“ALCATRAZ: ITS INFAMOUS INMATES AND FAILED ESCAPES” #WeirdDarkness
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Listen to ““ALCATRAZ: ITS INFAMOUS INMATES AND FAILED ESCAPES” #WeirdDarkness” on Spreaker.
IN THIS EPISODE: We’ll find out what life was like as an inmate of Alcatraz. We’ll look at the numerous escape attempts that failed and where the escapees went wrong. And we’ll learn about a few other prisons that are even more terrifying than Alcatraz – all located in the United States.
SOURCES AND ESSENTIAL WEB LINKS…
“Being An Alcatraz Inmate” by Melissa Sartore for Ranker.com’s Weird History: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/535vhu7n
“The Impossibility of Escaping Alcatraz” by Melissa Sartore for Ranker.com’s Weird History:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/bdfj2ypt
“More Terrifying Than Alcatraz” by Michelle Nati for Ranker.com’s Unspeakable Times:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/3jwhh268
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The federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, located off the coast of San Francisco, CA, opened in 1934. Until it closed nearly three decades later, Alcatraz was reserved for some of the most ruthless criminals. Life at Alcatraz was not just about confinement and punishment but discipline and routine. Not everything about Alcatraz was considered undesirable; in fact, some convicts even requested doing time at “The Rock.” Alcatraz’s most famous inhabitants included Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud – the so-called “Birdman of Alcatraz” – all men who endured tough conditions, rigorous discipline, and extreme isolation. To be an inmate in Alcatraz meant your days were regimented, your cell was tidy, and you had very few opportunities to interact with others, much less the outside world. By the time the prison closed in 1963, conditions had improved a bit, but Alcatraz never lost its reputation as the strictest prison ever operated in the United States.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
We’ll find out what life was like as an inmate of Alcatraz. (Being An Alcatraz Inmate)
We’ll look at the numerous escape attempts that failed and where the escapees went wrong. (The Impossibility of Escaping Alcatraz)
And we’ll learn about a few other prisons that are even more terrifying than Alcatraz – all located in the United States. (More Terrifying Than Alcatraz)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, enter contests, to connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: BEING AN ALCATRAZ INMATE=====
Inmates at Alcatraz, which had a capacity of roughly 330 men, had individual cells. This allowed for safety and privacy – inasmuch as one could have them in prison – and some federal prisoners actually requested incarceration at Alcatraz as a result. William “Willie” Radkay, who occupied a cell next to friend and colleague George “Machine Gun” Kelly at Alcatraz, saw having single cells as an advantage, one that prevented unwanted advances.
Cells were divided into blocks, with blocks B and C housing 336 cells that measured 5 feet by 9 feet. Cell block D was reserved for inmates in solitary confinement; while those cells were a bit bigger, prisoners spent 24 hours a day there. The only times cell block D inmates left their cells were for weekly visits to the recreation yard. Cell block A, the most broken-down part of the facility, was never used to house inmates for any significant length of time.
Landing in solitary confinement resulted from breaking rules and could last anywhere from a few days to multiple weeks. According to former inmate Jim Quillen, “A day in the hole was like an eternity.”
Rights and privileges at Alcatraz were very different things. All prisoners had four rights: clothing, food, shelter, and medical care. Anything beyond that had to be earned.
When a prisoner arrived at Alcatraz, he was sent to the clothing room. Once there, he was stripped of what he was wearing and sent to the showers, then received a standard-issue, stamped uniform. While in the clothing room, prisoners also underwent a cursory medical exam and were strip searched.
Prisoners got three meals a day, a roof over their heads, and visited the hospital when needed. Al Capone, for example, spent time in the hospital for symptoms related to syphilis. In addition to first aid and other medical care, the hospital at Alcatraz provided dental and psychiatric services. Until the 1950s, there was a physician-in-residence at Alcatraz, but budget cuts led to the use of contracted doctors during the final years the prison was open.
The hospital at Alcatraz also served as a permanent home to some prisoners. The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, spent 11 of his 17 years at Alcatraz in the hospital. This was, in part, because he had a kidney condition, but he was also dangerous and needed to be kept away from other prisoners.
The library at Alcatraz was located in D-Block and housed roughly 10,000 books. Access to the library was something prisoners earned and, as a result, the privilege could be taken away at any time.
Getting a book didn’t involve visiting the library, however. Each morning, prisoners with library privileges filled out a card requesting items. According to former inmate Floyd Harrell, “Every prisoner had a catalog listing of books that were supposed to be in the library.” Books, magazines, and the like were delivered to the prisoner’s cell. All crime-related content was removed ahead of time.
Because reading was one of the few escapes afforded to prisoners, some took full advantage of what the library had to offer. Robert Stroud studied law and reportedly learned several languages, while other inmates took correspondence classes offered through the University of California, Berkeley.
