MARION - The U.S. Penitentiary at Marion has housed some of the world's most violent criminals since it opened 40 years ago, and has seen several spectacular escape attempts.
Inmates at Marion have included such infamous characters as Mafia leader John Gotti; Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel; Leonard Peltier, who was convicted in 1978 for his role in the shooting death of two FBI agents; John Walker, who sold secrets to the Soviets; and baseball great Pete Rose, who was convicted of tax evasion in 1990.
One of the most famous escape attempts was masterminded by Garrett Brock Trapnell, who was serving time for hijacking a jetliner. His girlfriend, Barbara Oswald, tried to hijack a helicopter in May 1978 to facilitate his escape, but was shot and killed in the attempt. A few months later, Oswald's daughter hijacked a jetliner from St. Louis to the Williamson County airport and held the crew and passengers hostage for 10 hours, demanding Trapnell's release. She eventually surrendered.
And three prison guards have lost their lives at the facility, which was built to replace the world-renowned Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay.
The prison was designated by the Bureau of Prisons as a Level 6 prison, the only one of its kind at that time. The bureau felt that by putting all of the most dangerous criminals in one prison, it would make the rest of its 40 institutions safer for guards and for prisoners. Marion soon became the "New Alcatraz," a repository for the nation's most violent predatory gang leaders and escape-prone inmates.
But the Marion prison, one of only four federal prisons in the U.S., is also an economic engine for the region. More than 350 people work at Marion, and another 50 will be hired when an addition opens in the fall.
The Marion prison doesn't house the country's most violent criminals any more. It shares that duty with the 10-year-old federal prison in Florence, Colo. Together, those two facilities are the two highest security federal prisons in the United States. Both prisons have a prison population of 482 inmates, combining to house the 964 most dangerous prisons in the federal prison system.
"There are more than 160,000 prisoners in the federal prison system," said Warden E.A. Stepp. "Less than 1,000 of them are considered maximum security prisoners. 482 are housed here and 482 are in Colorado."
By the end of this year, that number could go up. The prison is nearly finished with a 252-bed expansion project. According to prison spokesman Kevin Murphy, all of those beds will eventually be filled.
"We will start staffing the addition in September or October, and they will slowly increase the prison population," Murphy said. "They won't just give us all 252 prisoners at once."
The prison also provides an economic base for the area. The facility currently employs 352, but another 50 people will be hired when the addition opens later this fall.
"This is one of the largest employers in the Marion-Williamson County area," Murphy said. "It's one of just four federal prisons in the United States."
The United State Penitentiary at Marion opened its doors in April of 1963, just as Alcatraz closed. Being untested, Marion housed relatively young offenders when it first opened. The first maximum security inmates arrived in January of 1964.
The first correctional officer was killed on January 26, 1969. Vern M. Jarvis of Goreville, was killed around noon that day while on duty in the prisoners' living quarters. He was stabbed 26 times with a homemade knife.
Two years later, in July of 1971, Warren Briggs became the first inmate to successfully escape from Marion. Briggs was captured in Kansas City five days later.
Five more inmates escaped on October 10, 1975. Maurice Philion, Arthur Mankins, Michael Gargano, Edward Roche and Dennis Hunter used a remote control to open the prison gates and escape. Four of the five were caught within five days. The fifth one was nabbed in Canada on October 31.
One of the prison system's most spectacular escape attempts was masterminded by Garrett Brock Trapnell, who was serving time for hijacking a TWA jetliner in Michigan in 1972. He had attempted to escape from several prisons before being sent to Marion.
On May 24, 1978, Barbara Oswald hired a helicopter from a St. Louis helicopter charter service. She said she wanted to fly over some real estate that she was considering purchasing near Cape Girardeau. Once in the air, Oswald hijacked the chopper at gunpoint and forced pilot Allen Barklage to fly to the Marion prison, ordering him to land in the prison to free Trapnell and three other inmates.
However, Barklage struggled with Oswald, took her gun, and shot her to death when she reached into her purse for another gun.
On December 21, 1978, Oswald's daughter, Robyn, hijacked a TWA jetliner from St. Louis and forced it to land at the Williamson County Regional Airport. Her demand was the release of Trapnell. Robyn Oswald eventually surrendered after a 10-hour standoff.
Steve Land is the assistant director of the Williamson County Emergency Management Agency. Land worked for WDDD Radio in Marion at the time of the second hijacking, and was able to get to the airport before it was locked down.
"We heard it on the scanner, and I got out there as quickly as I could," Land said. "I was able to stay in the airport for the entire incident." Land said he watched the plane from a window at the airport terminal, and reported throughout the day.
Just a few months later, on Feb. 14, 1979, Albert Garza was one of two inmates who climbed over the fence in a dense fog. The prisoners were captured 72 hours later at the Assembly of God Church near Cypress in Johnson County by Johnson County Sheriff's deputies and FBI agents, who pried open the basement to the church. During the capture, Johnson County Sheriff Elry Faulkner was shot by Garza in the chest from six inches away. Faulkner, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest, was knocked to the floor but suffered only bruises.
During a 22-month period that ended in July of 1979, there were 57 major incidents at Marion, including several inmate murders and assaults on staff. An associate warden was stabbed in the dining hall during that period.
During the following nine months there were 213 significant incidents, including the discovery of 50 weapons and six explosive devices. Twenty-five fires were set, there were nine escape attempts, and one inmate was murdered.
The violence came to a head on Oct. 22, 1983, when two prison guards were murdered. Merle E. Clutts and Robert M. Hoffman were stabbed to death, and two other guards were seriously injured in an incident in the prison's control unit.
The control unit was placed on lockdown the next day, but an inmate was murdered on Oct. 27 and the entire prison was locked down. That lockdown, which was challenged by prisoners, led to Marion becoming the first super-maximum security penitentiary or supermax penitentiary.
The national spotlight has been shining on the Marion prison and its "New Alcatraz" status ever since. The facility has been the focus of stories by "Parade Magazine," "Popular Science" and "60 Minutes."
Some of the most notorious prisoners have now left Marion or been transferred to the new supermax prison in Colorado. Pete Rose was released. Pollard and Walker are now at Florence, and Gotti has passed away. However, there are still many dangerous prisoners in Marion.
Today, those prisoners spend 23 hours each day confined to a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, with one hour allowed for exercise. Prisoners can only leave their cells if they are handcuffed from behind and wear leg irons.
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