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Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary – Was the notorious prison truly escape-proof?

June 2017

In San Francisco Bay is a small island, 1.25 miles off shore from San Francisco.  Discovered by Spanish explorers in 1769, the island was named La Isla de los Alcatraces – Island of the Pelicans, because of the large number of birds nesting on the island.

Alcatraz Island became the property of the United States government in 1851 and has been used in succession:  a military fortification, an arm disciplinary barracks/military prison, a U.S. federal penitentiary, an American Indian stronghold and a tourist attraction.

Between 1854 and 1882, fortifications were built on the island by the U.S. Army, with the first detachment of soldiers being stationed on the island in 1859.

Alcatraz is also the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of America, built in 1854.

It was in 1868 that the island became a disciplinary barracks for soldiers serving long sentences, but sometimes “troublesome” Indians would be sent to Alcatraz.

In 1907, the prison at Alcatraz was designated the Pacific Branch of the U.S. Military Prison system and a permanent garrison was formed from the 3rd and 4th Companies of the U.S. Military Prison Guard.

In 1933, the prison was transferred to the Department of Justice for use as a federal maximum-security penitentiary.  The “worst of the worst” of the federal inmates were sent to Alcatraz; prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons along with those deemed high-risk of escape.

The prison consisted of 450 cells plus several solitary cells, a mess hall, a library, a hospital, workshops and a library. Outside was a large exercise yard with concrete bleachers, topped by massive walls with guard towers and catwalks.  Other structures consisted of the Warden’s house, accommodations for the staff, a social hall for staff, the power plant, a lighthouse and a water tower.  These buildings would take up most of the island.

Alcatraz never had any more than 250 prisoners at any one time and had a staff of around 100, but some notorious criminals spent time at the island penitentiary:  Al Capone, James “Whitey” Bulger, Meyer Cohen, George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes and Alvin Karpi, who also has the distinction of serving the longest sentence of any prisoner at Alcatraz: 26 years.

Perhaps the most famous was Robert Stroud, also known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.  During his incarceration at Leavenworth Penitentiary, Stroud became a respected ornithologist who raised and sold birds.  When he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, regulations prohibited him from bringing his birds.

Stroud, who reportedly had an I.Q. of 134, then studied law through his access to the prison library and wrote a book on the history of the penal system.  He began petitioning the federal government that his long prison term was a cruel and unusual punishment.  In fact, 42 of his 54 years in the penal system had been spent in solitary confinement.

Stroud was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri in 1959 due to his declining health.  Stroud died there in 1963 at the age of 73.

The big appeal for Alcatraz as a penitentiary was that the 12-acre island has cliffs rising 135 feet above the water; the island is frequently enveloped in fog and buffeted by high winds and the frigid water surrounding the island has treacherous currents which made escape almost impossible.  However, this didn’t deter inmates from trying to escape from “The Rock” as the prison was nick-named.

In total, there were 14 attempts made by 36 inmates, with two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”.

The first escape attempt was made by Joseph Bowers on 27 April 1936.  Bowers climbed a chain link fence and was shot by a tower guard, causing him to fall over 50 feet to the ground below.  He died later in hospital.

Another failed attempt occurred from 2 – 4 May 1946 by six inmates led to the Battle of Alcatraz.  Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Charles Carnes, Melvin Hubbard and Miran Thompson overpowered the guards in their cellhouse, William Miller and Harold Stites, taking them hostage.  After taking weapons from the lock-up, the tried to get the guard’s keys to enter the recreation yard with the aim of escaping by boat from the dock.  Unable to find the proper keys, the inmates barricaded themselves and prepared to fight the guards.

After two days, Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes surrendered, but not before Miller and Stites were murdered by the inmates.  Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard, held out until they were killed by the guards, backed up by the U.S. Marines when the cellhouse was retaken.

Shockley and Thompson were sentenced to death and executed in December 1948. Carnes, who was only 19 years of age, was given a second life sentence.

Inmate John Scott managed to swim from Alcatraz to Fort Point at the southern side of the Golden Gate Bridge in December 1962.

The Great Escape

Perhaps the most infamous escape attempt was on 11 June 1962 by Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin.  The trio painstakingly chipped away at the vents at the back of their cells, creating a hole large enough to squeeze through and using a false vent cover to mask their work.

When the conditions were right, they tucked papier mache heads, painted in flesh colour with hair from the barber shop, resembling them into their beds to trick the guards, and slipped into an unused utility corridor.  Once outside, the trio apparently escaped the island using a raft created from raincoats.

No bodies or any other conclusive evidence was ever recovered, although about a month after the escape, a Norwegian freighter did report seeing a body, dressed in clothing similar to the prison issue clothing worn by inmates at Alcatraz, floating in the ocean 15 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Several items were recovered over the next week on or near Angel Island, including a paddle, a plastic bag with a wallet containing names, addresses, and photos of the Anglins’ friends and relatives, shredded raincoat material and a deflated life jacket.

The FBI officially concluded in 1979 that the inmates likely drowned in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, with their bodies being carried out to sea by the currents.  However, the U.S. Marshall Service still maintains an active fugitive file.

