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'The Battle of Alcatraz': How an infamous prison break attempt turned violent, leaving 5 dead and many injured

The documentary looks at the 1946 incident where a failed escape attempt by violent criminals led to the death of 2 officers, 3 inmates and injured many hostages
(US Penitentiary)
(US Penitentiary)

Alcatraz is a maximum-security federal prison that has housed some of the most dangerous and mentally ill inmates in the American penitentiary system. Among its most notorious prisoners were Al Capone, George (Machine Gun) Kelly and Robert Stroud, who was known as the 'Birdman of Alcatraz'. The prison boasted of being impossible to escape, with many inmates trying but failing to leave the prison island near San Francisco Bay.

One such escape attempt was dubbed the 'Battle of Alcatraz' and it was one of the prison's bloodiest and most violent escape attempts. The incident has been covered in depth in Reelz's new documentary titled 'The Battle of Alcatraz' which looks into what went down between May 2 and May 4, 1946. The incident left 14 guards and one inmate injured and killed two correctional officers and three inmates. 

A boat passes in front of Alcatraz Island on April 7, 2011, in San Francisco, United States (Getty Images) 

The Mastermind 

The entire escape plan was the brainchild of a bank robber from Kentucky, Bernard Paul Coy, who had been serving a 26-year sentence. The intelligent prisoner, also an army veteran, came up with the plan with the help of four other accomplices — Miran Thompson, Joseph Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard and Clarence Carnes. 

Coy had been carefully observing and studying the habits of various prison guards over several months. His plan was to find any weaknesses in the system and exploit them to his advantage. He had concluded that he needed to access a gun, capture hostages and acquire a boat, should he have any hope of escaping. He knew he needed the help of people who were desperate enough to make an escape attempt. 

He decided that the escape could be best carried out during the daytime when many inmates are at work and the number of guards is less. Given that he has observed the guards' routine, he pretended to mop the floor while his accomplice Hubbard returned from his kitchen duty. As an officer, Ben Miller, arrived to make a routine check on the floor, Hubbard and Coy struck him and overpowered the officer. The escape attempt had officially begun.

The Battle of Alcatraz

Once officer Miller was tied to a prison bunk, Coy proceeded to open the levers that control the jail cells, freeing the other prisoners — Cretzer, Thompson and Carnes. The others who were freed were Stroud and inmate Sam Shockley, who was a mentally ill man prone to violent rages. 

Coy then managed to break into the gun gallery and stole two firearms which he used to take four guards as hostages and lock them up in a cell. As more and more guards came, they were all taken as hostages and locked up.

The inmates had to find one specific key, No. 107, which would open the door to the recreational yard, leading to their escape. However, turned out officer Miller had separated the key from the keyring and kept it in his pocket. While the inmates hunted for the key, Miller slyly dropped it into a prison toilet. 

In the process of trying to use other keys to open the door, Coy and his team ended up jamming the lock so much so that even when they did find key 107, the door did not open. By this time, the inmates had taken too many hostages and time was running out. The more guards who came and disappeared, the more likely the suspicion that something was wrong. Soon enough, the prison siren rang, notifying all on the island that an escape attempt was on. 

Failed attempt

As the inmates were left wondering what to do with their hostages, Shockley suggested they use the guns. The others who were freed including Stroud returned to their cells, making it clear that they did not want to participate in whatever plan Coy and the others had.

However, Shockley, who is said to have a low IQ of 54, became increasingly agitated with all the commotion. He soon got together with Thompson and encouraged Cretzer to open fire into the cramped cells of hostages, leaving some of the officers critically wounded. 

In the meantime, the administration office had been notified and prison warden JA Johnston sent a letter asking for backup. The navy and military had to intervene to bring the situation under control, with the prison going into a complete lockdown. 

Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were killed as the navy shot and threw grenades into the block. Carnes received a life sentence while Thompson and Shockley were sent to a gas chamber.