Reflecting Through Echoes

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Escape From Alcatraz (film review)

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Review of Escape from Alcatraz

I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Escape From Alcatraz” ever since I started reading “Breaking the Rock” by Jolene Babyak. I can’t wait to see what Hollywood got right, what they got wrong and what they left out.

The movie begins with Frank Morris (portrayed by Clint Eastwood) arriving on Alcatraz in 1960. He arrives alone, meaning no other prisoners are with him and it’s during a storm. Mostly this is correct. It was 1960 when Frank Morris hit Alcatraz, other prisoners were with him though.

Next we see how the prison system worked. Basically they mug shot you, strip you of your clothes, do an extremely invasive cavity search and send you to your cell. In the movie they have Frank Morris walk naked down the corridor where all the other inmates can see him, probably for humiliation purposes. I don’t think the author of “Breaking the Rock” ever mentions this so I’m inclined that the director included it because it was more dramatic. Effective for setting a somber mood and it does linger throughout the film. Even during the escape attempt their isn’t much optimism.

There is a whole subplot with another prisoner named Wolf who for some reason thinks he’s looking for a new punk and claims Frank Morris is her. Silly and distracting. I didn’t buy it. Wolf is nothing but a caricature and a plot device. Because of Wolf, Frank is thrown in solitary confinement for a couple of days. Never happened in real life, maybe they thought it would be helpful in setting up the warden as the bad guy but because it was a fabrication, I hated it.

The real story is so much better, that the warden and others were under great financial pressure to cut cost and because of this, holes opened up in their security. Morris and the others simply just took advantage.

This brings me to my biggest grip with the film. The character of Charlie Butts. A dim witted idiot who first believes that another prisoner is Al Capone (whose been dead for a few years) and then later just sort of tags along on Morris’s coattails. Charlie Butts was supposed to be Allen West. Maybe they felt that he was a braggart and didn’t want to give him his due. Maybe the filmmakers felt that West was simply wrong for trying to take credit for the actions of Morris and the Anglin brothers. Whatever the case, they really botched this character.

In reading Jolene’s book, “Breaking the Rock” one thing becomes very clear. That without Allen West then there would be no escape attempt. It was West who conned the guards into putting up blankets above B block, (another thing the film glosses over). In the actual escape, West was painting above B block and kicking dust all over the pristine floor of Alcatraz. The guards liked to keep things spotless, you could practically eat off the floors there. Anyway, West due to all his dusty accidents, convinced the right people to let him hang up some 30 odd blankets above the B block.  At night, when they would sneak out of their cell, Morris and the Anglins had a great work area provided by West. They used this area to work on getting through the vent, building the raft and making wooden paddles, ect.

It was West who kept the plan moving forward and silencing other prisoners who were thinking of talking. I want to be clear that I’m not sticking up for West here because I think he deserved the credit. The facts are this. West was not a nice guy. He was brutal and a racist and I can say that I didn’t like him very much. But without him, the real story of what happened might never have been known. His story has been remarkably consistent over the years. I would prefer a story that kept to the facts as close as possible without having to cheat the viewer. Most people, if they only see the film, will go away thinking that Frank Morris was the mastermind and architect of the whole thing while Charlie Butts was a loser. The film also reduces the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, to bit players as well.

For what it is, “Escape From Alcatraz” is a good movie and Clint Eastwood gives a great performance. That being said, I was really disappointed. When I first heard of the story I was fascinated by the details of the escape such as: the building of a raft, tunneling out of their cells, making a drill, constructing fake dummies and doing this all the while under the guards noses. The movie I was expecting to see was more of a exciting thriller but like I hinted at before, the movie I got was a slow methodical study of life in prison that also featured an escape.

