of the men that were sent to solitary confinement. But when the guards asked them to return to work, they howled at them. As a result, their water was cut off in those cells. “Conditions due to the lack of sanitation were frightful,” Conway revealed.
All Day, All Night
It was mayhem in the prison as the howling, yelling, and cursing never stopped all day and all night. “They say, in stir, that anyone who lives in solitary longer than the time-tried limit of 19 days is tempting death, but dozens of them stuck it out longer,” Conway told Reader’s Digest. The prison officials were desperate to end the rebellion because they feared that at any moment a bloody revolt could break out. And one day, an attempt to start a full-blown uprising was met with failure.
One day, the Warden Johnston was standing in the dining room, talking to Conway and the other prisoners while they ate lunch. As the inmates started walking out of the cafeteria, Whitey Phillips (a kidnapper) ran over to the warden, knocked him down and started attacking him. “If this was a signal for a general uprising, it missed fire,” Conway said. The guards immediately tackled Phillips. The prisoners were all standing around confused as what to do and then an outside guard broke the window glass to stick his machine gun into the room.
Breaking the Revolt
The prisoners screamed and scurried to find cover under tables and chairs. As the chaos subdued, they eventually lined up and marched quietly to their cells. But soon after that, Conway described how it was the solitary confinement that effectively broke the revolt. “One by one, the men began to abandon the strike, driven out by hunger, despair, and the terrible stench; although when I left the prison in November, five stout souls were still holding out in solitary,” Conway divulged.
Conway explained that the next rebellion was a little cleverer. The men decided that the vulnerable spot in Alcatraz was the shops, especially those who had contract work and needed to meet a delivery schedule. So the man began by suddenly wrecking the machinery.
“They think they can gain allowances by this, and they figure they have nothing to lose. What, for instance, has a man got to look forward to who has three or more life sentences hanging over him? Most of them felt as I did: had I known, 11 years ago, what I know now about prisons, I’d have insisted on the death sentence,” Conway said finally.
Al Capone Played in an Inmate Band
You might also be curious to find out more amazing facts about the most notorious prison.
It may already be old news that the notorious gangster and mob boss, Al Capone, was among the first prisoners of the Alcatraz federal prison in August 1934. But not many people know that Capone was in prison band, and he played the banjo. Capone had actually bribed the prison guards to receive preferential treatment while serving his sentence for tax-evasion in Atlanta.
But his treatment changed after he was transferred to the island prison. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” he told his warden. Capone, otherwise known as convict # 85, became very cooperative and he was allowed to play banjo in the Alcatraz prison band, “the Rock Islanders”, which performed regular Sunday concerts for the other inmates.
There Were No Prisoner Escapes
The truth is there have never been any escapes. Although a total of 36 inmates put the “escape-proof” Alcatraz to the test, none succeeded. Of those who tried to flee, 23 were captured, six were gunned down, and two drowned while trying to swim to freedom. The other five went missing and were presumed to have also drowned, including Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, whose 1962 attempted breakout was the inspiration for the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz.
The three convicts picked at the rotting concrete walls with sharpened spoons and even used locks of hair from the barbershop which they placed in their beds to fool the guards. In the end, their possessions were found floating in San Francisco Bay, but not their bodies. There were even theories leading some to believe that they may have successfully escaped.
If you want to know who the first prisoners of Alcatraz were, see the next page…
Military Prisoners were the First Inmates
Did you ever learn about the Gold Rush in history class? Well, if you didn’t, the Gold Rush happened in the 1840s and it turned San Francisco into a prosperous place. At the time, Alcatraz was dedicated to military use. The U.S. Army would incarcerate military prisoners inside what was then the new fortress in the late 1850s.
During the Civil War, prisoners were referred to as “Union deserters” and “Confederate sympathizers.” Not many people know this, but the prison also held Native Americans who had land disagreements with the government. There were also American soldiers who deserted the Filipino cause during the Spanish-American War, as well as Chinese civilians who resisted the Army during the Boxer Rebellion. The prison was thus a tad multicultural.