In addition to the library, prisoners also earned access to recreational activities like chess or softball, visits with family members, and work duty. During the 1950s, prisoners could listen to the radio via headsets and watch movies in the prison auditorium.
Just like the library, any of these privileges could be taken away if an inmate didn’t follow the rules.
The Alcatraz band, called the Rock Islanders, was made up of inmates who had earned the privilege to play. There were numerous Rock Islanders over time – including Al Capone, who begged to join and eventually earned a spot. According to a letter Capone wrote to his sonwhile serving time at Alcatraz, he “learned a Tenor Guitar and then a Tenor Banjo, and now the Mandola,” and could play more than 500 songs.
The band itself was, in the words of former guard George Gregory, “only a cut above a fourth- or fifth-grade band, but it did wonders for their self-esteem.” The band played on holidays in the dining hall with Sunday and special-event performances as well.
Prisoners could buy musical instruments but, in accordance with the regulations issued in 1956, could only practice “between the hours of 5:30 pm and 7 pm. No singing or whistling accompaniments will be tolerated. Any instrument which is played in an unauthorized place, manner, or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report.” Guitar strings were regulated and “an old set of strings” had to “be turned in to the cellhouse officer to draw a new set.”
The extremely small cells at Alcatraz featured a cot, a sink, and a toilet – with very little else.
When Jim Quillen arrived at Alcatraz in 1942, he recalled getting to his cell where he saw, “a steel bed, a straw mattress, and a dirty, lumpy pillow.” He also “noticed the cell contained a toilet with no seat… [and] at the end of the bed, next to the toilet, was a small washbasin with only one tap. Cold water!”
In additional to a shelf above the sink and a small table that could be folded down from the wall, Quillen and his fellow inmates had no creature comforts. Over time, inmates might accumulate personal items. Alcatraz didn’t have a commissary and prisoners couldn’t have items sent from the outside, but prison regulations during the 1950s allowed prisoners to “purchase certain items such as textbooks, correspondence courses, musical instruments, or magazine subscriptions.”
George Gregory, a guard at Alcatraz for a time, remembered unsuccessfully trying to get an inmate, Conlin, to clean up his cluttered cell. In the end, Gregory took a box into Conlin’s cell and removed “mostly junk,” including “a pillowcase stuffed with socks” and “a pair of ladies’ panties” the prisoner had stolen from the laundry. The underwear, apparently, belonged to the warden’s wife.
The first warden at Alcatraz, James A. Johnston, instituted a code of silence at the prison. Prisoners were only allowed to speak at meals or during recreation time. Johnston also allocated each prisoner three packs of cigarettes each week, prompting at least one observer to note that smoking was more common than talking.
To get around the rule, inmates resorted to using the pipes between cells to communicate. The rule only lasted until 1937 because it was generally considered cruel and too difficult to enforce.
Silence remained the norm in solitary confinement, however. Jim Quillen described “total silence and darkness” as his “constant companions for twenty-four hours of each” of the 19 days he spent in “the hole.”
As food was one of the rights afforded to prisoners at Alcatraz, inmates ate three meals a day. They were served breakfast at 6:45 am, with lunch at 11:40 am and dinner at 4:25 pm.
The food at Alcatraz was generally regarded as being some of the best served within the federal prison system. Some who worked in the kitchen had backgrounds in cooking and took pride in what they presented to their fellow convicts. Former inmate Bryan Conway recalled in 1938, “Food at Alcatraz is much better than usual prison fare. For dinner, there is meat, beans, coffee, bread, celery; for supper, chili, tomatoes, and apples, with hot tea.”
According to a menu from 1946, inmates ate stewed fruit, cereal, milk, bread, and coffee for breakfast. Lunch, the biggest meal of the day, included soup and meat – everything from roasted pork shoulder to beef pot pie – with vegetables, bread, and tea. Some additional lunch items could include apple pie, cole slaw, and corn on the cob. There was mustard, ketchup, and gravy at the ready as well.
Dinner was similar in presentation, with some lunch items reappearing at the evening meal. Prisoners ate soup, vegetables, and bread with fruit, cake, or Jell-O as dessert. Bread and coffee were staples at dinner, too.
Work at Alcatraz was a welcome way to pass the time. Prisoners not in solitary confinement could work a variety of jobs in the laundry, kitchen, burning trash, tending the docks, or similar tasks. Inmates marched to their jobs after breakfast each morning, in the process earning in the range of 5-12 cents an hour.
Industry jobs like the laundry and woodworking plant allowed prisoners to deduct two days from their sentences for each month worked during the first year. During the second through fourth years, it was four days; the fifth year and all subsequent years earned inmates five days per month.
Prisoners reported to their respective workplaces at 7:20 am and were actively working within 10 minutes. They had one rest period during the morning but worked until lunch, after which they went back to work. A brief break during the afternoon was the only reprieve until dinner. Once prisoners ate their evening meal, they returned to their cells until the next morning.