The ending is another thing that bugs me about the movie. ** Spoiler Alert ** In the film their is this whole subplot about the Warden breaking the spirit of a inmate by taking away his paintings. Before that this inmate always carried with him a yellow chrysanthemum and throughout the film it symbolizes defiant struggle of hope.  At the end of the film the warden is on Angel Island and he finds this flower and the viewer is left thinking that they made it. That they left that flower there as a final f you to the warden since chrysanthemum’s aren’t native to Angel Island. Never happened.

Jolene Babyak’s book, “Breaking the Rock” was exactly what I was looking for in the story. I felt like I got to know, as much as I could, the real Frank Morris, the real Anglin brothers, and the Real Allen West. Their story was fun and full of mystery.

I still like to think that they made it.

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Written by Mr. Lake

April 1, 2011 at 10:46 am

Discovery

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

PART 7 – Discovery

P. 219. Holding up his fake grill and beating it with his fist, he said, “You may as well lock me up too. I planned the entire escape!”

By seven o’clock in the morning, West had his story ready to go. By the time the guards did the morning count and couldn’t arouse Clarence Anglin, the sh*t more or less hit the fan. The guards quickly found THREE empty cells. And here was Allen West, banging on his fake grill rubbing their noses in it, it being the biggest prison breakout in modern history. By 7:15 the escape siren was blaring. I wonder if the mood with the prisoners was one of triumphant? I’d kinda like to think so. Maybe other convicts hated Morris and the Anglins but maybe they felt some sort of pride in them as well. Pride in the fact that some of their fellow cellmates stuck it to the man and escaped.

I think that the fifteen minute delay from seven to seven-fifteen (when the siren was finally turned on) was due to the guards discovery of a plethora of evidence that this was no ordinary incident; artifacts such as a periscope, glue, paint cans, raincoats and a life jacket! I would have loved to see their faces. A day later someone pried open a can of paint and discovered the small electric motor used as a drill.

P. 224. Officers went about their search quietly, but their silence spoke volumes.

They knew that someone was going to pay for this and unfortunately it looked like everybody was complacent at least on some level. They had to feel guilty about it.

P. 224. But the most damning evidence was the least discussed: the scores of blankets that hung around the top of the block.

Jolene writes that their was almost a slight cover-up about this part of the escape. If it wasn’t for two FBI photos that noted what they are, they would have practically vanished. All reports from the guards and lieutenants on duty (about the escape) neglected to mention those damn blankets. Heads were going to roll.

P. 225. His [West] story, even after repeated tellings, remained mostly consistent.

West is described here as shaking and bubbling with energy. He was proud of what he helped put together. There was no doubt that he was depressed that he was left behind but going through all the detailing of their planning must have a been a reward onto itself.

P. 228. That night, June 12, at 10:15 pm., a homemade paddle matching the one found on top of the roof, was found floating off the northwest side of Angel Island.

Since this was near the intended target of Morris and the Anglins, the FBI initially suspected that they had made it to land.

P. 228. Two days later, on Thursday, June 14, the double-wrapped bags made of raincoat material was plucked out of water halfway between Alcatraz and Angel Island by the U.S. Corp of Engineer debris boat, Coyote.

I think this is where the story begins to change, from a successful escape attempt to a watery grave for the three. That bag contained precious photographs and as well as contacts of people who might have helped them. They wouldn’t have let go of that unless things were going horrible wrong. Unless…they wanted it to be found so people would assume they were dead.

P. 229. The raft was never found. In fact, no physical evidence, directly linked to the three men, ever surfaced on land or sea again.

There were plenty of sightings of the men of course but it produced no definitive proof. A postcard was mailed from Brazil (I think) saying that they had made it but officials determined that it was a hoax. Like so many times in famous cases, hoaxers love to send items to the police or newspapers. They do nothing but add a little more fuel to the fire.

P. 232. On June 20, BOP Assistant Director Wilkinson, speculated for reporters that the raft may have sunk, and if it did, “I’d know who’d go overboard first.” …This was the origin of the rumors that continue until today, that the Anglins killed Morris and escaped without him.

