Reflecting Through Echoes

Archive for February 2011

Breaking Rock

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Live blogging the book “Breaking the Rock: the Great Escape From Alcatraz” by Jolene Babyak

P. 97.  Everyone knew “Bumpy.” He was the last of the big-time gangsters from Harlem but he was top drawer.

West, Morris, and the Anglin Brothers knew they had a problem on their hands after several black inmates spotted them digging holes in their cells. They probably figured it was only a matter of time before they were ratted out as payback for some of West’s violent outburst against black prisoners. Jolene Babyak theorizes that they probably wanted to threaten these inmates with a shank to intimate them into silence. Frank Morris, who happened to work with some of these guys in the brush shop put a stop to that line of thinking. His idea was to talk to Bumpy Johnson.

Bumpy Johnson was the “Al Capone of Harlem”. He got his nickname from the fact that he had a bumpy ride through the prison system, doing over twenty-five years in prisons such as: Sing-Sing, Attica, Rikers Island, Atlanta and of course Alcatraz. He was convicted for running a prostitution ring and selling drugs. Fun fact: he was played by Lawrence Fishburn is the film Hoodlum. Awesome flick. I’ll have to do some research but his run ins with the crazy Dutch Schultz made for a fun film.

P. 97. “Popularity is power in prison,” he once said. “People didn’t touch you if you had friends.”

Bumpy was welled liked by the inmates. Hell, even the guards liked him! In his file he was considered “dignified,” “intelligent,” and “cooperative.” Here was a man who others looked up too and this was who Frank Morris turned to to help keep their plans quite.

P. 102. …the risky part was that more and more prisoners were being told about the escape attempt in an ironic effort to keep everyone quite.

I wonder if at some point in their plan if anyone ever felt like things were spiraling out of control? That at any moment a guard could walk in on them and inspect their cell. Maybe a fellow prisoner, who couldn’t help his mouth shut, would accidentally spill the beans.  Or quite simply, getting careless and busted for smuggling stolen items. I suspect that once word spread it became like some element of destiny to it. Either they were going to escape successfully or get busted before they had a chance to put their plan into action.

P. 106. Marion was rumored to be replacing Alcatraz as the new super max pen.

Marion, Illinois, a new maximum security prison that was under construction in early ’62.  Jolene describes how the guards moral was slowly being chipped away with these rumors. No-one was for sure that Alcatraz was going to close but it was all they were talking about. Losing your job is almost as bad as the threat of losing your job. The uncertainty is a bitch! At least if you know your job is gone you can move on to the next thing, well that’s the hope.

P. 113. He [John] shaved the edges down until it fit neatly into the recess of his wall. Then he draped his towels over the sink pipes, completely covering his fake vent, and drifted off to sleep.

Using canvas art boards and tobacco boxes to carve fake vents was another genius move by these guys. Necessity IS the mother of invention. These fake vents were so good that even after a cursory glance they still fooled the guards. Impressive.

P. 120. He had made a stunning turnaround in his work and behavior record.

In another ironic twist. Allen West and Frank Morris were having their sentences reduced because of their good behavior and great attitudes toward their jobs. I guess there is nothing like sticking it to the man that brings out exceptional behavior.

 

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Written by Mr. Lake

February 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm

The Plan

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Live blogging the book “Breaking the Rock: the Great Escape From Alcatraz” by Jolene Babyak

P. 62.  It’s not clear who thought of making dummy masks for the beds, but it is obvious that once West decided that they would escape from their cells, dummy masks would have to be made to conceal their escape.

West told the group about the ’39 prison escape. Where five cons sawed through their prison bars, escaped and jumped down the cliff. The problem with that plan was that the guards quickly saw empty cells. West would not make the same mistake.

P. 64. I read a book once, ’bout how you can melt concrete be heating it to nine hundred degrees. -West

A side story involving a convict named Glenn May. Glenn was arrested for larceny, writing bad checks, forgery, etc and was sent to Alcatraz for trying to escape from Leavenworth Prison. He became the inmate electrician, often repairing items used in the kitchen; toasters, ovens, and dishwashers. West got the idea to try and heat up the concrete to his cell by shocking it thus allowing him an easier time to dig holes in it. Glenn built a device which was basically a toaster and worked by powering it through the ceiling light. West tried and tried however but nothing ever came of it. After the escape Glenn would later pay dearly for helping West in this way.

P. 66. Instead of the old ten-man dining tables in use since the army days, now there were four-man tables.

P. 67. But right away he [West] knew that this was going to be an advantage: three times a day, he could sit with his buddies. Three times a day, they could plot out ideas and nobody – nobody – could hear them.

