Alcatraz is hands down one of my most favourite parts of the trip. The history behind the state penitentiary is impressive and extensive. The fact that it jailed a lot of intriguing personalities piqued my interest even more.
After systemically lining up at the docks, we boarded the ferry and arrived at the gloomy Alcatraz – also a bird sanctuary – a short 10 minutes later.
Alcatraz is a world-famous prison that served a number of purposes before it became a National Historic Landmark. In brief, Alcatraz, or “The Rock” was first used as a military reserve in the mid 1800. Due to its strategic position, it was heavily fortified to serve as a fortress. When the American Civil War broke in 1861, Alcatraz Island was used to defend San Francisco Bay from any imminent threats. Around this time, prisoners of war (POW) were commanded to construct cell houses on the military base for them to occupy. Fast forward about a century later, Alcatraz was becoming too expensive for the US military to maintain. It was handed over to the Department of Justice, who then turned it into a federal prison – where all the exciting things happened… so exciting you may have seen movies or books about it.
Alcatraz was the prison of all prisons, if you will. The prison was dedicated to criminals who:
– have attempted to or successfully escaped another prison
– continue to create problems at another prison
– are repeat offenders who do not seem to learn from their time behind bars at other prisons
– have committed heinous crimes
– are high profile inmates e.g. Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, etc.
While there are a lot that can be written about Alcatraz in this blog post, I’ll focus on what mesmerized me the most. In 29 years operating as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz proved to be ‘escape proof’. Thirty-six inmates were involved in 14 escape attempts, with five listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. Our very knowledgeable tour guide shared the following stories in great detail – more than what you can expect from reading them in the visitor halls.
1) Battle of Alcatraz
The deadliest escape attempt was initiated by a bank robber by the name of Bernard Paul Coy and five accomplices. While the Alcatraz guards followed a strict routine to allow for a small chance of error, their schedule and habits became very easily predictable. After studying the guards for months, Coy commenced his violent escape attempt. He smeared axle grease all over his body and slowly climbed up the gun gallery (an overhead alley where armed guards would monitor the prisoner). Coy then used a toilet fixture he had acquired to spread a set of bars up to 1 width of 10 inches and squeezed himself through the opening and crouched to hide from the officer on duty. When the timing was right, his accomplices distracted the guard, allowing Coy to jump on the officer.
Now armed with guns and equipped with keys, Coy and his accomplices held nine guards hostage and locked them in cells. The plan started to fail when Coy struggled to find the keys that led to the recreational area. The courageous guard named Miller was able to hide the critical key in the cell where he was locked. He guarded the key to his death. When Coy and his team got their hands on the right key, the door still wouldn’t open. Alcatraz doors were engineered to automatically shut down in unison when an incorrect key was entered into any given door.
At this point, the escapees started to realize that their plans were not going to grant them the freedom they so desperately yearned for. The Alcatraz sirene started to wail, indicating distress in the prison. SF Coast Guards and Marines came to the guards’ aid in taking over the prison again.
2) Escape from Alcatraz (1979) – IMDb
In June of 1962, inmates Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris thoughtfully laid out an escape plan, which took 6 months to execute. The inmates discovered that the concrete walls of their cells are softening due to the climate and water absorption. They dug through the air ventilation with the ends of their toothbrushes (and later spoons) and used a mixture of soap and paint to cover the parts that they dug when guards are nearby. When the holes were big enough, they climbed through an unused utility corridor to the roof, and constructed inflatable rafts using reusable materials, including rain coats. In their absence, they placed dummy heads on their beds. They used soap wax and hair from the barbershop floor to ensure the heads look realistic.
When the three were ready, they climbed through the ventilation shaft, to the roof, and floated off the San Francisco Bay on their makeshift raft. Their fates are still unknown, but there have been speculations that the Anglin brothers arrived in South America. The extended Anglin family claimed that a family friend in Brazil has sent them two pictures that resemble the two brothers.
That’s not even the best part. My tour guide’s son is in college, dating a girl named Sarah Anglin. Sarah’s father is determined to trace their ancestry line back to the Anglin brothers. He’s collected archives and continues to search for more clues to prove his theory that they are the descendants of the Anglin brothers. When my tour guide met his son’s girlfriend, he could see the resemblance with one of the Anglin brothers.
I recommend watching the movie Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, to see a thrilling screen adaptation of the escape attempt.
3) Inmate or Sergeant?
Last but not least, four-time convict John K. Giles, who had previously escaped a prison in Oregon, spent close to 9 years devising his escape strategy. While working in the laundry detail, he collected a complete set of a US Army Technical Sergeant’s uniform down to the three-piece suit, a bag of change, and anything else he could find that would make his costume more believable. Over the years leading to his escape attempt, he studied the schedules of the boats and how US ferries would pull into the Alcatraz Wharf to deliver goods, army, laundry to be washed at the prison, etc.
One day in July of 1945, a US army ferry docked at the Alcatraz Wharf. The war was ending and eventually, the ferries woulds top coming in. Giles knew it was now or never. He donned on the uniform and jumped on the ferry. Unfortunately for Giles, the ferry took a slightly different route than what he had observed over the years – it made a pitstop at the neighbouring Angel Island instead of making a direct trip to San Francisco Bay. The guards on duty at the Alcatraz Wharf quickly figured out he was missing an inmate during the head count. He hopped on a speedboat and greeted Army Technical Sergeant Giles when he disembarked from the ferry.
John K. Giles was later known to his fellow in mates as Wrong Way Giles.
After visiting Alcatraz, I would definitely recommend anyone to spare a day to experience the state penitentiary. I recommend to go on at least one tour that is offered on the day you are visiting and get the audio guide from the shower room (see above). Make sure to book your tickets far in advance because Alcatraz is a famous tourist destination. Tickets aren’t available on the spot.