Who knows for sure, it’s entirely possible that if a raft was sinking one might try to lighten the load by forcing a man off. Hopefully they all were wearing their life-vests but if they weren’t they might not had enough time to put them on. Depending on how quickly the raft sank as well, they might not have had time to try and gang up on Morris. Fighting would only have made the situation worse.

P. 233. More than a month after the attempt, On July 17, 1962, a Norwegian ship named the S.S. Norefjell,…about twenty miles west-northwest beyond the Golden Gate Bridge…saw a body floating in the ocean.

Interesting. The body could have been one of the three that escaped. It also could have been one of the many suicides that jump for the Golden Gate Bridge every year. We won’t ever know because the S.S. Norefjell did not attempt to reclaim the body. If they had it could have ended the mystery right there. Instead they left the body floating and reported it days later. The body would have been unrecognizable anyway but with the proper forensic equipment they could have deduces who it belonged to.

Throughout the rest of the sixties, sightings were reported all over the globe. Just like with Elvis’s death, people saw them everywhere. Not in any hugh numbers like Elvis but similar.

P. 234. In 1979, Clint Eastwood’s “Escape From Alcatraz” was released.

My next post will feature a review of the film and detail the inaccuracies between what’s on screen and what really happened.

P. 235. The fact that no bodies were ever retrieved from San Francisco Bay is not significant.

Jolene tells that during 1960 and 1961 there were around forty-seven suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge.

P. 235. Five hit land and their bodies were recovered. Of the other forty-two, seventeen were recovered and twenty-five were not.

Let me repeat that to make sure it syncs in,an amazing twenty-five out of forty-seven bodies were unable to be found.

P. 235. On June 11, 1962, the same day the three Alcatraz cons went missing, witnesses observed thirty-three year old Seymour Webb jump form the Golden Gate Bridge. In their search for Morris and the Anglins, the coast guard also never found Webb.

P. 235. The fact that no evidence was found on land, is more significant.

I would think that if they did make it to shore, they would be extremely cold and hungry. Yet there were no reports of any stolen cars or break-ins immediately following their escape. Those types of actions would leave a perfect trail for the police to follow. The simple fact is that they had no money and no resources. If they did make it, how could they have just disappeared?

P. 238. In other words, Morris and the Anglins entered the bay at exactly the worst moment of that twenty-four hour period, when the biggest volume of water was going out to the ocean at the fastest velocity…

Jolene makes the point that these guys pushed off in their raft when the currents would have been at the harshest of the day. Paddling to Angel Island or to the mainland would already have been exhausting, now add in faster currents just below them.  One can theorize that if they were paddling towards Angel Island and the currents heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge in the opposite direction, they could have paddle for hours and not made any actual progress. It would have been better to use the currents to let it take you to just below the Golden Gate Bridge. On one of the episodes of the “Mythbusters”, this is exactly what the hosts did. They quickly came to the conclusion that trying for Angel Island, although closer, was just too difficult a job to reach. So they used the currents to do half the work for them. They proved that paddling in a handmade raft carrying three people across the bay was possible but only if they used the currents. Allen West has always stated that Angel Island was the intended target, if that’s the case then that may explain why the three were lost and never seen again.

P. 239. Based on the evidence, the most likely scenario goes something like this: somewhere, maybe even close to the island, the raft begins to sink. It is unknown if the three men had their shoes on, but if they did, their shoes would have immediately filled with water and pulled them down. It’s unknown if they were wearing their navy pier coats, but if they were, the woolen jackets would have quickly become lead weights. It’s also unknown if they were forced to quickly put on their life jackets, fumbling to inflate them while thrashing around in extremely cold water, all while drifting in an direction that lead them to the ocean.

It is known that once they were bobbing around in water that was between forty-eight and fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit, that they could last only one to two hours before losing consciousness. The cold would have an immediate numbing effect. Interestingly, thrashing around trying to build up body heat, a natural inclination, would have had the opposite effect of expending heat.

