The worst of the worst

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) prison in America is the now idle facility on an island in San Francisco Bay known as Alcatraz. The former U.S. Army fort became a federal prison in 1934 and housed the era’s most dangerous killers, bank robbers and gangsters, including Illinois’ own Al Capone. It was also the subject of any number of pop culture references, including numerous films starring such Hollywood luminaries as Burt Lancaster, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery.

But by the early 1960s, “the Rock” was showing its age. Deterioration, prohibitive expenses for maintenance and a high-profile 1962 escape attempt convinced federal policymakers that a new facility was going to have to be found for the nation’s worst offenders. Considering all these factors, Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed off on the plans for a new maximum security federal prison in a quiet corner of southern Illinois just south of the city of Marion.

For the next four decades, Marion would be home to the nation’s highest security prison, and would house infamous terrorists, spies, organized crime figures, drug traffickers, murderers (and one former Major League Baseball star). It would also see numerous escape attempts, including one which also involved an airline hijacking.

United States Penitentiary Marion, Illinois, or USP-Marion, opened in 1963, just as Alcatraz closed. Popular legend has it that Marion replaced Alcatraz in the federal system, though that is not entirely accurate. The first maximum security inmates did not begin arriving in Marion until 1964, as the Bureau of Prisons thought it wise to get the new facility fully up and running before bringing in its most dangerous inmates.

USP-Marion was designed as a Level 6, or “supermax” prison, a facility with the highest level of security in the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons system – although that term would not come into use until much later. It could accommodate 500 inmates.

In the prison’s early days, it had a number of “control unit cells,” in which especially dangerous inmates were kept for as many as 23 hours a day in order to limit their contact with other inmates. Six years after it opened, USP-Marion experienced the first murder of a correctional officer, Vern Jarvis, who was stabbed to death in 1969. Sadly he was not the last. By the 1980s, after several violent clashes; including the murder of two correctional officers in separate incidents on the same day; the entire penitentiary was put under a “permanent lockdown,” a state which it would remain under until 2006.

Like any prison, Marion saw its share of escape attempts. The first escapee was Warren Briggs in 1971, who was recaptured in Kansas City less than a week later. Five inmates successfully broke out of the prison in 1975, and one even made it all the way to Canada before all were recaptured. Four years later two inmates; aided by dense fog; managed to climb over the fence and get out of the prison (a third inmate was captured before he could get away from the facility). They were apprehended in nearby Cypress after a gunfight with FBI agents and Johnson County Sheriff Elry Faulkner who was shot in the chest during the exchange of fire, but survived due to his bulletproof vest.

Another inmate, Garrett Brock Trapnell, was part of two different escape attempts in the 1970s which involved skyjackings. Trapnell was himself in federal prison for hijacking an airliner, among other crimes.

On May 24, 1978, Barbara Oswald chartered a helicopter from the St. Louis area and then pulled a gun on its pilot, Allen Barklage, demanding to be flown into the prison yard at Marion where Trapnell was an inmate. As the chopper neared the prison, Barklage wrestled the gun away from Oswald and shot her dead.

The story got even more bizarre a few days before Christmas that year when TWA flight 541 from Louisville to Kansas City with 89 people on board was taken over by a hijacker claiming to have a dynamite bomb. She ordered the pilot to land at Marion’s Williamson County Regional Airport and demanded Trapnell’s release. In the course of ten hours of negotiations with FBI agents, it emerged that the hijacker was Barbara Oswald’s teenaged daughter, Robyn, and that the bomb was a fake. She eventually surrendered without further incident. Trapnell died in prison in 1993.

The late 1970s were a violent time at USP-Marion. More than 200 major incidents occurred in 1978 and 1979, including murders of inmates, the stabbing of an associate warden, the discovery of more than 50 weapons (and six explosives), fires, assaults on staff and nine different attempted escapes.

A crucial turning point in the history of USP-Marion happened on October 22, 1983, when an inmate being moved through the facility managed to get his hands on a knife and stabbed correctional officer Merle Clutts to death. Later that same day, while breaking up a fight between inmates, correctional officer Robert Hoffman was also stabbed and killed.

Beginning a few days later, USP-Marion was locked down in its entirety, becoming the nation’s first supermax prison. It remained in that status for more than two decades.

The Marion grounds also house a lower security work camp, and it was to this facility that Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader Pete Rose was sentenced in 1990 on federal tax evasion charges. Rose was far from the only inmate sentenced to Marion whose name grabbed headlines over the years. New York organized crime boss John Gotti; the so-called “Dapper Don;” spent ten years at USP-Marion before his death from throat cancer in 2002. Convicted spies Jonathan Pollard and John Walker were also sentenced to time in Marion, as were several Al Qaeda terrorists convicted of planning attacks inside the United States.

In the 1990s, the Bureau of Prisons began work near Florence, Colorado, on a supermax of even higher security than Marion. It was designed from the very beginning to be a 100% control unit facility, influenced in part by the murders of the correctional officers in Marion. When United States Penitentiary Florence, Administrative Maximum Facility (USP Florence ADMAX) opened near Colorado Springs in 1994 it replaced Marion as the highest security prison in the nation.

USP Marion

To put Marion’s status within the Bureau of Prisons system into context, consider this statement from then-Warden E.A. Stepp when speaking to the Southern Illinoisan in 2003. “There are more than 160,000 prisoners in the federal prison system. Less than 1000 of them are considered maximum security prisoners: 482 are housed here, and 482 are in Colorado.”

Marion retained its supermax status until 2006, when the highest security inmates were relocated; many to Florence. The renovations allowed the prison to accommodate a larger number of lower-security level inmates, just over 1300, including around 200 at the work camp. Today USP-Marion is designated as “a medium security U.S. penitentiary with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp” by the Bureau of Prisons. It is also one of the major employers in Williamson County.

USP-Marion is one of five federal prisons in Illinois. The others include facilities of varying levels of security in Greenville, Thomson, Pekin and the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. Though it is no longer at the top of the Bureau of Prison’s maximum security system, for more than 40 years this facility in rural Illinois was home to the nation’s worst of the worst criminal offenders.