The switch from ten-man tables to four-man tables was supposed to be a modernization of the prison system which began after Kennedy was elected President. The reality was that now these cons were allowed to freely plan their escape without others overhearing or guards interfering. This simple fact, that they had no control over, probably allowed the plan to speed up and take shape faster than it would normally have. Who knows maybe it never would have happened without this modernization? It also was harder for the guards to keep everything in order. Utensils began disappearing with some regularity.

P. 68. Three months after West had arrived in 1958, Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson had tried to escape in the twelfth attempt in the prison’s history. They made plywood fins as paddles and “water wings” out of raincoats.

This was new to me. I had always thought that the idea to make a raft out of raincoats was a genuine idea of the group. Very surpassing to read that others had already tried it. Granted it was a shoddy attempt and making a grown human float with raincoats but still. I am impressed with the creativity of it. In case you were wondering, Aaron and Clyde escaped by overpowering a guard and jumping into the sea. Johnson began to struggle almost immediately in the water and turned back. Aaron however continued on. With his heavy clothes and shoes dragging him down he fought hard to stay afloat but eventually drowned.

West and the rest of the escapees wanted to actually build a raft out of raincoats, not just a “water wing”. At the time there was talk of building it to seat six, more convicts wanted to join in but eventually they wanted out and the group was reduced to the four that I have been focusing on: West, Morris and the Anglin Brothers. On season two, episode eight of “Mythbusters”, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman  build a raft out of raincoats to the specifications that the FBI says the cons had. Something like 50 to 60 raincoats! But amazingly, it did work and proved that technically it WAS possible. But i’m jumping ahead.

P. 68. Alcatraz “cuisine” was considered the best in the federal prison system. None of those sliced cold cuts, a staple in other pens that cons called “Donkey Dick.”

It’s the little details like this that I just love finding out about. Grilled beef and pork sausage, baked swiss steak, and other fine meals. Not to shabby.

P. 68. “We ate like a first class hotel there”…

P. 70. Cons called him, “the wop with the mop.”

Another quick side story, The wop with the mop was none other than Al Capone. The guards routinely gave the big time mobsters and gangsters the lowly and demeaning jobs in order to humiliate them. I bet it did have the desired effect, Al Capone the man who practically owned Chicago and been reduced to pushing a mop around a prison cell. Quite the fall from power.

P. 73. The clothing room was a freeway for contraband.

John (J-Dub) Anglin worked in the clothing room. It was an easy job and was basically for unskilled workers, like John. Every other week every con got a shower and a fresh set of clothes. First off, eeesh. Two weeks for a shower. It appears that John had easy access to supplies like toilet paper, soap, shoes, belts, and raincoats.

P. 84. West was excited by the simplicity of it.

I have to say, I’ve been impressed the most with John Anglin. For having only a third grade education, he’s probably had the best ideas. First it was to make a raft now it is for coming up with using spoons to dig their way out of prison. Stealing spoons was an extremely easy way to get a homemade tool. If it was confiscated the guards would just think it was a shank. They would break off the bowl part of the spoon and use the edge like an ice pick. Another benefit was it was also easy to hide. Not to be too cliche but perhaps in a book or inside a mattress.

P. 86. Most officers wore what cons called “sneak shoes,” made with crepe soles.

Due recall that by now the men had cells next to each other. One was on lookout for the guard while another did the digging in his cell. They would work during the music hour where it was so noisy that you could practically run a jack hammer and not have the guard hear it. The only bit of trouble they had was when the guard did his head count, hence the lookout.

P. 86. Although Hollywood films and numerous television documentaries showed cons chipping away at one big hole, in fact, each dug only one tiny hole at a time, about the length and size of your little finger.

To quote a famous Vulcan, “fascinating”. This just makes so much sense. Carve out a small hole, then use some wet toilet paper to fill in the hole, paint over. Repeat process till free. Ingenious.

P. 93. The one thing he hadn’t counted on.

Allen West almost gets caught. One night while digging he notices a black con looking through his own vent watching West. For a few tense moments at least, I bet West wishes he hadn’t acted like such a racist around his fellow inmates. Whew! End of part 2. Jolene leaves us (the reader) hanging, until the next chapter to find out why the black con DID NOT rat out West for payback.

Written by Mr. Lake

February 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Getting the gang all together.