In the immediate aftermath of the escape it was announced that Alcatraz would close. It was simply too costly to operate. With the latest escape attempt it only highlighted the budget cutbacks that were being forced upon them. It all resulted in fewer guards, fewer shifts and somewhat relaxed rules.

P. 244. No one was faulted or punished for allowing blankets to be hung around the top of the block for almost six weeks.  Since the blankets were never revealed in official reports, no one could be blamed.

I guess it was hard to single any one individual since they were all an accomplices in this. They simply saw the blankets hanging their and ignored them. Embarrassing for sure but they should not have been left out of the official report. After all they were a key ingredient to the escape.

Glenn May died under mysterious circumstances. Some of the evidence in the escape pointed directly at him, electric drill for example. West never ratted him out but if must have been obvious to the guards. Many think that prison guards took out their embarrassment on poor Glenn May. Nothing could really be proofed one one way or another though. Basically Glenn died a year later, due to anorexia nervosa, at the age of forty-four. I have no idea how common it is for a forty year old man to suddenly develop anorexia but apparently that was the case. Did the guards have anything to do with that? Seems like an unusual form of torture if that was the case but I doubt the guards had anything to do with it. They were being sent packing along with the inmates with the closing of the prison. At most they could have made Glenn feel guilty by constantly arousing suspicion on him.

P. 250. Few believed that West couldn’t get out of his cell that night.

Most officials and even the warden branded him a coward. They reckoned that he simply chickened out. That underneath all that posturing was a scared individual. Those feelings about West continued to be passed down throughout the years. So nearly fifteen years later, when Hollywood had a desire to tell the story of escape they turned West into a joke. They renamed his character Charlie Butts and portrayed him as a idiot who was just a follower.

Here we are, thirty-two years after that film, “Escape From Alcatraz” had come out. Nearly forty-nine years after the escape attempt itself. With new books like Jolene’s, “Breaking the Rock”, shows like “Mythbusters” and “The Real Story”, the story of these four men continues to live on. It is rumored that J.J. (mystery box) Abrams is even currently developing a prime time tv show about these men who escaped. I can not wait for that.

As the years roll on and more and more information about the escape attempt becomes more well known, I believe Allen West may have the last laugh. He helped plan and execute it, yet he was the only one to survive. He had bragging rights for the rest of his life. And it was a brilliant plan.

P. 251. He had broken the rock.


 

Written by Mr. Lake

March 23, 2011 at 8:05 am

Countdown

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

Part 6 – Countdown

The final two days before Frank Morris, John Anglin & Clarence Anglin escape from Alcatraz, June 10 & June 11.

P. 193. Although they may not have realized it, they were now doing the one great thing for which they would always be remembered.

It was the evening of June 10, after lights out. Morris and both the Anglins were above B block. Morris was working on the final rivet while the Anglin’s were working on the raft.

P. 194. Something wasn’t right….

Morris finally broke through the last rivet and stopped to check on the progress of the raft. His line of thinking was that since there were four people, the raft should be more of a rectangle, in order to balance out the raft. What he saw was a raft that was a triangle.

P. 195. Cons on the B third tier were awakened by the furious on-rush of angered whispering.

Clarence had changed the design of the raft and hadn’t bothered to tell Morris or West. Morris was very clearly upset.

P. 195. This is my life your screwin’ with…

Clarence and Morris came close to blows when Clarence accidentally kicked a wrench. West, who was three floors below, heard this and quickly jumped up and flushed his toilet.  They didn’t have the time to start over on another raft. The idea of ditching one of the men surely must have entered their minds.

