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.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Alcatraz ‘Great Escape’ : Prison-Break from ‘the Rock’!

Daring Break at ‘Escape-Proof’ ALCATRAZ!

2012 WANTED POSTER - Frank Morris

Immortalized by Clint Eastwood in Hollywood’s ‘Escape from Alcatraz’

San Francisco, June 11, 1962

Four U.S. Penitentiary – Alcatraz convicts had worked together for nearly seven months preparing for this night. One or more of them may not have felt ready, but on this day, the decision was made – ‘we go tonight‘. Prisoner #1441AZ, Frank Morris, a veteran of numerous jail-house and prison escapes, carried himself with a quiet confidence among the Alcatraz population, and likely would be the one to make this call. Morris and his accomplices may have been nervous about a random cell-search, or possibly ‘getting ratted on’. In either case, months of painstaking preparations would certainly be lost as searchers 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 exit through the cell-house roof.

Morris’ accomplices, fellow bank-robbers John and Clarence Anglin, brothers ‘out of Florida’, and Allen West, an ‘unlicensed car dealer’ from  New York, were his neighbors on the B-Block ‘flats’ . These very visible, ground-floor, individual 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 ‘cages’ were easily accessible to the cell-house guards – who also used these corridors to travel between administration offices and the rest of the prison. Prisoners called these polished concrete ‘open’ spaces – ‘the Range’.

#1355AZ, Robert Schibline's, - B-Block Cell

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 furnishings, two narrow wooden-shelves adorned the rear wall, providing space for folded clothes, prison-issue reading materials, shaving supplies and a small mirror. Subtracting the floor-space covered by the furniture – would leave the prisoners approximately twenty square-feet to use for their inevitable pacing.

The four escape conspirators were all serving sentences of over ten years, and all were here for previous escapes and/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 his impressive history of successful escapes -including one from a Lousiana State Prison.

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 only ‘Super Maximum-Securityfederal prison. The facility, inherited from the US Army by the Bureau of Prisons in 1933, had been extensively retrofitted at that time. Automated case-hardened ‘tool-proof’ cell doors and bars replaced the dated swing-doors and flat bars which the Army installed when the building was completed in 1912. Interior, caged ‘gun-galleries’ allowed for armed guards to cover any movement within, and 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.

Frank Morris, #1441AZ Intake ‘mugs’

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.

5′ x 9′ USP-Alcatraz Cell

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.

His behavior led to Youth Reformatories, 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.

South shoreline – Alcatraz Island

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.

Rocky shoreline where Aaron Burgette’s body was recovered

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’!

In a 1996 interview with former Alcatraz prisoner 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.

The 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.

Tools and other 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.

The ‘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.

Solid wood furniture was still the norm 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.

Walk-through Metal Detector

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.

Former 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!

Some 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.

USP-Alcatraz Holiday Meal Menu

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.

Fake Vent Covers Made from Wooden Tobacco Boxes

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.

New Warden Allowed Art Supplies in Cells

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 ‘Dummy Head’

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.

Fabricated ‘Dummy Heads’ – Held as Evidence by F.B.I.

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’.

B-Block ‘Roof within a Roof’

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.

3-story Interior Cell-blocks

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.

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 not 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.

Posted in Escapes | Leave a comment

‘Wild Bill’ Baker, #1259AZ, Returns for Another ‘Stint’ on ‘the Rock’!

William Baker, Age 23, Arrives At USP-Alcatraz in 1956


Former Alcatraz Prisoner Bill Baker, just released from USP-Leavenworth in 2011, has written and published ‘Alcatraz 1259′ – an entertaining first person account of the tumultuous path which led to America’s most nototrious prison. Escape attempts as well as successes, time in ‘the Hole’, fights ‘on the yard’, fellow convict stories and much more are re-told in this entertaining and informative read.
Meet ‘Wild Bill’ in the Alcatraz Island Cell House Bookstore every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this month (January, 2014). He will be happy to sign copies of his book, pose for pictures with visitors, and answer questions about his former and present lives. ‘Alcatraz 1259′ is also available through amazon.com

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Alcatraz Hospital and the Paranormal . . .

We blogged an article about the Hospital within the prison building and the continuing interest by paranormal enthusiasts . . . and it disappeared! Lets try to get this one past ‘em:

Hospital Ward furnished to 1930's style

Located directly above the cellhouse ‘mess hall’ … the 101 year old hospital wing treated such notorious criminals as Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, ‘Doc’ Barker and the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, Robert Stroud – who spent 11 of his 17 years on ‘the Rock’ here. Many think some left a part or whole of their soul ‘upstairs’ in this original ‘big house’.

Peeling institutional-green paint on the walls and ceiling, barred doors and window – and the howling winds combine to create an atmosphere Hollywood special effects experts can only dream of.

Have a seat - make yourself comfortable ...

