Alcatraz: Is it actually possible to escape The Rock?

53 years on from the Great Alcatraz Escape, still nobody knows exactly what happened. Could the inmates have made it out alive? EDGAR investigates.

Peter Iantorno June 15, 2015

Another day at Alcatraz, the toughest, most secure federal penitentiary in the whole of the US, begins in typical fashion. At 7.15am sharp, a loud buzzer sounds, awakening the prisoners from their slumber. The cell doors open and the bleary-eyed inmates trudge out for the morning head count.

Everyone knows the drill – it’s the same every morning – but on this particular day, June 12, 1962, something remarkable happens: three inmates do not report for the count, and even after indignant threats of violence from the correctional officer on duty, the vacant spaces in the line-up still aren’t filled.

Filled with fury, the CO storms towards the cells of the tardy prisoners, wielding his baton, ready to dispense some tough punishment to those brazen enough to mess up his morning routine. He barges in, making a beeline for the bed and bellowing at the insolent, sleeping prisoners.

He rips up the sheets, raising his baton high above his head ready to deliver a crushing blow of retribution, but suddenly his grip loosens, he drops his weapon and runs out of the cell. Why? All he finds under the covers are model heads and stacks of plumped-up pillows, and the prisoners are nowhere to be seen. There has been a jail break.

Last week marked 53 years since that famous escape attempt, and still nobody knows for sure if the prisoners, Frank Lee Morris and the brothers John and Clarence Anglin, managed to escape the island alive. The FBI insists that they must have perished in the freezing waters, but no bodies have ever been found, and many believe that the trio did, in fact, make it out alive. 

While details of the men’s fate are decidedly murky, their extraordinarily complex escape plan is well-documented, thanks to testimony provided by a fourth member of their crew who was caught, Allen West.

He gave details of how the men collected old saw blades from little-used utility cupboards and fashioned them into rudimentary tools, which they used to chip away at the cement around the ventilator grill of their cell walls and make a hole big enough to squeeze through. They even used a mixture of homemade cement powder, soap and toilet paper to create lifelike dummy heads, which were decorated with flesh-toned paint from the prison arts and crafts class and real hair from the prison barbers.

According to West, at precisely 9.30pm on June 11th, straight after lights-out, the escape began, as each man placed a dummy in his bed and squeezed out of the hole in his cell. However, this is where the escape hit problems as West had fallen behind on his digging and he hadn’t managed to remove his grill in time. 

So although Morris and the Anglin brothers briefly tried to help by kicking the grate through from the outside, they were left with no choice but to abandon West in his cell and go on without him. They made a nine-metre climb up the plumbing on to the prison roof, ran across the rooftop and then made their way down some 15 metres of pipes to land on the ground outside the prison.

From there, the men launched a raft they had made from stolen raincoats and, according to West, who was busted in the morning after the evidence of digging in his cell was found, they planned to head to Angel Island, where they would rest, then head to the mainland, steal cars and clothes and complete their escape.

Over the 29 years (1934-1963) that Alcatraz was in operation, 36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and two drowned.

Pretty damning figures, but that still leaves five men missing - Morris and the two Anglin brothers, plus prisoners Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe, who made it into the San Francisco Bay during their 1937 escape attempt, before being swept out to sea in bad storms.

Although the bodies of these men were never found, the FBI surmised that they must have drowned and been swept away, as water temperature around Alcatraz Island rarely climbs over 10 degrees Celsius, and exposure to these conditions would start to affect bodily functions after just 20 minutes – nowhere near long enough to complete the one-and-a-quarter-mile swim to shore.

Escape from Alcatraz The escape attempt was immortalised in the 1979 Clint Eastwood film, Escape from Alcatraz

However, as recently as 2014, a study by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands found that  during the Anglin brothers and Morris' 1962 attempt, there was a small window on the stroke of midnight, that if the men had left during this period, it is possible the currents would have worked in their favour and they would have been able to make landfall.

Of course, Neither Morris nor the Anglin brothers knew anything about the tides, so if they did manage to set off during this precise midnight window it would have to go down as an extraordinary stroke of luck.

But as prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat, who vanished without trace from a New York prison just two weeks ago, have shown, no matter how unlikely something is, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Maybe Morris and the Anglins made it after all...