Inmates didn’t work on the weekends or holidays. Those with privileges took part in recreation time, often outside. One former inmate, Bill Baker, remembered planting a tree at Alcatraz in the recreation yard. One of the guards watched him nurture the tree and “came over and said ‘What are you watering… these weeds for? They don’t need watering.'” Baker replied, “Oh, just something to do, you know.” His tree was gone the next day.
In an account of his time at Alcatraz, prisoner Bryan Conway noted that a “bell was the signal for the count of prisoners – a really serious business which is done every 30 minutes.” Later records indicate counts didn’t take place quite so often, but that there were 13 counts each day.
Prisoners were counted first thing in the morning, lining up outside their cells before marching to the mess hall for breakfast. After eating, they again lined up to go to work, where they were counted again. After their morning break, prisoners were subjected to a count, an activity that was repeated before they marched to lunch as well.
After lunch, inmates briefly returned to their cells for a formal noon headcount before work, where they were counted again. Another count after their mid-afternoon break preceded the count inmates underwent before dinner. After they ate, prisoners went back to their cells for the night, but not before being counted one more time.
While prisoners spent their evenings reading or doing whatever they could to pass the time until lights-out at 9:30 pm, they were counted two more times. Overnight, as prisoners slept, guards made rounds and took an additional two headcounts.
Foremen also took an additional six counts throughout the day. Saturday, Sundays, and holidays ran on different schedules, but prisoners’ total number counts were comparable.
When Bryan Conway got to Alcatraz in 1938, he was introducted to the “snitch box,” a metal detector used to search prisoners. Conway remembered: “One day the snitch box sounded an alarm on every man who came from the laundry. The guards jerked each man out of line, searched him, and found nothing. It took hours to locate the trouble, which was merely that the machine was so finely adjusted it was detecting the metal eyelets in the men’s shoes. A few days later it was silent when two men passed through with knives in their pockets. But the guards don’t trust the “electric eye”; they search every 12th man, whether the alarm has sounded or not.”
The “snitch box” – built by the Teletouch Corporation – was one of three metal detectors placed at Alcatraz. Prisoners and visitors had to pass through them, which at one point caused Al Capone’s mother great embarrassment. When she set it off with her corset during a visit, Teresina Capone had to “strip down to her corset, revealing the metal stays that had tripped the metal detector.”
Because so much of life at Alcatraz was an earned privilege and not a right, keeping in contact with anyone on the outside was subject to the judgment of prison authorities. Prisoners in solitary confinement were denied all correspondence and outside contact. Other prisoners could send and receive letters, although the amount of contact they had was regulated and monitored.
Bryan Conway was “permitted to write only one letter of not more than two pages each week.” Such correspondences “had to be to a blood relative; no inmate could write to his sweetheart.”
On Mother’s Day, prisoners could send an additional note to their mothers, but all correspondence had to be approved by prison officials. Incoming letters were never sent directly to prisoners; instead they received copies or typed versions of handwritten notes.
Just like everything else, visitation was also heavily regulated. Once prisoners earned visitation time, their prospective visitor had to request permission. Prisoners got one visitor each month for 90 minutes, but it had to be a blood relative or wife. The two parties talked to each other on phones while looking at each other through glass, but the conversations were monitored. If either person began to talk about prison or other inmates, the visit came to an end.
According to inmate Brian Conway, the monotony and strict discipline at Alcatraz drove 14 of 317 prisoners “violently insane” during his “last year on the Rock.” He recalled that many more were going “stir crazy.” To compound the isolation and restlessness, Conway indicated guards would practice shooting at night, something that deprived prisoners of sleep and caused a great deal of anxiety. Conway described one particularly horrific instance of madness among inmates: “A convict working on the dock detail suddenly picked up an ax, laid his left hand on the block, and chopped off every finger. Then he laid his right hand on the block and begged the guard to cut it off, laughing like a demon all the while.”
At times, doctors thought prisoners were faking their mental struggles. After prisoner Joe Bowers got to the prison in 1934, he refused to work and was put into solitary confinement. He attacked guards twice, “striking them blindly with his fists,” and was diagnosed as epileptic. A few months later, a psychiatrist assessed him, admitting there was cause to believe Bowers was “truly psychotic,” but cautioned that he had “something to gain if he can induce us to believe that he is insane.” After it was agreed that Bowers was faking, he was sent back to his cell, where he tried to take his own life several times. Bowers passed in 1936 while trying to escape from Alcatraz.
In 1935, former inmate Verrill Rapp told reporters that prisoners were going insane because of the treatment at Alcatraz. When Henri Young was tried for slaying a fellow inmate at Alcatraz in 1941, his lawyers used the harsh treatment at the prison as part of his defense.
All told, there were five men who took their lives at Alcatraz and eight slayings committed by inmates during the 29 years the prison functioned.