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The ‘Greening’ of the Rock

Visitors from Chicago and Atlanta discover the Gardens of Alcatraz


Hundreds of Cormorant nests and Snowy Egret hatchlings provide flora and fauna wildlife surprises on west side of island. The Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, working with the national non-profit Garden Conservancy, has rescued and rehabilitated historic gardens throughout the 29 acre National Park Site over the past dozen years. Early US Army families would be the first to plant gardens on the barren rock as far back in the late 1850’s – and were followed by fortunate prisoners of USP-Alcatraz from 1934 – 1963. Plants were chosen wisely for the sometimes harsh conditions and actually survived un-aided for four decades after the prison closed! Now they are on full-view for all to see – this is a fantastic time to visit, or re-visit ‘the Rock’!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘AlcatraZ’ – Fox Series Premiers on ‘the Rock’ – Pictures and Story!

Jorge Garcia, Jason Butler Harner, Sarah Jones, Jonny Coyne, Sam Neill. Robert Forster

 Cast Members on the Walk of the Rockmeet media teams for photo ops in the historic 100 year-old Cellhouse!

Former Convict Robert Luke, 'Guards' Frank Heaney and George DeVincenzi, Author Jolene Babyak

Sam Neill, unidentified fan, Jason Butler Harner at Wednesday night's event

     ‘ROCK’-STARS Gather under the stars for Premiere!

Cast members, producers and over 300 guests brought Alcatraz Island to life January 11th – with a fantastic celebration within the concrete and steel of the historic ‘Cellhouse’ – and screened the pilot episode of the gripping new FOX network series – ‘ALCATRAZ’!

Guests were seated tightly within the infamous ‘D-Block’ section and enjoyed the premiere via a twenty-foot big screen and superb sound-track. Action scenes reverberated off the concrete walls – as the viewers were temporarily distracted from the barred windows and light-less ‘strip-cells’ framing this ‘only-in-San Francisco’ venue.  

Former ‘Correctional Officers’ Frank Heaney (1948-51) and George DeVincenzi (1950-58) accompanied ex-convict Robert ‘Cold-Blue’ Luke, (a.k.a. #1118AZ – 1954-59) and daughter of a former Associate Warden, Jolene Babyak – presenting real history of U.S.P.-AlcatraZ to wide-eyed guests. These ‘Rock’ veterans also enjoyed red-carpet treatment, see above.

‘ALCATRAZ’ premiers on broadcast Monday, January 16th on FOX @ 8:00p PST, 7 Central. Check listings in your area – and don’t miss this show – it’s ‘Inescapable’ .  .  . 

Former ‘Guard’ Frank Heaney surrounded by the new ‘ROCK-STARS’!

Stay tuned to alcatraztherock.com for continuing coverage of this exciting and action-packed new series !

FOX Site w/ Trailer: http://www.fox.com/alcatraz/

ic

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Robert Luke – Return to Alcatraz, ‘the ROCK’!

AFTER 51 YEARS, former Alcatraz Prisoner #1118AZ – Robert Luke, has returned to ‘the ROCK’!

Robert Luke, aka #1118Az, 1954 - 1959 returns to his 'perch'.

Former Armed Bank-Robber and Alcatraz Convict Robert ‘Cold Blue Luke, who did over 5 years as #1118Az – from 1954 to 1959 – recently re-surfaced after keeping a very closely guarded - ‘ROCK-SECRET’ for more than five decades! 

Click below for VIDEO TRAILER:  

           http://bit.ly/lN1lEN

  Continue reading

Posted in convicts, news | Comments Off

SALUTE! – Real Veterans of Alcatraz – Devincenzi, Heaney, Luke, Wallar

Former USP-Alcatraz Officers George Devincenzi and Frank Heaney, former convict Robert Luke, and officer’s daughter Betty Wallar all served our country in the armed forces – and all are still frequent visitors to the island!.

Robert Luke (pictured at left) served in the U.S. Navy from January of 1945 through 1948 as part of the Pacific Fleet and later enjoyed a global tour aboard a deisel freighter – experiences which would provide the ‘stuff’ of his many ‘escapes’ from the Rock while a prisoner from 1954 to 1959. “#1118AZ” is now an Alcatraz auhor and video ‘Rock-star’ who will appear on  the island Saturday, November 11th  & Saturday, November 26.

Former 'Con', now Author/'Rockstar' - Robert Luke

 
 
 
 
‘Mess Hall’ Talks are presented at 11;30 a.m;
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Former 'Guard' - Frank Heaney with fans after 'dock-talk'.

Former Alcatraz ‘Screw‘ and Author -Frank Heaney served in the U.S. Coast Guard 1944 – 1946, and in the U.S. Navy from 1950 – 52 – squeezing his stint on ‘the Rock’ in between. Mr. Heaney will be appearing on the island Saturday, November 19th – and will greet the first two boats – before arriving at the Cellhouse Museum Bookstore.