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Live blogging the book “Breaking the Rock: the Great Escape From Alcatraz” by Jolene Babyak

P. 30-32

Jolene describes how Alcatraz was purchased during the great depression by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and immediately became notorious not only for it’s location but for it’s cost to operate. Fresh water would have to be brought in everyday for the prisoners and guards. To save money, a decision was made to use water from the bay to flush out the toilets. In hindsight an incredibly dumb move. Eventually the salt water began to corrode the pipes throughout Alcatraz. Thirty years later Allen West would incorporate this into his escape attempt.

P. 33. Sometime in the late 1950s or ’60s, the mail censor position was eliminated.

Another bad move, all in an order to reduce costs. The mail center position was responsible for reviewing all incoming and outgoing mail. As well as retyping letters to prohibit secret messages being passed around. I’m sure the right people noticed these small changes throughout Alcatraz and eventually word got back to West.

P. 37 …J-Dub scored at a third grade level, Clarence topped off at the fifth grade.

Enter the Anglin Brothers: two brothers from a large but dirt poor family embark on a life of crime. In all honesty though, Jolene actually hints that prison may have been a step up in comfort for the brothers. Just as well because they made the worst criminals. The robbed a bank in Alabama, got caught four days later. Apparently they left their finger prints all over the bank and a stolen car. They both pled guilty and each got ten years. On top of that, Alabama could also give out the death penalty for armed robbery, opps. They dodged that bullet with the State of Alabama adding a cool twenty-five more years on to both of their sentences.

P. 41. Legend has it that in 1955, Morris had been bank-rolled by a well-known Kansas City hood named Junior Bradley. Ace and his accomplices went south and bored into the back wall of a bank in Sidwell, Louisiana. Using an acetylene torch, they burned through two stand-up vaults, setting off tear gas canisters. What they found inside must have made them cry even harder: $6,500 in coins – bags of nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars – which the FBI said collectively weighed about twelve hundred pounds.

Meet Frank Morris aka Ace. The one take away I got from Frank was that he was a true chameleon. He could blend in to prison life so easily that most prison guards didn’t even notice him out in the yard, when they did have interactions with him, Frank came off as shy and likable. Frank may have had bum luck with the outcome of that bank job in Louisiana but he did have a plan to hide the coins. He also remained at large for nine months before being captured. Frank was also smart, with a reported IQ of 133. That’s higher that Abraham Lincoln’s reported IQ of 128. Einstein had 160 incase you were curious.

P. 46. Frank Morris turned up on January 18, 1960, becoming AZ 1441.

Morris had been transferred to Alcatraz after an escape attempt from Atlanta. So now we have West, Morris, and about a year later the Anglin brothers would all become well acquainted with each other at Alcatraz. They all had one thing in common, they dreamed about escaping from the Rock.

P. 48. If we could get up there, we could rip out the ductwork and get out on the roof, he told them. “they’re weak sisters.”

Frank Morris began working in the prison library when West approached him and another convict about the prison air-ducts. A seed was planted in their minds. West told them about an old blower unit over B block still existed and still had ductwork up to a ceiling vent.

P. 49. NINE DAYS LATER, on October 24, 1960, probably scared and copping a tough guy smirk, J-Dub arrived.

J-Dub was joined shortly thereafter by his brother Clarence in a failed escape attempt from Leavenworth. Despite several notes in their files to keep them seperated,  the Anglin brothers were given cells right next to each other. Morris asks for and gets a request to relocate cells.  Guess which one, the cell right next to West. Now they each have a worker and a lookout once they continue putting together their escape plan. And as a side note, they could also communicate with each other via the ‘telephone’. When water was removed from their toilet it acted like two tin cans hooked together by strings. Ingenious.

Written by Mr. Lake

February 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm

the last stop…

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p. 17. Atlanta was a maximum security federal joint. Known among the cons, as the “Big Top,” it was, along with the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, the last stop before Alcatraz.

 

“Big Top,” I love the nicknames that these cons come up with. I had to mention Leavenworth as well because it’s only about 40 miles away. Leavenworth was nicknamed the “Hot House” because of the Kansas heat and humidity. Sounds lovely but I bet it is still better than the damp and cold climate of Alcatraz.

p. 18. West arrived on the Rock the same month as I [Jolene] did as a seven year old in April 1954.

The way Jolene describes moving from Iowa to actually living on Alcatraz itself is rather fun. I get the sense that she enjoyed the change. It’s not something I ever thought about but of course there had to be regular families living on Alcatraz. What a strange childhood that would be, going to school and playing right next to the worst of the worst.

p. 20. While both Atlanta and Leavenworth held two to three thousand men, Alcatraz averaged only about two hundred and sixty -or about one percent.