There were 14 attempted escapes from Alcatraz, collectively involving 36 prisoners. A total of 1,545 men served time at Alcatraz, so the attempt total isn’t too outrageous; the efforts of the would-be escapees, however, certainly could be. We’ll look at a few of these escape attempts – and how the prisoners went wrong – up next on Weird Darkness.
STORY: THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF ESCAPING ALCATRAZ=====
Alcatraz functioned as a federal penitentiary for almost 30 years, housing some of the most dangerous offenders from 1934 to 1963. Positioned on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was isolated and known for its rigid discipline and harsh conditions. The Rock’s location and reputation made Alcatraz escape attempts especially challenging feats.
Offenders like Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin, some of the best-known Alcatraz escapees , had long histories of evading prison authorities. They weren’t alone. Many of the would-be escapees at Alcatraz were sent to The Rock for that very reason – because they’d managed to escape other federal facilities in the United States. The daring escape by Morris and the Anglin Brothers, three men who were never found, remains a mystery, but thirteen other escape attempts played themselves out to unsuccessful ends.
Some attempted escapes from Alcatraz were acts of desperation, others were much more creative and displayed an audacity beyond measure. Still others were horrific events that led to the ends of innocent men and convicts alike.
Joseph “Dutch” Bowers was sent to Alcatraz for a relatively minor offense – taking less than $17 from a rural store in California. Because there was a post office located inside the establishment, Bowers’ act was a federal one and landed him in a federal facility.
Joe Bowers struggled with life in Alcatraz, seen by the prison psychiatrist on several occasions. In 1935, the doctor decided there was, “a strong temptation to believe that this man is truly psychotic, but one must be on one’s guard, as he has something to gain if he can induce us to believe that he is insane.”
Bowers tried to end his own life in March 1935 and repeatedly harmed himself while incarcerated at Alcatraz. Bowers became the first man to attempt escape on April 27, 1936. As he threw trash into the prison incinerator, his assigned work detail, he made his way to a wire fence and, according to E. F. Chandler, the guard on duty: “[He was] attempting to go over, then I yelled at him several times to get down but he ignored my warning and continued to go over. I fired two shots low and waited a few seconds to see the results. He started won the far side of the fence and I fired one more shot, aiming at his legs. Bowers was hanging on the fence with his hands but his feet were pointing down toward the cement ledge. After my third shot I called the Armory and reported the matter. When I returned from phoning the body dropped into the Bay.”
One observer recalled seeing Bowers make his way to the outside while another thought Bowers was climbing up the outside of the fence. While there were many interpretations of his actions – whether or not he was deranged and the guard overreacted or he was aware of what he was doing – Bowers perished from the harm he sustained during the attempt, a fate ruled “Died While Attempting to Escape.”
Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe both worked in the Model Industries Building at Alcatraz, Cole as a janitor and Roe as a rubber processor.
Cole, 25 years of age, was a convicted kidnapper. He only escaped capital punishment thanks to the pleas by a local women’s organization at his trial. Roe, seven years older than Cole, was at Alcatraz for bank heists. Both men reportedly had attempted escapes from previous federal facilities, namely McAlester Prison in Oklahoma.
Cole and Roe spent the weeks or months leading up to their attempted escape from Alcatraz preparing for the feat. They slowly sawed the bars in one of the windows of the Model Industries Building, reattaching them with putty and paint until the time was right. On December 16, 1937, Cole and Roe made their move.
During the early afternoon, Cole and Roe climbed through the window, dropped to the ground, and headed for the cliffs. It was a foggy day, which they used to their advantage. They broke a lock on one of the gates and jumped into the San Francisco Bay.
Unfortunately, the storm that brought in the fog also caused a fierce current. Cole and Roe tried to swim their way to freedom but were never seen again. Their remains were never found.
In his account of his time at Alcatraz, Warden James A. Johnston noted , “imprisonment in Alcatraz didn’t lessen [the prisoners’] desire to escape; it merely lessens their chances of success.” He was well aware there could be more attempts and, if nothing else, Ted Cole and Ralph Roe in 1937 had demonstrated escape was possible. As a result, Johnston bulked up security at the industrial building where the majority of inmates worked.
Increased security didn’t stop a group of prisoners in the woodworking shop from trying to make their way to freedom. James Limerick, James “Jimmy” Lucas, and Rufus “Whitey” Franklin added aggression to their efforts, going after and killing a guard in the process.
Limerick was at Alcatraz as a habitual offender with a history of disciplinary problems while incarcerated. Lucas was sent to Alcatraz after escaping facilities in Texas and, like Limerick, was known for his defiance. He’d also once tried to eliminate fellow inmate , Al Capone. Franklin was a convicted offender and slayer who, while on a prison furlough to attend his mother’s service, took a truck and pulled off a bank heist.
