Alcatraz ‘Great Escape’ – Part Two

Cell-house Floors were Fastidiously Maintained

It was a well thought out ploy. One only a smarter than average convict with a steel determination could possibly conjure. And, as the cons may have put it, a clever deception that the cell-house guards took ‘hook, line, and sinker!’ This ruse would effectively blind-fold the cell-house officers by day and, most importantly, by night.

Both Morris and West held jobs on the cell-house cleaning crew, so we may never know which actor actually ‘pulled the wool’ over the guard’s eyes. Years later, fellow convict Thomas Kent told that it was ‘Frankie’ Morris.

While performing the repetitive task of sweeping and polishing the cell-house floors, one of the men summoned a cell-house officer, and a short conversation – something like the following – evidently took place:

Con: “I’m trying to figure out where all this dust comes from . . . ?”

Guard: “Your job is to clean it up, not figure out where it comes from.”

Con: “I think it’s blowin’ down off these cell-block roofs – you guys always leave those damn windows open!”

Guard: “That’s just to keep all you ‘hot-heads’ cool.”

Con: “You know how the wind whips through here sometimes – I know it’s blowin’ down from there . . . anybody ever go clean up there?

Guard: “Well, not since I’ve been here. . . hmmm, maybe we should have a look, I’ll call for a ladder.”

And, with that short conversation, a major milestone would be accomplished. After the cons hauled the ladder up to the third tier, the guards had the first look. Sure enough, it appeared as though no one had ever cleaned the interior roof tops – there was 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 to 1912 – when the Army first opened these ‘Disciplinary Barracks’.

‘B-Block’ was next, and this was the one that mattered. This cell-block was home for our four escape-plan partners down on the ‘Flats’. Hell, they might not even be around to clean up ‘C’ and ‘D’!

B-Block Tiers and Barred 'Roof-top'

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 gun-gallery guards.

This is where true genius comes into play. According to Kent, Frank Morris swept some dust into a pile near the edge of the roof-top, then waited for a pacing cell-house guard to pass below.

And, with a deft and accurate stroke, Morris sent that pile of dust cascading over the edge – and with enough thrust for most of it to clear the surrounding three-foot walkway. The unsuspecting officer, in his dark-blue, pressed uniform, stopped in his tracks, as the dated dust showered down from above.

“Hey man, jeeez! Your getting that —- all over me!”- the agitated ‘screw’ squeeled as he scampered away.

“Oh sorry, Mr. _____, I should try to be more careful!” - Morris coyly yelled down.

“There’s a ton of this crap up here”, he continued, “but, I 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’ . . . all that stuff that goes over the edge – we’re just gonna have to sweep it up again down there on the flats. Ya’ know, if y’all were to give us some blankets up here – 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, “lot better idea than stealing six-thousand smackers in nickels I’d say! . . .  OK, we’ll send some blankets up there – just try to keep that crap up there Morris!”

“It was sixty-five hundred, and they was dimes!” Morris clarified, referring to the bank heist that sent him to federal prison.

And so, as ‘Frankie’ Morris started hanging the dark, woolen blankets along the south end of the cell-block roof cage – directly across from the gun-gallery – he was figuratively, and  literally, ‘pulling the wool’ over his keepers eyes . . .

South End - B-Block, 'Roof-Cage'

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 focused on the cell-block ventilation ductwork 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 ductwork would be a major challenge – each joint having been secured with numerous steel rivets. This work would also be time-consuming, but the hanging blankets would make it much less ‘impossible’.

At the same time, numerous other aspects of the plan were being executed. With the new ‘curtains’ installed, work on a raft and personal flotation devices could 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 raincoats were collected from fellow cons – who would then, technically – be ‘co-conspirators’.

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. The ‘team’ also commenced work on inflatable life-vests – similar to the boating type – which were comically referred to as – ‘Mae West’s’.

Soap and toothpaste would also be needed as these, when combined with cigarette ashes, were creating convincing fake cement to temporarily plug holes around the vent covers still being removed.

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 and Frank could begin the roof-top projects after ‘lights-out’ each night.  Removing the ‘dummy’ vent-covers – then squeezing out through the rough openings – they would then pull the ‘grills’ into place, temporarily secure them, and begin navigating upward upon a menagerie of iron pipes.

Fake Cell Vent, made from wooden tobacco box

Expansive skylights were included when the structure was original built, running overhead almost the entire length of the cell-house. This feature provides for a bright cell-house during daylight hours, and perhaps some moonlight for clandestine night-time ‘projects’.


B-Block 'Range' - w Barred Windows & Skylights


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-duct which appeared to exit through the formidable concrete cell-house roof.


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