P. 197. Six tiny screws. That was all that remained between him and freedom.

Morris calmed himself down and climbed through the vent and made his way to the top. Morris had handmade a periscope using mirrors to check the roof for guards. The top of the vent was a cakewalk. Six screws that he could unscrew with his fingers were all that remained. Tomorrow would be the day…

P. 208. West had waited until this moment to try and break open the rest of his wall.

West had actually broken through his wall much earlier but he was too aggressive with it. He was sure the guards would notice so he actually built his hole back up a little with cement. Weeks went by without West working on it. He was preparing life jackets and such in his cell but he forgot to continue to work on his hole. Either that or he figured he could get through it the night of the escape fairly easy. Whatever the real reason was, it cost him his chance to escape.

P. 210. It sounded like a person hitting the end of an empty fifty gallon oil drum…

It was the evening of June 11, Morris and the Anglins had already set up their cells with the fake masks and entered the vent. West was frantically working on his hole in the cell. He was making no progress. When exactly the group decided to abandon West no one knows for sure but the reality was that if you can’t pull your own weight you were dead weight. Morris quickly unscrewed the top of the vent and lifted it off onto the roof. It was a loud heavy bang. Cons and guards both heard this, even poor West.

Morris and the Anglins quickly climbed out of the vent and stood up looking out at the stars. They had made it. A sense of triumphant joy must have washed over them. If one of the guard towers were actually manned then a simple radio call from one of the guards who reported the noise could have quickly ended this escape attempt. Budget cuts and lack of man power was the secret ingredient to making this successful.

P. 212. He [Morris] grabbed the bakery exhaust pipe, swung himself over and began shimmying down the side of the building.

A forty-five foot long, twelve inch thick, pipe which was held up by only two bolts. I guess if one goes this far, you’ve got to take another leap of faith. All in all this was probably the least scary thing they had to do. I would rather do this a hundred times than try to paddle to Angel Island.

P. 215. By 11:00 pm., Morris and the Anglins were probably down at the shoreline, out of breath, sucking in the smell of seaweed and salt water.

It’s not known how big the raft was, nor how well it survived being flown over a barbed wire and down the hills, nor how many inches in diameter the air baffles were, nor how tightly sealed the seams were. It’s unknown how long it took to inflate it, using a little seven-by-seven inch musical instrument made into a bellows. …. It’s not known if the Anglins ganged up on Morris and pushed him out of the raft.


P. 217. The bastards had left him behind.

Sometime around 1:44 am. West had finally made it through his hole in his cell. He quickly climbed up above B block and made his way up through the vent to the roof. They did leave him a life jacket but West could see no traces of them. Dejected, West slowly made his way back down through the vent and down back into his cell. Had to be the longest night of West’s life.

 

Written by Mr. Lake

March 19, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Under Cover

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

Under Cover

Before I just jump in I’d like to begin by setting up this chapter. Chapter 5 is titled ‘Under Cover’ which is a direct reference to West, Morris and the Anglin Brothers working over B Block under blankets put up by West. Remember that West was allowed to hang them up due to the amount of painting and cleaning he had to do up above B block. The guys could work practically in plain sight but they couldn’t make any noise or they risk being busted. They had to limit their activities to the so called ‘music hour’ where inmates were allowed to take out their instruments and play. During this time the noise level was so high they could work and actually run a drill. Damn.

P. 163. West began sneaking up supplies during the day: painting tarps, gloves, a long pole, several types of glue, wooden planks and a long white cord.

It still is remarkable that these guys were able to maneuver throughout Alcatraz, basically getting all the tools and supplies they needed and all under the guards noses. West kept his cool though, constantly moving the gang forward.

P. 166. He [John Anglin] had managed to wear several raincoats from the clothing room without officers realizing it.

I wonder how many raincoats it takes before it looks suspicious? Meanwhile Morris had finally finished his hole in his cell and began climbing the pole to B Block. Morris fastened a long cord (that West had brought up previously) and dangled it behind John Anglin’s cell. This allowed them to bring stuff up much quicker but served also as a alert as well. John or Clarence would need to give the cord just a tug to get West or Morris’s attention. Signal for them be quite, that perhaps a guard was coming.

