The four inmates were no sooner assigned adjacent cells in December 1961 than they began formulating the escape plan together, though always under the leadership of Morris, the chief mastermind and unilateral orchestrator of the plot. It helped to ensure their mutual trust that they already knew each other from their time in an Atlanta prison years before. Over the subsequent six months, the men widened the ventilation ducts beneath their sinks using discarded saw blades found on the prison grounds, metal spoons smuggled from the mess hall, and an electric drill improvised from the motor of a vacuum cleaner. The men concealed the progress of their holes with walls of painted cardboard, and the noise of their work with the louder noise of Morris’ accordion on top of the ambient din of music hour.
Once the holes were wide enough to pass through, the escapees nightly accessed the utility corridor left unguarded directly behind their cells’ tier and climbed to the vacant top level of the cellblock, where they set up a clandestine workshop unbeknownst to prison staff. Here, with over fifty raincoats among other stolen and donated materials, they constructed life preservers, based off of a design one of them chanced to find in Popular Mechanics, as well as a 6 x 14-foot rubber raft, the seams carefully stitched by hand and sealed by steam pipes’ heat. Having manufactured the raft, they inflated it with a concertina ingeniously rigged to serve as bellows and furnished the necessary paddles from scrap wood and pilfered screws. Finally, they climbed up a ventilation shaft bound for the roof, and, finding a ponderous fan-grille in the way, removed the rivets holding it in place.
The men concealed their absence while working outside their cells—and after the escape itself—by sculpting dummy heads from a home-made papier-mâché-like mixture of soap, toothpaste, concrete dust, and toilet paper, and giving them a realistic appearance with paint from the maintenance shop and hair from the barbershop floor. With towels and clothing piled under the blankets in their bunks and the dummy heads positioned on the pillows, they appeared to be sleeping.
On the night of June 11, 1962, with all preparations in place, the men began their escape. However, the cement employed to shore up crumbling concrete around West’s vent had hardened, diminishing the hole in size and fixing the grill in place. By the time he managed to remove the grill and re-widen the hole to egress, the others had already left, as he was soon to discover; he busted out to the prison roof only to return to his cell around sunrise and go to sleep. West went on to cooperate fully with investigators and give them a detailed description of the escape plan, in consequence of which he was not punished for his role in it.
From the service corridor, Morris and the Anglins climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof. Guards heard a loud crash as they broke out of the shaft, but since nothing further was heard, the source of the noise was not investigated. Hauling their gear with them, they descended 50 feet (15 m) to the ground by sliding down a kitchen vent pipe, then climbed two 12-foot (3.7 m) barbed-wire perimeter fences. At the northeast shoreline, near the power plant—a blind spot in the prison’s network of searchlights and gun towers—they inflated their raft with the concertina. At some time after 10 p.m., investigators estimated, they boarded the raft, launched it and departed toward their objective, Angel Island, two miles to the north.
West was the only conspirator not to participate in the actual escape; he could not get his ventilator grill unstuck to leave his cell in time, so the others were forced to leave him behind. He fully cooperated with the investigation into the escape and was, therefore, not charged for his role.