How the 1962 Escape From Alcatraz Set a Precedent For Prison Crafting

For hundreds of years, crafting was considered a primarily feminine pursuit. In the past few decades, though, old stereotypes about women gossiping around sewing circles have been flipped as feminists embraced knitting and cross-stitching (not to mention the great pussy hat frenzy of 2017) as community-building exercises.

And in recent years, male crafters have also been bucking convention.

Between 2006 and 2008, half of American households contained a self-identified crafter—and they definitely weren't all women. “Crafting is so ubiquitous now that it’s hard to put it into one demographic,” Craft & Hobby Association spokesman Victor Domine told the Denver Post in 2009. “We’re seeing more men participating with a lot of pride.”

A surprising number of those men are in prison. California now has arts programs in all 35 of its adult prisons. San Quentin's Handicraft Shop sells arts and crafts made by prisoners; Louisiana State Penitentiary hosts annual public fairs at which all objets d'art are made by inmates; and at Maine state prison, men make birdhouses, model boats, cutting boards and toys that are then sold in a showroom open to the public.

The trend isn't limited to the United States. In El Salvador, incarcerated gang members from the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs are currently offered classes in knitting, music and DIY as part of a rehabilitation program called "Yo Cambio" or "I Change."

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In Brazil, designer Gustavo Silvestre teaches crochet to Guarulhos inmates as part of a program called Projeto Ponto Firme; the resulting clothing is high-end enough to have been shown at São Paulo Fashion Week. And 500 miles away at Arisvaldo de Campos Pires maximum security prison, inmates have learned to knit and crochet for local fashion designer Raquel Guimaraes. In exchange, they earn wages and shorter sentences.

But the greatest story of prisoners using arts and crafts to facilitate shorter sentences happened in San Francisco, and has been world-famous for half a century. Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin's daring 1962 Alcatraz escape is usually presented as a tale of anti-hero triumph; men taking charge of their own destinies to escape a seemingly inescapable island. The 1979 film Escape From Alcatraz saw Clint Eastwood playing Morris as the manliest of criminal masterminds.

In truth, the key to this trio's brilliantly conceived exit strategy was made less of machismo and more of meticulous artisanal crafting—something that's been somewhat glossed over in the course of Alcatraz myth-making. These prisoners didn't just sloppily throw together some props to help them along the way, they spent months sewing, painting and papier-mâché sculpting their way to freedom. It demonstrated a degree of patience, attention to detail and multitasking that defies stereotypes about the kind of men that ended up on The Rock.

Morris and the Anglin brothers stayed up night after night delicately sculpting their own self-portraits and carefully hand-painting perfect cardboard replicas of their cells' air vents. Their dummy heads were constructed and molded using an ingenious mixture of concrete, toilet paper and soap, topped off with human hair from the prison barbershop.

Two of the homemade dummy heads used by the escaping prisoners to fool guards.
Two of the homemade dummy heads used by the escaping prisoners to fool guards. (YouTube/@APArchive)

Little attention has also been given to what intricate paint-mixers Morris and the Anglins were. Not only did they have to blend pink and white paints from the prison workshop into a convincing flesh tone for their fake heads, they had to come up with a green for the decoy vents that seamlessly matched their cell walls. There was zero space for Bob Ross happy accidents here, and none were made.

The trio weren't just teaching themselves art, either. Their life vests and the large triangular raft they escaped on were fashioned from over 50 deconstructed raincoats. They somehow vulcanized the seams of the life vests, and part of the raft left behind on the roof of the cellblock (where the prisoners spent months constructing it) shows strategic gluing and impressively even hand-stitching.

A discarded piece of the Alcatraz escape raft, left behind by prisoners.
A discarded piece of the Alcatraz escape raft, left behind by prisoners. ('Mythbusters'/Discovery Channel)

In addition, the men had to modify an accordion in order to pump up the raft once they reached Alcatraz's shoreline, and construct paddles from wood and brass bolts that were light enough to carry across the island, but sturdy enough to guide them through the Bay's freezing waters. Just look at this scrappy craftmanship.

This paddle from the escape was found on Angel Island after the fact.
This paddle from the escape was found on Angel Island after the fact. ('Mythbusters'/Discovery Channel)

Just as Alcatraz sparked a heightened level of resourceful creativity in Morris and the Anglins, the harsh restrictions of prison life continue to prompt boundless inventiveness in prisoners. Even at institutions where art supplies are strictly forbidden, craftiness still finds a way. As Phyllis Kornfeld, author of Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America, told the New York Times in 2004: "They do things with cigarette packs and make purses and carve soap and make sculptures with toilet paper. They'll paint with broom straw or their own hair."

Research shows that prisoners who explore their artistic sides are better behaved than their non-crafty peers. New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility introduced the Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) program over 20 years ago, and has found that participants commit fewer infractions and are more likely to enroll in higher educational courses.

Escape From Alcatraz contains a scene in which an inmate chops off his own fingers with an axe after being denied painting privileges by the warden. The reality isn't quite so dramatic. But what is real is the ample evidence suggesting that art and crafts are great for people behind bars—something Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers could no doubt have told authorities if they'd ever been seen again.