The problem they kept encountering was of time, they had to be quick. Music hour was over so quick that by the time they climbed atop B block and removed all of the equipment that very little work was actually done on removing the bars in front of the vent, that and it was dark, they could hardly see anything at all.

P. 168 The Next day Morris got someone to put together a battery-operated light.

 

 

 

Someone took a small box with a hole big enough to squeeze a tiny light bulb into and used a pen light battery held in place with paper and plaster. Presto instant portable light for Morris to use. Morris also created a bar spreading which he hoped to use on the  vent.

The best one’s are made of short hollow tubes which are threaded inside both ends. Then you find a couple of bolts, and nuts, and screw them deep inside the tube. Turn the nuts, and the bolts extend, pushing everything out of the way.

A slow and painful process but one that worked. Morris was able to bend the bars far enough that he was able to fit through them in only three days.

P. 176. Dead silence hit the cell house.

After Morris had gotten though the first set of bars with the vent, his next obstacle was the iron bracket covering the vent which lead to the roof. This iron bracket was different from the previous bars. These were riveted and the bar spreader would not work. Morris decided that maybe attacking with a screwdriver against the connecting legs of the iron bracket would be effecting. Morris must have been in the zone working when he suddenly realized that everything had gotten quite. He had worked passed music hour. He had made a little progress on the rivet, able to free up a tiny space between it and the wall when he made a a monumental mistake. Morris dropped the screwdriver, which proceeded to crash in a vent blower and tumble three stories before finally hitting the floor. Opps!

West once again came to the rescue. He started making a commotion in his cell and other inmates joined in. Morris had just dodged it big time.

P. 177. Broadway cons in B-137, 139, 141, 143, 145, 147, 149, 151 and 153 knew exactly what Morris and Clarence were doing every night.

So at least nine cons knew what was going on but West and Morris had lots of help. So maybe as many as twenty knew what was really going on. For a plan this elaborate to remain quite was in itself another stroke of luck. All it would take is one guy to open his mouth and boom, it’s game over. Speaking of which….

P. 178. ”one sick individual,”… “one of the most disturbed men on Alcatraz”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sherman Calloway, AZ 1219, was in Alcatraz for kidnapping a seventy year old man while in a drunken haze. His prison files notes that he was a hyperactive and fussy homosexual. Calloway was all alone, ostracized by fellow inmates due to his reputation as an informant. He stayed in his cell, fearing to go out into the yard for what might happen to him. Because of this his skin was ice-white. Gave people the creeps. Calloway approached a guard and told him, “something was going on over on B.” The guard said he would look into it.

P. 180. In the middle of the melee, West smuggled out the motor.

 

 

 

You might remember from a previous post a fellow by the name of Glenn May, he was Mr. Fix-It at Alcatraz when it came to electronics. One day a guard had trouble with his vacuum cleaner and asked May to look at it for him. May did and took apart the vacuum, noticing that there were two motors, one for the suction and one for the brush. Glenn told West about this and as luck would have it, was there a few days later when a melee broke out among several inmates. In all the distraction, West took one of the motors from the vacuum and planned to use it as a drill to work on those rivets, hoping that this would speed up their process. After-all they couldn’t just leave those blankets above B block forever. Sooner or later, they would need to come down.

P. 182. They began discussing remaining up top longer.

Time was running out. West was having trouble stalling with his painting above B block, they needed to move faster. The Anglin brothers, John and Clarence both wanted to stay up top throughout the night and continue working. Morris didn’t think it was a good idea but eventually they compromised in that John and Morris would go up. John would work o the raft while Morris would continued to work on those rivets. Those dummy masks would now have to pass the test.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next chapter…countdown.

