escape from alcatraz:the true story

Continuing on Five this week is the documentary
series exploring infamous historical events. This
episode examines a remarkable escape from
Alcatraz prison. In June 1962, three inmates
successfully broke out of the jail and took to the
waters of San Francisco Bay in a makeshift raft,
never to be seen again. The film uses interviews
with former inmates, guards and FBI agents to
piece together the story of the escape, while three
modern-day coastguards board a replica of the raft
to see if it could have carried the men to freedom.
Perched on a rocky outcrop in San Francisco Bay,
Alcatraz was the world’s most secure prison. But
in 1962, three prisoners decided they would
attempt to achieve the impossible by staging an
audacious breakout. They were Frank Morris and
brothers John and Clarence Anglin. Details of the
escape were given to the FBI by a fourth member
of the gang, Allen West, who was left behind at
the last moment.
The escape was the culmination of months of planning by the four men. It was later immortalised in the film ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, in which Clint Eastwood portrayed Morris as the leader of the group – yet historians and former guards and inmates dispute this version of events. West maintained that he devised the plan, and his story is backed by Alcatraz historian Jolene Babyak, who claims that West had access to the restricted areas that the prisoners used in the escape. “I truly believe that it was his idea and he brought everybody in on the deal,” she says.
It is clear, however, that all four men worked tirelessly on the escape. They began by chiselling through the back wall of their cells into the narrow corridor beyond, before painting fake grilles to cover the holes. The men then made crude papier-mâché heads to put in their beds once the attempt was underway. To facilitate this work, they even set up a secret ‘workshop’ in the ceiling space above the cellblock, close to the ventilation duct that would give them access to the roof.
Other inmates were aware of the men’s plan and even helped supply some 50 raincoats that were turned into a makeshift raft and life vests. “There were no restrictions on the amount of raincoats they could have,” recalls former guard Pat Mahoney. “In our wildest dreams, we didn’t dream they were going to build water wings out of them!” When the night of the escape finally arrived, Allen West found himself left behind because he could not get through the hole in his cell. He had originally made the gap too large to be concealed, so his colleagues had partially sealed it with fresh concrete. Now West was unable to break through the concrete to join them. Morris and the Anglin brothers continued their climb to the roof, before scaling down the walls and disappearing into the waters beyond – never to be seen again.
Five days after the escape, the FBI received a postcard with the message, “Ha ha we made it”, apparently signed by the three men – but fingerprints were never matched to the prisoners.
In the absence of any criminal activity attributed to the men – such as robberies or stolen cars – it was assumed that they drowned in the bay. To find out if the men could possibly have made it to freedom, Escape from Alcatraz: The True Story recruits carpenter Jamie Schmidt to build a replica of their raft using similar materials. “I still wouldn’t trust my life with this,” Jamie says of his handiwork. Three US coastguards then attempt to use the raft to paddle to the escapees’ destination of Angel Island, nearly three kilometres away. Like the prisoners before them, they must contend with fierce tides, strong winds and freezing temperatures that can cause hypothermia in less than an hour. Can these men come close to achieving an escape from Alcatraz?

saturday 22 –friday 28 march

Returning to Five this week is the documentary series exploring infamous historical events. Theopening episode examines a remarkable escapefrom Alcatraz prison. In June 1962, three inmatessuccessfully broke out of the jail and took to thewaters of San Francisco Bay in a makeshift raft,never to be seen again. The film uses interviewswith former inmates, guards and FBI agents topiece together the story of the escape, while threemodern-day coastguards board a replica of the raftto see if it could have carried the men to freedom.Perched on a rocky outcrop in San Francisco Bay,Alcatraz was the world’s most impregnableprison. But in 1962, three prisoners decided theywould try to achieve the impossible by staging anaudacious breakout. They were Frank Morris andbrothers John and Clarence Anglin. Details of theescape were given to the FBI by a fourth memberof the gang, Allen West, who was left behind atthe last moment. The escape was the culmination of months ofplanning by the four men. It was later immortalisedin the film, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, in which ClintEastwood portrayed Morris as the leader of thegroup – yet historians and former guards andinmates dispute this version of events. Westmaintained that he devised the plan, and his storyis backed by Alcatraz historian Jolene Babyak,who claims that he had access to the restrictedareas that the prisoners used in the escape. “Itruly believe that it was his idea and he broughteverybody in on the deal,” she says. It is clear, however, that all four men workedtirelessly on the escape. They began by chisellingthrough the back wall of their cells into the narrowcorridor beyond, before painting fake grilles tocover the holes. The men then made crudepapier-mâché heads to put in their beds once theattempt was underway. To facilitate this work,they even set up a secret ‘workshop’ in the ceilingspace above the cellblock, close to the ventilationduct that would give them access to the roof. Other inmates were aware of the men’s plan andeven helped supply some 50 raincoats that wereturned into a makeshift raft and life vests. “Therewere no restrictions on the amount of raincoatsthey could have,” recalls former guard PatMahoney. “In our wildest dreams, we didn’t dreamthey were going to build water wings out of them!”When the night of the escape finally arrived,Allen West found himself left behind because hecould not get through the hole in his cell. He hadoriginally made the gap too large to be concealed,so his colleagues had partially sealed it with fresh concrete. Now West was unable to break throughthe concrete to join them. Morris and the Anglinbrothers continued their climb to the roof, beforescaling down the walls and disappearing into thewaters beyond – never to be seen again. Five days after the escape, the FBI received apostcard with the message, “Ha ha we made it”,apparently signed by the three men – butfingerprints were never matched to the prisoners.In the absence of any criminal activity attributedto the men – such as robberies or stolen cars – itwas assumed that they drowned in the bay. To find out if the men could possibly have madeit to freedom, Escape from Alcatraz: The TrueStory recruits carpenter Jamie Schmidt to build areplica of their raft using similar materials. “I stillwouldn’t trust my life with this,” Jamie says of hishandiwork. Three US coastguards then attempt touse the raft to paddle to the escapees’ destinationof Angel Island, nearly three kilometres away. Likethe prisoners before them, they must contendwith fierce tides, strong winds and freezingtemperatures that can cause hypothermia in lessthan an hour. Can these men come close toachieving an escape from Alcatraz?