Collectively, the three men pooled their experiences and staged an escape attempt on May 22, 1938. After grabbing hammers and other heavy objects as weapons, they climbed the roof of the Model Industries Building. When guard Royal C. Cline happened upon them, they hit him over the head with a hammer, fatally wounding him. Another guard, Harold Stites, found them on the roof as they cut through a barbed-wire barrier. Stites fired at both Limerick and Franklin, ending their attempt. Once other guards arrived on the scene, Cline, Limerick, and Franklin were all taken to the prison hospital.
Cline succumbed to the damage done, as did Limerick, but Franklin survived. Lucas was taken to cellblock D – the block where prisoners in solitary confinement were held. Later, Lucas and Franklin were convicted of Cline’s slaying and given life sentences for the offense.
Arthur “Doc” Barker, son of the notorious Ma Barker, attempted an escape from Alcatraz in January 1939 with four other inmates, Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henri Young, and Rufus McCain. All five men were in Alcatraz for bank heists, many with kidnapping charges too.
Barker coordinated the escape, arranging for an inmate-machinist carrying out repairs to leave saw blades and bar spreaders in proximity. Once the tools were moved to D Block – through a hole in the wall in C Block where a toilet was being repaired – Barker “got into a fight and they locked him up in D Block.”
With all five men in D Block for what Warden Johnston called “discipline,” they went to work. Around 3 am on January 13, 1939, Barker, Stamphill, Martin, Young, and McCain left their cells and entered one of the prison’s corridors. Once there, they pried open the bars on an external window and climbed through.
During the morning count, a guard noticed the men were missing and they were soon discovered near the water’s edge. All five men ran – reportedly in various states of undress – but, as guards called for them to stop, Barker kept running.
Barker was hit, as was Stamphill, but Martin, Young, and McCain surrendered. Barker had suffered gunshots to the head and leg while Stamphill was hit in the leg. Barker passed soon after.
On May 21, 1941, four prisoners working in the industrial building at Alcatraz took several guards hostage and attempted to negotiate an escape.
Joe Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle, and Lloyd Barkdoll. Cretzer and Kyle were brothers-in-law who were both serving life sentences for slaying.
Sam Shockley was, reportedly, developmentally disabled and went along with the others while Barkdoll’s intimidating build worked to their advantage as he took the shop foreman hostage to kick off the holdout.
The four men were talked out of an escape by one of their captives, a guard named Paul Madigan. Madigan later became the third warden of Alcatraz, holding the position from 1955 to 1961.
John Bayless, described as a loner, tried to swim for freedom in September 1941. Imprisoned at Alcatraz for bank theft, Bayless walked away from garbage detail and made his way to the water before being discovered by a guard.
He surrendered without incident but his escape attempts were far from over. When he was taken to a San Francisco courtroom the following year, he made a run for it, only to be apprehended by a deputy in the process.
James Boarman, Harold Brest (sometimes spelled “Breast”), Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter, once again, used their work duty in the industries building as their chance to escape. Boarman, Brest, and Hamilton were all at Alcatraz for bank theft and related offenses while Fred Hunter, an associate of Alvin Karpis, was in prison for kidnapping.
On April 14, 1943, the four men, armed with make-shift knives, or shivs, took two guards hostage. Officers Smith and Weinhold were gagged and tied up, after which Boarman, Brest, Hamilton, and Hunter jumped through a window and ran toward shore. They’d stripped themselves of their prison clothing but failed to grab some of the cans they had hoped to use as floatation devices. Also left behind were army uniforms they had taken from the prison laundry.
The men made it to the water, with Hamilton swimming roughly 30 yards into the San Francisco Bay. He sank and disappeared from sight, however, and presumably drowned. As guards fired at the men, yelling at them to surrender, Boarman was struck in the head by a bullet. Brest tried to keep his fellow escapee afloat but Boarman also descended and drowned.
Brest, slightly wounded, was recaptured , as was Hunter.
Boarman’s body was never found . Warden Johnston made an announcement affirming Hamilton’s end after an exhaustive search. The escapee -who had ties to Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and once held the title “Public Enemy #1” – showed up two days later, having hidden in the industries building along the shore. Hamilton reportedly used the same window he’d escaped from to climb back into the building. Once there, he was apprehended by prison guards.
Huron “Ted” Walters, Public Enemy #2 just behind Floyd Hamilton, was another associate of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. He hit several banks throughout Texas during the early 1930s, captured in 1938.
Walters spent years working in the laundry at Alcatraz and arranged for a Saturday work shift on August 7, 1943. While guards focused on the inmates in the prison yard – Saturdays were a time for recreation for most inmates – Walters snuck away from the laundry, climbed one of the fences, and attempted to get to the water.
By the time he got to Bay, guards had noticed his absence. He was apprehended and sent back to the prison.
Some sources indicate this escape attempt took place in 1948 instead of 1943. Either way, Walters didn’t make it off the island.
John Giles spent years literally piecing his exit together; it’s considered one of the most creative escape attempts in the prison’s history. Imprisoned for robbing a post office, Giles arrived at Alcatraz in 1935 or 1936. After he was assigned to work duty on the dock, he stole pieces of army laundry as they came in and out of the facility. Alcatraz outsourced its laundry facilities and, over time, Giles was able to put together a whole uniform.