Over the years numerous theories have been proposed by law enforcement, reporters, family members and enthusiasts.  One theory is the trio made it to Angel Island, where some items were located, but nothing conclusive.  The TV show “Mythbusters” tested the Angel Island theory, using a raft created using the same materials, and under the same environmental conditions on that fateful night.  The conclusion was that it was “plausible” that they were able successfully get off the island, although the Mythbusters team came ashore at the Marin Headlands, instead of Angel Island where it has been previously suspected the trio may have ended up.

The most interesting theory is the inmates only ever intended to use their homemade raft to circle around the back-side of the island, where they could elude the guard towers, and back around to the island ferry dock.  Supposedly the inmates used electrical cord (one was reported missing from the prison’s dock on the night of the escape) to body-surf behind the boat while it sailed back towards the mainland.  Midway across they were supposedly met by another boat piloted by an accomplice.  Backing up this theory was a ferry schedule found in one of the cells after the escape.

The History Channel produced a documentary in 2015, “Alcatraz:  The search for the Truth”, with the cooperation of members of the Anglin family, who suggested that the Anglin brothers made their way to Rio de Janeiro.  Nephews David and Ken Widner provided the U.S. Marshall Service with the most compelling evidence to date that at least the Anglin brothers survived:  a photo allegedly taken family friend Fred Brizzi of two men, whom he confirmed were John and Clarence Anglin, taken at their farm near Rio de Janeiro, along with a tape recorded conversation in 1992 in which he detailed how he accidentally bumped into them in Rio and later took the photo with their permission, keeping it hidden for almost two decades.

The FBI had been alerted to the Rio theory back in 1965 and sent agents there at the time to investigate, but no evidence was found at the time to prove this theory.

Brizzi, who died in 1993, added that the Anglin brothers had confirmed the theory that they had indeed surfed behind the prison ferry.  Further proof that this is the likely scenario comes from the witness testimony of a San Francisco Police Officer, Robert Checchi, who stated that on the night of the escape, he had observed a boat in San Francisco Bay sitting idle with its lights off for 20-30 minutes between the shore and Alcatraz.  Eventually, the boat headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

In exchange for providing this new evidence, the family requested the U.S. Marshall Service exhume the third Anglin brother, Alfred, who was electrocuted to death on a high-voltage power line in his own escape attempt in January 1964 from Kilby Prison in Montgomery County, Alabama.  The family had long believed that Alfred had been beaten to death by the guards at Kirby Prison.

Alfred, who was coming up for parole in the new year, had reportedly told the parents of David Widner just after Christmas 1963, that he knew that not only that the brothers had survived, but where they were hiding and was going to be joining them.  The family believed that the visitor’s table where they were sitting had been bugged and that when Alfred had refused to give up the information, that he was murdered 11 days later.

In return for the exhumation, the family advised they would let the Marshalls take some DNA from the bones of Alfred for comparison with a set of bones that had washed up on the north shore of San Francisco Bay in 1963, nine months after the escape.  Law Enforcement believed the bones may have belonged to one of the three escapees and was one of the single greatest leads.

The bones had previously been tested in 2010 against DNA from Morris family members, but the results were inconclusive.  At that time, the Anglin family had refused to cooperate and provide a DNA sample too.

The DNA sample proved in 2015 was not a match the Anglin family, bolstering their claim that the two may indeed still be alive.

Further, Michael Streed, a Forensic Facial Imaging expert hired by the History Channel, confirmed that the photos provided by the Anglin family were taken indeed taken in 1975 and asserted that the two men were “more than likely” John and Clarence Anglin and that if he was the lead investigator on the case, he would “Round up the posse.”

The end of Alcatraz Penitentiary

Despite its status a supposedly escape-proof prison, by the 1960s it became apparent that the cost of maintaining the penitentiary was becoming excessive.  Alcatraz was costing over three times per inmate per day than some other penitentiaries ($10 per day as opposed to $3 per day, due in part to the fact that everything had to be transported by ferry to the island.

In the early 1950s, it became apparent that Alcatraz was by far the most expensive penitentiary in the United States.  In 1952, James V. Bennet, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stated in his annual report that a more centralized institution should be built to replace Alcatraz.

As well, the salt water of San Francisco Bay was eroding the building walls.  By 1961, engineers felt that it would be too expensive to repair the buildings, so plans were made to build a new maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois as a replacement for Alcatraz.

Then-Attourney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Alcatraz closed effective 21 March 1963.

The prison sat vacant and unused until 20 November 1969, when a group of Native Americans called United Indians of All Tribes began an 18-month occupation of the island as part of a land claim.  The group was forcibly removed on 11 June 1971, but not before destroying the former guard residences that had served as their homes during the occupation.

Today, Alcatraz is managed by the National Park Service as a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  The penitentiary was opened to the public as a free tourist attraction of 1 November 1973.  A ferry brings visitors to the same dock at which the prisoners once came ashore, who then walk up the same pathway to the prison entrance.  One cannot help but think of all the footsteps that have preceded them along this pathway.

The remaining prison buildings take up almost all of the island and have been restored over the years to ensure they last for generations.

Sources:  Legendsofamerica.com, “A Brief History of Alcatraz”, Federal Bureau of Prisons 6 September 2012, http://abc30.com/news/new-leads-in-alcatraz-escapees-manhunt/1351556, “Alcatraz:  Search for the truth”, a 20156 documentary produced by the History Channel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcatraz_Federal_Penitentiary, http://www.alcatrazhistory.com, https://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/us-penitentiary-alcatraz.htm.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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