Alcatraz escapees still at large after fifty years

Fifty years ago today, three men disappeared from Alcatraz, the world’s toughest prison. What happened to them – and why are we fascinated by these elusive criminals?

Even today, Alcatraz Penitentiary is a formidable place. Its low, black-windowed buildings squat menacingly on a mass of bald rock that rises from the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay. Cut off from the world by high walls and cold sea, the prisoners who once lived here were some of the most dangerous men in America. No one, it was believed, could ever hope to escape from Alcatraz.

But exactly fifty years ago, three men did make a break from the notorious jail. On the night of June 11th 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin and his brother Clarence escaped from their cells and disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.

Some say they drowned in the freezing Pacific ocean. But most people believe they made it safely onto the mainland – becoming the only men in history to break out of the island prison.

Morris and the Anglin brothers planned their attempt for nearly a year, stealing tools and kitchen spoons to dig through walls at the back of their cells. They replaced bars they had sawn through with replicas made of cardboard and soap. Using toilet paper and hair gathered from the prison barber, they created papier-mâché models of their own heads, to ensure their escape went undetected.

The careful preparations paid off. On the night of their escape, the friends plumped up their blankets and replaced their sleeping selves with the fake heads. Through their escape tunnel they reached a utility corridor, where they climbed a twisting mass of piping to the roof.

On the way, they picked up makeshift boats they had built from prison issue raincoats. From the roof, it was just a jump over the wall and a sprint in the dark to the shoreline. Bill Long, the guard that night, noticed nothing unusual. But when Morris failed to rise for roll call the next morning, Long gave him a prod – and an eyeless papier-mâché head fell from the sheets.

The escape promoted one of the biggest manhunts in history. The authorities searched land and sea for any sign of the fugitives, or their drowned bodies. But the corpses of the three were never found. The men had vanished.

Escape from the Rock

In the fifty years since it happened, the Alcatraz breakout has inspired books, TV shows and a film starring Clint Eastwood. The men have become heroes; the stuff of legend.

Some say more law-abiding types have something to learn from the fugitives. Breaking out of Alcatraz showed amazing courage – and no small amount of cleverness and skill.

Sure, others reply – but those traits were put to use in a life of crime, and a brazen prison escape that showed no respect for the laws of a just society. It would have been better if the Alcatraz Three had stayed behind bars.

You Decide

  1. Should we admire people like the Alcatraz Three?
  2. Would breaking out of Alcatraz be worth the risk?

Activities

  1. Initially, four men planned to break out of Alcatraz. But one, Allen West, failed to dig a tunnel in time, and was left behind. Imagine being in his place – and write a diary entry describing your feelings.
  2. You are being held prisoner in your classroom. Using only the objects at your disposal, devise an ingenious escape plan.

Some People Say...

“Escaping from prison is morally wrong.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is there any chance the prisoners will be found?
The search continues. Sightings of the men are still reported all over the USA, and the detective in charge of the investigation flies around the country, chasing tips and searching through reams of official records. So far, nothing has been found.
Is it common for prisoners to break out of jail?
Rare – but not that rare. In America, half a percent of prisoners escape every year. That’s still thousands, but most are low-risk inmates from minimum security prisons.
Any high-profile breakouts recently?
In April, one of the UK’s most wanted escaped prisoners was discovered in Amsterdam. Kirk Bradley was a member of a gang that carried out several shootings in Liverpool, and he had fled from a jail van in Manchester last July.

Word Watch

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood is an American actor, who rose to prominence in Spaghetti Western movies, such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and as the title role in the Dirty Harry films. His violent, masculine roles have turned him into a cultural icon.
Fugitives
A fugitive is someone who is on the run. It comes from the Latin fugitivus, meaning ‘fleeing’.
Papier-mâché
The name of this common craft technique comes from the French for 'chewed paper'. It has been used for centuries: in ancient Egyptian times, elaborate coffins were sometimes made of the material. Later, in 18th Century Europe, it was used as an alternative to plasterwork for doorways, and it has even been used to build canoes.

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