The “Birdman of Alcatraz” Didn’t Actually Have Birds
In spite of his nickname, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” had no birds in the prison. Robert Stroud was serving a manslaughter sentence for killing a bartender in a fight. He fatally stabbed a guard at Leavenworth Prison in 1916. President Woodrow Wilson then sentenced him to a life of permanent solitary confinement and he was moved to Alcatraz, which is when Stroud spent his time doing peculiar things.
He studied ornithological diseases, wrote and illustrated two books and raised canaries and other birds in his Leavenworth cell. But in 1942, when he was transferred to Alcatraz, he was ordered to give up his birds and he was banned from having any birds during his 17 years inside the prison. The 1962 movie Birdman of Alcatraz, for which Burt Lancaster received an Academy Award nomination a few weeks before “The Rock” closed, was mostly fictitious.
See next why the prison was given the name Alcatraz…
Alcatraz Was Named for Sea Birds
Before criminals became its occupants, the island was home to large colonies of brown pelicans. When Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first known European to sail through the Golden Gate in 1775, he dubbed the rocky island as “La Isla de Los Alcatraces,” meaning “Island of the Pelicans.” The name simply became Anglicized to “Alcatraz.” Now with all the prisoners gone, the island returned to its original muse – the pelicans. And they can now claim the island as theirs, as it once was.
Alcatraz also housed the Pacific Coast’s first lighthouse. Fans of lighthouses might be amused by this fact. A small lighthouse on top of the rocky island was built in 1852 in order to help the frequently arriving ships navigate through the bay. It eventually became obsolete in the early 1900s. It was after the U.S. Army constructed a building that blocked its view of the Golden Gate. A new, taller lighthouse replaced it in 1909.
One of the prisoners actually swam to shore. See who it was and what happened, next…
It Was Possible to Swim to Shore
After hearing about how the men from the great escape might not have actually made it out of the water alive, would you want to intentionally go and swim there? Federal officials initially doubted that any inmates who wanted to escape would even be able to survive the swim to the mainland through the cold and harsh waters of San Francisco Bay, but it did indeed happen. In 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott greased himself up and squeezed through a window and swam to shore.
But when he reached the Golden Gate Bridge, he was so exhausted that police discovered him lying unconscious in hypothermic shock. Today, hundreds of brave swimmers complete the 1.5-mile swim every year during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
The Country’s Worst Criminals Weren’t Automatically Sent to Alcatraz
Contrary to popular belief, the convicts of Alcatraz weren’t necessarily the ones who committed the most violent or heinous crimes. They were, however, the convicts who needed an attitude adjustment the most. They were the most irredeemable and disobedient inmates in the federal penal system. These are prisoners who would bribe guards and attempt escapes. Being sent to Alcatraz was intended to be a temporary stay to get them to follow the rules so they could return to other federal facilities.
Inmates would even request transfers to Alcatraz. Alcatraz’s threatening reputation was something of a Hollywood creation. The prison had a one-man-per-cell policy that appealed to some inmates because it made them less vulnerable to attacks by fellow prisoners. Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston, was aware that bad food was often the cause of prison riots, so he prided himself on serving good food, and inmates were even allowed second and third helpings.
Inmates who behaved well also had access to privileges like monthly movies and a library with 15,000 books and 75 popular magazine subscriptions. Many prisoners considered Alcatraz’s conditions preferable to other federal prisons, and a lot of them asked to be moved there.
Native American Activists Occupied Alcatraz at One Point
Following two brief occupations, a group of nearly 100 Native American activists, led by Mohawk Richard Oakes, took over the island in November of 1969. They fought for the right to be granted unoccupied federal land which a treaty deemed as fair for Native Americans. The protestors wanted Alcatraz to be established as a university and cultural center.
Their declaration included an offer to purchase the island for “$24 in glass beads and red cloth” which was the same price paid by Dutch settlers for Manhattan in 1626. Federal marshals removed the protestors in June of 1971, but some of their graffiti is still there. When the National Park Service rebuilt an Alcatraz water tower, they made sure to repaint the red graffiti that read “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”