Laura Sullivan | KERA News

Laura Sullivan

Fifty years ago, three men set out into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay in a raft made out of raincoats. It was one of the most daring prison escapes in U.S. history.

As one newsreel put it: The spoon proved "mightier than the bars at supposedly escape-proof Alcatraz prison."

"Three bank robbers serving long terms scratched their way through grills covering an air vent, climbed a drainage pipe and disappeared from the forbidding rock in San Francisco Bay," the report continued.

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week about the fate of 2,500 offenders who were sentenced as teenagers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Seventy-nine of them were 13 or 14 when they committed their crimes.

Many prosecutors and family members of victims spoke out about the need to keep the sentences in place.

Just off the side of the road in rural southern Texas is a large beige building that looks a lot like a prison. Fences and tall walls mark the outside. Inside, the doors slam and people sit in control booths at the end of long concrete hallways.

But just a little farther into the facility, the door opens to a courtyard in the center of the complex, and there, things begin to change. There's a soccer field, a pavilion and a gymnasium. There's also a walk-up pharmacy and commissary. All of it is guarded by officers in polo shirts.

Death sentences dropped dramatically this year, marking the first time in more than three decades that judges and juries sent fewer than 100 people to death row, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center.

Just 78 offenders were handed capital sentences, and only 43 inmates were executed — almost half as many as 10 years ago.

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