On the night of June 11, 1962, three prisoners escaped from the prison on the island of Alcatraz on a makeshift raft. A look back at an incredible story, whose escape thesis was validated by facial recognition technology in 2020.
Alcatraz prison is located on the San Francisco Bay Area in California. If today the island has become a historical complex, it was one of the most guarded prisons in the world between 1934 and 1963. Before 1962, Alcatraz was extremely well known. It was home to a large number of gangsters (Al Capone), businessmen, criminals etc.. At the time, everyone believed that this prison was indomitable.
The guards lived on the island to avoid going back and forth with the mainland. The very strong currents off San Francisco and the freshness of the water made escape attempts almost unthinkable.
A well-prepared escape
During their stay at Alcatraz in 1962, four prisoners, who had met in another penitentiary, began to glimpse the idea of an escape. They were the Anglin brothers (Clarence & John), Frank Morris and Allen West. They are rather discreet during their incarceration. Discussions took place in the canteen. We will learn that Frank Morris is the « brain » of the escape.
Preparation of the escape took several months:
– To discreetly reproduce their own head in paper (to delay the escape warning)
– To develop a resistant raft to reach the continent
– To dig a path from their cell has an « unguarded » corridor.
They dug into their respective cells from the contours of the ventilation grid. Often they dug during the day when they could be masked by the noise of the prison. Each piece of wall that was removed was kept discreetly, concealed in their pants, and discarded during daily outings. Once the hole was made in each cell, they had access to a little or unguarded corridor that quickly led them to the roof.
Anglin, Morris and West made the fake heads from chewing paper, paint and recovered hair. They also made a makeshift raft out of stolen glue and raincoats belonging to other inmates.
The Alcatraz Escape
On June 11, 1962 at 9:30 p.m., the plan was set in motion. One of them, Allan West, cannot get out of his cell, but the other 3 (Anglin & Morris Brothers) escape as planned. After taking the corridor, climbing a pipe and avoiding the searchlights, the three fugitives reach the north of the island and deploy their raft made of raincoat and glue. It is only the next day at 7 am that the guards realize the 3 absent (Allan West having stayed in his cell).
Very quickly, the alert is given, hundreds of prisoners are questioned, including West who indicates the planned route (to reach an island a few kilometers from the prison before returning to the mainland). The search means deployed were among the most important in the history of the United States (dogs, boats, planes, etc.). A few cases were found but no trace of the prisoners. After 12 days, the authorities concluded that the fugitives had certainly drowned in view of the currents. A body was found in the water one month later: unidentifiable because it was badly deteriorated.
The Investigation and its Follow-up
The FBI investigation continued for 17 years. In total, more than 1700 pages of investigation. In 2013, a mysterious letter was sent to the authorities. The author of the letter would be John Anglin and said that the escape was successful. He also said that he was 83 years old, that he was sick. DNA tests were done but they were not conclusive. In 2015, The New York Post and History Chanel unveiled a photo that could be a snapshot of the Anglin brothers (in 1975) who became drug traffickers in South America. In the same report, another theory is put forward by a historian: instead of fleeing north, they would have stolen a cable (listed in the FBI report) and hung it on a boat from the prison pier. A boat would have left at midnight on the night of the escape. In 2020, facial recognition technology confirmed that the photo found in 2015 in Brazil was indeed the face of the two escaped men.
Every year, more than a million tourists visit the Alcatraz prison!