Returning to Five this week is the documentary
series exploring infamous historical events. The
opening episode examines a remarkable escape
from Alcatraz prison. In June 1962, three inmates
successfully broke out of the jail and took to the
waters of San Francisco Bay in a makeshift raft,
never to be seen again. The film uses interviews
with former inmates, guards and FBI agents to
piece together the story of the escape, while three
modern-day coastguards board a replica of the raft
to see if it could have carried the men to freedom.
Perched on a rocky outcrop in San Francisco Bay,
Alcatraz was the world’s most impregnable
prison. But in 1962, three prisoners decided they
would try to achieve the impossible by staging an
audacious breakout. They were Frank Morris and
brothers John and Clarence Anglin. Details of the
escape were given to the FBI by a fourth member
of the gang, Allen West, who was left behind at
the last moment.
The escape was the culmination of months of
planning by the four men. It was later immortalised
in the film, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, in which Clint
Eastwood portrayed Morris as the leader of the
group – yet historians and former guards and
inmates dispute this version of events. West
maintained that he devised the plan, and his story
is backed by Alcatraz historian Jolene Babyak,
who claims that he had access to the restricted
areas that the prisoners used in the escape. “I
truly believe that it was his idea and he brought
everybody in on the deal,” she says.
It is clear, however, that all four men worked
tirelessly on the escape. They began by chiselling
through the back wall of their cells into the narrow
corridor beyond, before painting fake grilles to
cover the holes. The men then made crude
papier-mâché heads to put in their beds once the
attempt was underway. To facilitate this work,
they even set up a secret ‘workshop’ in the ceiling
space above the cellblock, close to the ventilation
duct that would give them access to the roof.
Other inmates were aware of the men’s plan and
even helped supply some 50 raincoats that were
turned into a makeshift raft and life vests. “There
were no restrictions on the amount of raincoats
they could have,” recalls former guard Pat
Mahoney. “In our wildest dreams, we didn’t dream
they were going to build water wings out of them!”
When the night of the escape finally arrived,
Allen West found himself left behind because he
could not get through the hole in his cell. He had
originally made the gap too large to be concealed,
so his colleagues had partially sealed it with fresh
concrete. Now West was unable to break through
the concrete to join them. Morris and the Anglin
brothers continued their climb to the roof, before
scaling down the walls and disappearing into the
waters beyond – never to be seen again.
Five days after the escape, the FBI received a
postcard with the message, “Ha ha we made it”,
apparently signed by the three men – but
fingerprints were never matched to the prisoners.
In the absence of any criminal activity attributed
to the men – such as robberies or stolen cars – it
was assumed that they drowned in the bay.
To find out if the men could possibly have made
it to freedom, Escape from Alcatraz: The True
Story recruits carpenter Jamie Schmidt to build a
replica of their raft using similar materials. “I still
wouldn’t trust my life with this,” Jamie says of his
handiwork. Three US coastguards then attempt to
use the raft to paddle to the escapees’ destination
of Angel Island, nearly three kilometres away. Like
the prisoners before them, they must contend
with fierce tides, strong winds and freezing
temperatures that can cause hypothermia in less
than an hour. Can these men come close to
achieving an escape from Alcatraz?

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