Betty Wallar, R.N. - on the Agave Trail earlier this year

Former teen-age resident of U.S.P – Alcatraz, Betty Wallar was a U.S. Army Nurse from 1947 through 1950 and was dispatched to Seoul, Korea. Betty first moved to Alcatraz Island in 1936, daughter of the legendary Mr. E. Wallar -Prison Guard, Photographer and cellhouse Lock-smith!  Betty has generously donated a portion of her father’s photographs to the National Park Service Archives.

Former 'Guard' George Devincenzi appears at special events.

Former U.S. P. – Alcatraz Correctional Officer George Devincenzi  served in the U.S. Navy as a Motor Machinist Mate in 1945, 46 & 47 – visitin Guam, Saipan and other international ports-of-call. Mr. Devincenzi has spoken to many special event groups, appeared on ‘the panel’ at this years’ AZ reunion, and is currently in production on a new U.S.P.- Alcatraz documentary – coming soon on DVD!  

                                   THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR SERVICE!

                                             – and we’ll see you on ‘the island’ . . . 

ICC

 

Posted in news | Leave a comment

A Decade Guarding ‘the ROCK’ – George DeVincenzi on Alcatraz

Former Officer George DeVincenzi Visits National Park Site: Alcatraz, Saturday July 2

Former USP-Alcatraz Correctional Officer (Guard) George DeVincenzi still lives in San Francisco, and visits his former ‘home away from home’ quite frequently! Looking ‘chipper’ at a young 84 years, ‘Mr. D’ did his ’rounds’ over the holiday weekend – and shared some of his unique, and sometimes startling, memories from ‘the Rock’.

DeVincenzi grew up in the Italian district of San Francisco -North Beach, and curiosity led him to a job at USP-Alcatraz from 1950 to 1958 – keeping such noted prisoners as Robert ‘the Birdman of Alcatraz’ Stroud, ‘Machine-Gun’ Kelly, and former Public Enemy #1 – Alvin ‘Creepy’Karpis. (He also supervised Robert ‘Cold-Blue’ Luke – prisoner #1118AZ – who’s return to Alcatraz you can read about in other articles on this site.)  

On his first day on the job, during the first hour, the 23 year-old DeVincenzi was assigned to the ‘Barber Area’ – where convict ‘Barbers’ provided cost-effective haircuts for their fellow ‘cons’. On this particular Monday, the ‘Barber’ was Freddie Lee Thomas, #893AZ, and the first ‘customer’ was Joseph Barsock, #884AZ.  

Strict Alcatraz rules included silence during the hair-cut, so when Thomas could be heard whispering to the ‘customer’ (Barsock), the very green Officer issued a quick warning- “any more small-talk and this session is over -you’ll both be sent straight to your cells!’

Within a minute words were exchanged by the prisoners,  and before DeVincenzi could intervene, Barsock tried to ‘rise up from the chair – and was stopped by Thomas who stabbed him  in the neck, chest and abdomen – with the seven-inch metal shears!

In the fracas DeVincenzi tackled the attacker, and was cut several times on the legs, before taking the shears – ending the fatal attack -but not before Thomas was able to lunge down one last time to the dying fellow prisoner – kissed him on the cheek, and said – ‘I love you!

Welcome to ‘the Rock’, George ! . . .  “Next customer” . . .

Former Correctional Officer Inspects 'New Arrivals' or 'new-bees'

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘ROCK Secret’ – ‘Cool Blue’ Luke likes it here better now!

'Rock Secret' Producer Ian Craig surrounded by former prisoner #1118AZ (aka Bob Luke) left, and former Guard George Devincenzi

Unlike 50+ years ago, Robert Luke, formerly prisoner #1118AZ - is having a great time on ‘the Rock’! Now a trained National Park Service Volunteer, Luke spent a day recently on the island with former Correctional Officer George Devincenzi  for interviews with a British film crew for an upcoming Discovery Channel production. 

On another visit this month, Luke entertained a group estimated at 400+ !!! – for a full hour! 

#1118AZ, aka Bob Luke, entertains large group on April 11th.

After taking questions from the curious crowd for another 20 minutes, Ranger John Cantwell stepped in and announced that Mr. Luke would take one last question – then pointed to a 5 year old girl in the front row – who asked: “Was there anything FUN about Alcatraz?

Mr. Luke thought for a moment, then responded – “Sure . . . leaving!’

‘Leave ‘em laughing’ – Bob !

And, oh yeah, Bob – unlike the first five years you spent here – there are women here now .  . . from all over the World . . . but you probably noticed that!

Luke fans from San Antonio, Texas

 

'Cool Blue' Luke with new fan from Germany!

 

‘ROCK Secret – Surviving Alcatraz’ - the Bob Luke Story’- on DVD – is available NOW on Alcatraz and on amazon.com* ! www.amazon.com

* -search alcatraz under ‘movies’

Posted in convicts, images, news | Leave a comment