Written by Mr. Lake

March 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm

April Fools

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

April Fools

P. 129. On Sunday, April 1, Morris ordered a concertina for twenty-eight dollars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Morris apparently had been playing on one loaned by the prison and now he wanted one of his own.  I had to google to find out what an concertina actually was, basically it was like an accordion. The concertina was a popular instrument until the twenties when Jazz changed the music landscape.  But Frank had other things in mind than playing music with it. He would dismantle the keys on the concertina and adapt it to be used to inflate their raft made out of raincoats, kind of like a homemade hand pump. It would suck in air and rapidly expel it into the raft and it would be very quiet. Much better than trying to air up the raft on your own, I imagine that if one tried they would be exhausted by the effort plus it would have taken a long time. This was a solution to a problem that put them in a whole other league of prison escapees.

P. 134. Shakin’ down the whole place, the officer replied, top to bottom.

Throughout the month of April, the officers began doing random shakedowns. This terrified West and Morris. By now they had completely removed their vent and made a fake one to cover up the hole. They had numerous saw blades, paint brushes, and glues in their cells just waiting to be discovered. This time must have been the most terrifying time for them, the waiting to get caught. Hoping that everything would just blow over. Praying that one of your co-conspirators don’t get caught as well and spill the whole thing. Morris had hidden his file near his toilet and a piece of metal under his mattress. West had an ice pick buried deep into his mattress. Clarence had a blade attached to his writing stand. John had multiple digging tools, who knows where he hid those?

It is kind of interesting to hear about the stuff the officers did find in other cells searched,  fake guns made out of soap or wood, paper clips that had been made into a key, powder to blow things up with. West, Morris and the Anglin Brothers cells were never searched. April fools from the guards indeed.

P. 140 …investigators would find a small plastic bottle of a “Rem-Weld” band book repair glue that the men had left behind.

This type of glue is a water soluble glue and many believed that they used it their raft. However, West and Morris weren’t going to all this planning only to make a stupid mistake like that. Their plan was to smuggle the raincoats to the glove shop where they used machines to stitch the coats together. Then they applied a rubber adhesive that DID NOT dissolve in water. I’m not sure what the rem-weld was actually used for in their escape (if at all), maybe it was just a red herring left behind by them to make it look like they didn’t know what they were doing? And in case you were curious the glove shop was a small factory on Alcatraz where the prisoners worked making lifejackets.

P. 142. …how could West and the others hide the vest in their cells without being discovered? The answer is simple: the vests were never hidden in their cells.

When I first heard this story and the intricate details of the escape plan I always assumed that they did store all the materials in their cells with them. Jolene was right when she said it would have been useless. They would have been caught almost immediately. What they did do was smuggle the materials into a industrial facility where they worked on the items. When done they moved them to another area. If something odd was found, the cons could just plead ignorant as nobody in-particular would be implicated.

P. 146. By Wednesday, April 25, John had completed his ten-by-fifteen inch hole and had broken through his wall.

West urged Morris to hurry up (his hole) as he did not want John up above the cells alone. I think he feared that John would be too loud or make some mistake. Now that they were beginning to get out of their cells at night now a new problem was presented. What if a guard walk by the cell when one of them was out? West had a solution. They were going to make fake masks, ones that at a glance might convince the guards that they were just sleeping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

P. 156. “I thought you ordered that many up. So I put ‘em up.”

West had been painting above B Block and would continually knock dust and small debris off and down to the pristine floors of Alcatraz. In another stunning move of manipulation, West convinced one of the Officers that if he was allowed to hang up some blankets then he could continue his painting and then wouldn’t get any dust scattered over the floors. John Anglin happened to work in the clothing room so he sent plenty of blankets and West hung everyone of them up, completely concealing their target ceiling vent. It’s clear to me that without West constantly making these types of moves this plan was dead in the water. Without West their was no plan. The only place to assemble a raft the size they wanted was above B block, hidden from view by the blankets.

Written by Mr. Lake

March 6, 2011 at 11:58 am

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.

 

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