Giles appeared on the dock in full uniform on July 31, 1945. He boarded the Coxe, a transport ship that made regular stops at the prison. The Coxe, which went back and forth from Angel Island and Fort Mason, didn’t go to San Francisco, as Giles had hoped.
When the Coxe left Alcatraz, a regular headcount revealed one additional crew member on board. By the time the ship arrived at Angel Island, Giles had been found out and he was quickly taken into custody.
Giles’ actions surprised his fellow inmates and guards alike. It also earned him the nickname “Sarge.”
As the only escape attempt that involved repeat-offenders, the “Battle of Alcatraz” that took place in early May 1946 featured six prisoners : Joe Cretzer and Sam Shockley – both men who had tried to escape in 1941 – Bernard Coy, Marvin Hubbard, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes.
Largely orchestrated by Bernard Coy, the men used arms from the weapons gallery located inside the prison. Coy had begun losing weight months earlier to be able to pry the bars open and get in between them to retrieve the arms. The prisoners put their plan underway on May 2, 1946, first distracting and then beating guard William Miller. The convicts looked for keys to the recreation yard – their path to freedom – something Miller had on his person. Miller gave them his keys but, in a preemptive act, had removed the recreation yard key from their grasp, throwing it in one of the prison toilets when they weren’t looking.
The six prisoners tried to get into the recreation yard, to no avail. They soon realized they needed a new plan and began taking more hostages. Nine hostages were gathered up and put into cells, where Cretzer began shooting at them. When Cretzer fired into the cells, he fired at William Miller.
Coy began shooting at the guards gathered outside the cell house as well. Harold Stites, the guard who had hit James Limerick and Rufus Franklin in 1938, fired back at the prisoners but was hit along with other guards. Stites passed of the damage.
In a standoff that lasted for two days, both the Coast Guard and the Marines were called in. Grenades, teargas, and other tactics were used against the armed convicts and Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz, even attempted to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
By May 4, Crezner, Coy, and Hubbard had passed. William Miller also perished in the melee. Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes received harsh punishments for their actions and the slaying of two guards. Hubbard and Thompson were sentenced to capital punishment and sent to the the gas chamber at San Quentin prison. Carnes was sentenced to life in prison .
A convicted slayer, Floyd Wilson was serving a life sentence at Alcatraz, where he worked on the dock. Keeping Alcatraz supplied required constant barges and ships arriving and entering the island and, when Wilson was pumping fresh water into the facility on July 23, 1956, he saw his chance to escape.
At first, guards believed Wilson boarded the water barge, but it was soon discovered that he merely walked away from his duty. Wilson was located many hours after disappearing, hiding in some rocks on the sea wall. He was, reportedly, cold and shivering – and surrendered without issue.
Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson assaulted a guard on September 29, 1958, while working on garbage duty. The guard, Harold Miller, was found tied up by one of his colleagues. Miller’s uniform had been taken and he’d been tied to a tree.
Burgett and Johnson made it to the shore and they both tried to swim to freedom. They’d crafted fins made out of wood and made flotation devices out of plastic bags. Johnson balked at swimming for it after going only a few yards, returned to shore, and was apprehended.
Burgett continued swimming, but the treacherous waters were too much for him. Two weeks after the attempt, his body washed up on the island, “eaten full of holes.”
The escape of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers still puzzles investigators. Portrayed on-screen by Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Frank Morris was in Alcatraz for bank theft, as were John and Charles Anglin. When guards did their morning count on June 12, 1962, all three men were gone.
The plan implemented by Morris and the Anglin brothers is thought to have been the brainchild of fellow prisoner Allen West. From the perspective of former guard Philip Bergan, however, Morris, “was a thinker. Anything connected with this escape that had any brains behind it can be credited to Morris.”
West, Morris, and the Anglins began chipping away at walls around the ventilation ducts in their cells during the early months of 1962. They used spoons from the mess hall, slowly creating cavities large enough to crawl through. The also gathered old raincoats to make a raft and life vests and crafted dummy-like heads – made out of paper, hair from the barbershop, and soap – all in anticipation of their escape.
On June 11, 1962, the men – absent West, who was reportedly unable to get through his vent – crawled out of their cells, scaled the pipes along the wall, and climbed onto the roof of the prison. From there, it’s believed they ran to the other side of the building, dropped to the ground, went to the water, and climbed aboard their raft. None of the men were ever seen again.
The FBI investigated the escape but never found any of the men’s remains or evidence they survived. Officially, all three men were listed as missing.
As the last escape attempt from Alcatraz, John Paul Scott and Darl Parker’s efforts were, again, unsuccessful. Scott, in prison for theft and weapons charges, and Parker, incarcerated for theft and kidnapping, sawed through the bars on a window in the kitchen. They used string covered in kitchen cleaner, a substance so abrasive it allowed them to get through the bars in a few weeks.
