Inside Alcatraz: How 3 Inmates Broke Out Of ‘The Rock’ — A Prison Once Considered Inescapable
A convicted armed robber and bank-robbing brothers spent months planning their daring flight to freedom.
U.S. Marshals Service
On the morning of June 12, 1962, staff at Alcatraz, a maximum-security federal prison located on an island one and a half miles off downtown San Francisco, discovered three inmates missing: convicted armed robber Frank Morris and bank-robbing brothers John Anglin and Clarence Anglin.
In the escapee’s beds laid papier mâché heads covered with flesh-colored paint and real human hair. Guards locked down Alcatraz, a prison once believed to be inescapable, and launched a manhunt for the missing men.
The three prisoners were never located, and debate rages to this day whether the trio drowned in the strong currents and frigid waters in San Francisco Bay or made it to safety.
According to prison officials, Morris and the Anglin brothers spent months planning and executing the daring breakout. The three used spoons and other utensils to slowly and methodically chip away at an 8-inch grill in their cell walls. The prisoners eventually enlarged the openings — camouflaged with fake papier mâché bars when they weren’t chiseling — and they were able to fit through.
On the evening of June 11, the men shimmied out of their cells through the vents. They used pipes to scale the wall of the interior utility corridor behind the cellblock. After going through a ventilator pipe that led to the prison’s roof, the men slid down a drain pipe, cut and scaled barbed wire fences and reached the island’s shore. Officials believe the men launched a raft into the cold waters that they had constructed by gluing together dozens of rubberized raincoats.
According to Britannica, a fourth conspirator, Allen West, was unable to escape with Morris and the Anglins because he couldn’t get out of his cell fast enough. He later told investigators how guards had assigned him to paint the prison’s rooftop but left him unattended, allowing him to help secretly construct the raft.
The three escapees were never found — dead or alive — and the case continues to intrigue both law enforcement officials and armchair detectives more than 60 years later.
“We just don't give up looking for anybody,” now-retired U.S. Marshals Service Supervising Deputy Mike Dyke told CBS News in 2011. “I think probably the brothers lived... but there's a chance that all three of them could have lived and they just split up once they left. There's no body recovered.”
According to Dyke, FBI documents show that “there was possibly a raft recovered on Angel Island ... the day after the escape — and one of them mentioned footprints leading away from the raft.”
Investigators “came across an oar, a paddle...right off the coast, about 50 yards from the shore of Angel Island,” he continued. “They determined the oar was made on Alcatraz. There was one oar left behind and this one was an exact match.”
Dyke said there was a “chance” the escaped inmates survived, but law enforcement officials can't definitely rule one way or the other if they lived or died while fleeing. “That's why we still have the warrants for them,” Dyke noted.
If they’re still living, Morris and the Anglin brothers would all be in their 90s as of 2023.
After nearly 30 years in operation, Alcatraz closed in March 1963. The island is now a tourist attraction.