ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ
A PRISON BREAK
A prison break is probably the most ridiculous basis for an inspiration or motivation. But after having sat through this 1979 Clint Eastwood movie – Escape from Alcatraz, I couldn’t help and not be motivated with the will and determination displayed by the group of prisoners of this prison break movie. And mind you, this was no fiction flick, as it was based on a true story of prison break from the highly confined walls of the Alcatraz Prison in 1962. Of course, with no intention whatsoever to hatch a personal prison break plan, I had to research more on this story and share it here.
Situated on a rough spit of sandstone in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Prison was an impenetrable fortress made to keep the most hardened criminals locked away and considered to be the ultimate detention centre for the most notorious of criminal perpetrators. The likes of Machine Gun Kelly, Al Capone and Robert Stroud were some of the infamous criminals to have been put behind the bars at Alcatraz. This Devil’s Island had definitely earned its reputation. The 1912 design of the prison was very well thought out. The thick concrete walls with barred windows of the prison played a one barrier and the treacherous cold oceans surrounding the island created another. And inside of these impassable walls were another cell blocks that made this fortress a prison within a prison. The 1934 remodelling replaced all the iron bars with hardened steel, called “tool-resistant” steel because it could withstand cutting with a hacksaw. Cell doors were mechanically accessible and the guards could operate them individually as well as in groups by pulling levers in a control panel. Metal detectors that were relatively new technology during the 30’s were also available. And with armed guards (rumoured to be professional marksmen) on watch 24X7, escape was considered impossible. Hence, it was aptly named: The Rock.
Nevertheless, it still did not stop many from trying. There were several reported cases of attempted escapes, but most were recaptured or shot; except for one particular case. If there ever was an inmate that was destined to escape from Alcatraz, it was Frank Lee Morris who was credited to possess “superior intelligence” by officials. After a lifetime of navigating the prison system right from the age of thirteen, Morris was sent to Alcatraz in1960 after creating a commendable resume of attempted and succeeded escapes from various prison facilities.
Morris is considered to be the mastermind behind what is probably the only successful escape from The Rock. Accompanying Morris were the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, who were equally acquainted with the world of crime and doing time at Alcatraz after several escape attempts. Allen
West, another inmate, was also in on the scheme. With their cells adjacent to each other, the inmates hatched one of the most ingenious prison escapes in history, whose success is still debated till today.
The escape plan started taking shape on December 1961, and would span out for almost a year before execution. The complex plan involved the fabrication of life-like dummy heads, makeshift rafts, life preservers and crudely made tools to dig with. Years of wear and tear had corroded some parts of the prison which made way for Morris to find a weak link in the escape proof prison – the vents. After painstaking grit and work, Morris and the Anglins had dug through the cell’s 6 X 9 inch vent holes, and had started work in the vent on top of the cellblock by May of 1962. During the process, the inmates worked turn by turn on the vent. One would meticulously chip away at it while the others would stay on lookout. Once they could wiggle out of the vents into the piping system of the prison, the inmates covered the hole with cardboard painted to look like the vents. They then fabricated crude but lifelike dummies of their heads out of a homemade mixture of soap, concrete debris and toilet paper. To finish it off, the dummies were painted with flesh colour and topped off with real hair in order to fool the guards. The rafts and life preservers were also made with the use of stolen raincoats and hot glue from the workshops. Stealing useful material to aide in their escape plan was one of the core bases of the whole design.
After months of long preparation, the inmates had completed fabricating all of the gear they needed for their escape, and they then continued working to loosen the ventilator grill on top of the cell. But while the others had progressed well in their various preparations, West had fallen behind in digging out the ventilator grill at the rear of his cell. His primary role had been to construct the life preservers and special wooden paddles for the raft, tasks which didn’t require him to leave his cell.
On the night of June 11, 1962, Morris indicated that the top ventilator was loose enough to attempt the escape. After lights-out, the inmates commenced their escape, but West was still having trouble with his vent. Despite the efforts of Clarence Anglin to kick in the vent, it would not budge. The rest of the escapees had no choice but to abandon West. The Anglins and Morris then made their way to the roof through the piping area and climbed down the pipes to the ground and across the wall into the waters where they inflated the rafts and swam across the bay.
Meanwhile, West had finally been able to get the vent loose, but it was already too late. West later told the authorities during questioning that their plan after reaching ashore was to steal a car, burglarize a clothing store and head their separate ways. As soon as the guards found the dummy heads, a massive manhunt was initiated involving over 20000 officials. But the escaped felons were long gone. The manhunt ended up pretty empty handed except for a bag with photographs and phone numbers.
Now, the successful completion of the escape has been heavily debated. Despite having escaped the prison grounds, the task at hand for the escapees would have just begun. The treacherous cold water surrounding the island was allegedly infested with man eating sharks. This was, however, later ruled out as a myth. Nevertheless, the swim to shore in the freezing waters was not a task that would be easily completed, especially on flimsy makeshift rafts and life preservers. Add to it the unpredictable tides, and the whole ordeal seemed impossible to complete. Although no bodies were recovered, the authorities stated that the felons did not make it out alive. Firstly, because according to West, the original plan was to steal a car and burglarize a store, both of which were not reported anywhere around the city. Secondly, sources reported that these three men had neither friends nor relatives with the financial resources to come to San Francisco and assist in the escape as it would have cost thousands of dollars to put a boat in the Bay night after night, waiting for the one night when the escape actually took place.
After decades of investigating, the F.B.I concluded that there were more key findings indicative of a failed escape rather than any evidence that would suggest any of the inmates found their way to freedom. But there have been reported cases that seriously question these conclusions. The family of the Anglin brothers are said to have received anonymous postcards on birthdays. Also, it was reported that two suspiciously tall unknown women in dark black gowns were present at the funeral of the Anglin brothers’ mother. But they vanished before the FBI could get hold of them.
The chances may be slim and narrow, but such stories and the lack of concrete proof to establish the death of the 3 escapees leaves room to debate that the escape was actually a success. Regardless of what actually did happen, the three inmates were able to do achieve what was considered unattainable. This only goes to show how perseverance, hard work and well thought out strategies can overcome the impossible. What they did is a criminal offense of the highest degree, but nothing can be taken away from their will and determination. It exemplifies how far people are willing push the boundaries to attain something of exceptional value like their freedom; or how brutal the confines of the concrete walls were to be forced attempt such a daring escape…
WORDS: ANKIT SHAKYA