On December 16, 1962, Scott and Parker climbed through the kitchen window and went down to the water. They, too, had crafted floatation devices out of items they could find and started to swim. The cold waters were too much for the men and Parker took refuge on a small group of rocks just off the island. Known as “Little Alcatraz,” it was there that guards found him a short time later.
Scott kept swimming, pulled by the current. Scott washed up near the Golden Gate Bridge. He’d survived and was taken to the hospital. After being treated for hypothermia and shock, he was sent back to Alcatraz.
Alcatraz closed three months later.
Living in Alcatraz was obviously a horrible and scary time – but there are many more prisons in the U.S. that are so terrifying, the inmates would gladly accept a transfer to Alcatraz if it were offered… those prisons, when Weird Darkness returns!
STORY: MORE TERRIFYING THAN ALCATRAZ=====
Prisons in the US are commonly affected by the dangers that come with being locked up in an enclosed space for an extended period of time. The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate and with it, the most overcrowded detention centers. Humanization, dignity, and rehabilitation for prisoners are not usually the guards’ focus.
Although any jail can be insufferable, most don’t come close to the conditions in some of the scariest prisons in America. The worst prisons in the United States are labeled as such for any number of reasons. In some places, it’s the prison inmates that make it dangerous; but in others, it may be extreme isolation or subpar conditions. In fact, the US prisons with the worst conditions are often that way because they happen to be some of the most overcrowded prisons in the country.
While the best way to avoid ending up in one of the most violent American prisons is to follow the law, there have been cases where wrongfully convicted inmates are sentenced to some of the most-dangerous correctional centers in the States. Ultimately, these institutions are harrowed by systematic circumstances which contribute to the horrific conditions within their walls.
***United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (Florence, Colorado): ADX has been dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” with good reason – it’s nearly impossible to escape. Many inmates at ADX are confined in their cells for 23 hours a day and have little to no contact with the outside world.
H unit is by far the most restrictive area in the entire facility. This “prison within a prison” is essentially solitary confinement. The cells are 75 square feet of concrete, and inmates in H Unit are under Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs – a designation for people deemed the most serious threat to other prisoners, guards, and the public.
Mail, phone calls, and visits are minimal and can be prohibited if the prison deems it necessary – sometimes for months. Any recreation or exercise is subject to a strip search before and after. Interaction with other prisoners and guards is also limited. As a result of this lengthy isolation, some SAMs inmates have been known to experience psychological breaks, paranoia, extreme anxiety, and uncontrolled rage.
ADX houses some of the most notorious inmates in the country, including Ted Kaczynski, Richard Reid, and Ramzi Yousef. Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent turned Soviet spy, is also interned at the prison.
***TDCJ Polunsky Unit (Livingston, Texas): The conditions at TDCJ’s Polunsky Unit are “designed to break you,” according to a report released by the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law in 2017. Some inmates are confined to their cells 22-24 hours a day and suffer severe psychological disassociation due to the isolation.
Mental and physical healthcare for inmates is limited. Conditions are so bad that inmate Andre Thomas, who showed signs of mental distress before being placed in the unit, ate his own eye.
***Maricopa County Tent City Jail (Phoenix, Arizona): Sheriff Joe Arpaio‘s Tent City Jail closed in 2017 after 24 years of operation and was controversial from the get-go. Arpaio opened the jailas a result of overcrowding in the county’s brick and mortar institutions, and cruelty to inmates was the point. People incarcerated in Maricopa County Tent Jail lived in tents outdoors, sweltering in the Arizona heat and were forced to endure harsh treatment.
Amnesty International and former inmates attempted to close the facility with calls to human rights violations. In 2016, with his political career in jeopardy after a series of lawsuits, Arpaio was defeated at the polls.
Arpaio’s successor, Paul Penzone, dismantled the jail the following year, saying, “This facility is not a crime deterrent, it’s not cost-efficient, and it’s not tough on criminals.”
***Orleans Parish Prison (New Orleans, Louisiana): Prisoners at Orleans Parish Prison are subject to the worst possible conditions and employees are at a loss for how to stop it. In 2017, nearly half the staff quit or were fired. It is not uncommon for inmates to take their own lives.
The prison has been in the same spot in New Orleans for 300 years, and its inmates have suffered under deplorable conditions since the beginning. It was first used to house enslaved people who were caught attempting to escape. Jailers were known to treat these inmates with little humanity.
According to a 2016 Data Center Research report, “Despite comprising only 26 percent of the New Orleans population ages 15-84, African American men were 81 percent of the jail population.”
The report also notes the jail is overcrowded and suffering from “increased exposure to infectious diseases such as HIV, [exposure to negative] psychological effects, and loss of jobs or child custody” extending beyond the walls of the facility and to inmates’ families.