Jolene explains that these men weren’t here because of their crimes but because of their behavior inside other prisons. These were truly the psychotic. When punishment did nothing to change behavior, off to Alcatraz they go. Can you imagine if you were actually wrongfully convicted and were sent here? On the plus side though the place was tidy. I have a feeling that being tidy is going to factor in, in a big way, for the escape attempt. I confess, I know what it is already but vow to keep it a secret for now.

p. 20. …the mattresses sank like urine and he could touch both walls with his arms outstretched, it was what West would have called a friggin’ luxury apartment: one man to a cell.

The smell you get get used too. The tight space you could get used too even. Not having to share it with another convict, priceless. For someone like West, prison life must have been a regular routine. He was in and out for most of his adult life. I remember the character Andy Dufresne from the film “The Shawshank Redemption” as the years slowly passed by, a sense of familiarity sort of settled in him. It was what it was.

p. 27. Tell me about ’46.

Allen West listening to all the previous escape attempts in the thirties and the disastrous attempt in 46. The escape attempt from forty-six left five men dead. I could have swore their was a movie filmed about this but could not find anything on imdb. I found “The Birdman of Alcatraz” features a brief scene of the battle. Maybe it was another prison take over film of the one I’m thinking about. Curses.

 

Written by Mr. Lake

February 3, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Prisoner 1335

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Breaking the Rock liveblog

p. 3. THE READER WILL see that I have taken some liberties in telling the story.

My immediate reaction was excuse me! If this was going to be the de-facto account of the 1962 escape from Alcatraz then we have a serious credibility alert right here on page three. To be completely honest my hopes sank a little after reading that. Jolene however does go on to explain her reasoning. When she began the research for her book, all the principal characters involved were either dead or missing. She had to rely on the investigative reports and interviews with the men who were at the time.

p. 4. The reader will see that italics are used to suggest what the principals might have said in further their plan.

There was no way she could have known what was actually said but after extensive research, living and breathing and thinking about their actions day after day, I can totally see Jolene begin to fill in the blanks with their conversations. In the end I just want to get to know these men. I want to find out what made them tick, what made them attempt an escape so daring that Houdini himself would be proud. For me, Jolene Babyak looks like my best bet.

Chapter 1 – The Man

Prisoner 1335 – Allen West

 

p. 8. According to his file, he had an eighth-grade education, had survived mostly on car theft and breaking and entering and was arrested twenty times over the course of his life.

p. 8. Inside, he was a racist and an agitator….

p. 8. West so so explosive, in fact, that out of fifteen hundred and seventy-six registered prisoners who eventually served time on Alcatraz, he was one of about thirty-five who was there twice.

What can I say about Allen West so far. He was a loud mouth who seemed to constantly dream up elaborate ways to escape from Alcatraz. Some of his ideas were pretty good, not bad for an eighth grade education. If I was, hypothetically speaking, serving time with him, West might be entertaining to talk too and help pass the time but only if I had the right color of skin.

Written by Mr. Lake

February 1, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Alcatraz

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Alcatraz

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In the coming days I will be blogging the book, “Breaking the Rock: The Great Escape from Alcatraz” by Jolene Babyak. I hope to share Jolene’s incredible story and provide commentary along the way. Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated with Alcatraz, which was supposedly escape proof.  In the twenty-nine years that Alcatraz was a maximum security prison, thirty-six men have tried to escape. The official record is that no one ever did. However in 1962, something quite compelling did occur. Several men successfully tunneled their way out of their jail cell, climbed up to the roof and took out on a homemade raft in the bay in search of freedom. I can’t wait to dive in and read about these three, perhaps four (more on that later) criminals that pulled off the perfect escape from Alcatraz.

Fun Fact: “The island received its name in 1775 when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the San Francisco Bay, and named this tiny speck of land La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translated to “Island of the Pelicans.” The small uninhabited island had little to offer, with its swift currents, minimal vegetation, and barren ground.” http://www.alcatrazhistory.com/rs1.htm

Written by Mr. Lake

February 1, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Alcatraz

What is…

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So what exactly IS reflecting through echoes?

In a single brushstroke, it is simply the vibrations from the past that refuse to be silenced.

Stories of the dark and forbidden.
Stories bittersweet and heart warming.
Stories that beg to be told again and again.

More than anything else, it is a journey…

Welcome to Reflecting Through Echoes.

Written by Mr. Lake

February 1, 2011 at 12:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized