Alcatraz Island is home to one of the most famous prisons in history. Alcatraz prison was a maximum-security and supposedly inescapable fortress that operated from 1934 to 1963. It earned the nickname "The Rock" for its alleged impenetrability. The notorious gangster Al Capone was among its most famous inhabitants during its heyday. Alcatraz sat on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, and a combination of the deathly chilly waters and strategically placed guard towers made it seem impossible to escape. In the 29 years it operated as a maximum-security prison, 36 inmates tried to escape 14 different times, and they were all either captured or died trying—almost.
Three men successfully made it out of their cells, but what happened to them afterward is still a mystery. Frank Lee Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin dug their way out of their cells in June 1962 after constructing remarkably lifelike dummies that they put in their beds to fool the night guards. It's amazing what a little ingenuity and a lot of papier-mâché can do for a person on a mission.
In December 1961, Frank Morris, John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Allen West began laying plans to escape the inescapable prison. According to the FBI, the plan came about after the group discovered a few old saw blades.
The four men dug holes behind the air vents in their cells, and they covered the holes with anything they could find. They dug for three months with sharpened cafeteria spoons and a drill made from parts of a broken vacuum cleaner.
In addition to the holes, the four men also thought to make life-like dummies to dupe the night guards, who made rounds every hour. They made the decoy heads out of paper, soap, flesh-toned paint, and real hair from the prison barber shop.
One of the reasons escaping from Alcatraz was historically so difficult was the fact that it was situated on an island. In order to survive the harsh waters surrounding Alcatraz, the escapees knew they couldn't just swim without anything to help them. They managed to fashion a raft and life preservers out of nearly 50 raincoats donated (and stolen) by their fellow inmates.
Frank Lee Morris was convicted of his first crime at the age of 13, and he continued to add credits to his criminal record for the rest of his adult life. His specialty turned out to be escaping prisons.
Prison officials deemed him as having "superior intelligence" and sent him to Alcatraz specifically to end his streak of escape attempts, which they called "shotgun freedom" (even though Morris never used a gun to escape).
Morris knew the Anglin brothers from a stint in an Atlanta prison, which is probably why he included them in his escape plan. With a reported I.Q. of 130, it was unlikely Morris would have involved anyone in his plan if he didn't trust them.
Allen West shared a cell adjacent to Frank Morris, and he was a part of the escape plan from the beginning. He was serving his second term at Alcatraz and knew the Anglin brothers from a prison in Florida.
On the night of the escape, West was unable to climb through the ventilator grill at the back of his cell, forcing his accomplices to leave him behind. West did eventually make it out of his cell and onto the roof, but Morris and the Anglin brothers were long gone.
Much of what is known about the escape is thanks to West, who became an informant for the FBI after the fact.