***Sing Sing Correctional Facility (Ossining, New York): New York state’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility has been in operation since 1826 and has been known for its harsh living conditions since the beginning. Sing Sing was the only prison in New York State that had an electric chair, which was employed until the early ’70s. Sing Sing is well-known in popular culture thanks to film and television, but the real prison is noted for its harsh environment.
While conditions have improved since the 19th and 20th centuries, the facility still houses 1,800 inmates, contributing to its danger. The age of Sing Sing is also starting to show – it’s in a state of disrepair, making it one of the most depressing places to serve time.
***Rikers Island (New York, New York): Opened in 1935, Rikers was problematic from the start. It was meant to replace and improve upon the facility before it, but the same problems present in that prison continued to affect Rikers. Substance use, corruption, overcrowding, and deplorable conditions are rampant and very much a part of daily life.
Anyone who has less than a year to serve or is waiting to be transported to a larger location is housed here, as are people who cannot raise bail. Release can take several years, thanks to a backlog in the court system. Hierarchies exist in Rikers, and specific groups openly control certain areas.
***Men’s Jail And Twin Tower Correctional Facility (Los Angeles, California): Jail reforms against using force at the LA County Jail are a “failed social experiment,” according to LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who says harmful action has increased over the years against inmates and guards. In 2011, the FBI found that LA County deputies were using excessive force, particularly on mentally ill inmates, which is why reforms were put in place.
Officials got rid of the steel-toed boots and metal flashlights used for harm. Deputies were re-trained and any force is documented via complaint forms, iPads, and cameras. While human rights watchdogs say conditions have improved, the prison is still a dangerous place. The county plans to eventually replace Men’s Central Jail with a mental health facility.
***Pelican Bay State Prison (Crescent City, California): Pelican Bay is home to over 3,000 inmates. Some Pelican Bay prisoners spend more than 22 hours a day in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) otherwise known as solitary confinement. SHU is designed to keep communication with others in prison and the outside world to a minimum.
Inmates in SHU live in a cell that’s only 7 x 11 feet. They are always accompanied to and from the showers and exercise yards, and phone calls are off limits unless there is an emergency. Inmates in SHU aren’t allowed prison jobs and can’t participate in any programs.
Conditions were so bad that in 2011, some prisoners at Pelican Bay staged a hunger strike (along with others in SHU at other California prisons). The strike garnered attention from the media which led to public support. Inmates won a lawsuit that was supposed to end indefinite solitary confinement, but some California prisons – including Pelican Bay – have been violating the terms of that lawsuit by fabricating information and creating questionable practices that place people back in solitary.
***Julia Tutwiler Prison (Wetumpka, Alabama): At Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama, male guards have been repeatedly accused of sexual assault against the inmates. Some of the women have even become pregnant as a result.
A few correctional officers have been convicted for their actions against the inmates, according to a 2014 report. But despite those convictions, prison officials continue to deny any wrongdoing and often fail to report the guards’ actions.
Governor Kay Ivey announced a plan to change the prison system, but Julia Tutwiler still remains open and plagued with problems as of 2019.
Attica Correctional Facility (Attica, New York): The 1971 Attica uprising was one of the worst prison riots in US history. Almost 1,300 inmates revolted, taking hostages and turning the prison upside down over four days. In doing so, they highlighted the substandard living conditions at Attica, which included misconduct at the hands of correctional officers and inadequate medical care.
As a result of the riot, some reforms were eventually implemented. More showers, access to education, and honoring inmates’ religious freedoms were those that stuck, but others have since been rolled back or were never put forth in the first place. Attica’s inmates still endure staff intimidation and poor healthcare.
***San Quentin State Prison (San Quentin, California): Overpopulation and tensions between underworld families make San Quentin one of the most dangerous prisons in the US. Built in 1852, San Quentin was the only California prison to carry out capital punishment. It has housed many notorious offenders, among them Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, and Sirhan Sirhan.
In 2005, a court-appointed expert report revealed inmates were treated by unequipped medical staff who improperly diagnosed them, gave them the wrong medication, or ignored their conditions until it was too late. The staff also worked in an unhealthy environment and could not find patient files. According to the report: “We found a facility so old, antiquated, dirty, poorly staffed, poorly maintained, with inadequate medical space and equipment, and overcrowded. It is our opinion that it is dangerous to house people there.”
***United States Penitentiary Lewisburg (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania): Built in the 1930s, Lewisburg was more like a school campus than a dangerous prison. It even had a newspaper and farm where inmates could work. In 2009, it became an SMU (Special Management Unit). The most dangerous inmates were placed in solitary confinement with virtually no human contact or exercise and endured extreme heat conditions. Some slept on the concrete floor to keep cool.
In 2018, the most hardened residents were transferred, and the SMU ceased to exist. Overall, the facility has improved, although the buildings still require updating and air conditioning.
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All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise) and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
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Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” — Proverbs 3:5-6
And a final thought… “The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.