A prison escape (or prison break) is the act of an inmate leaving prison through unofficial or illegal ways. Normally, when this occurs, an effort is made on the part of authorities to recapture them and return them to their original detainers. Escaping from prison is also a criminal offense in some countries, such as the United States and Russia, and it is highly likely to result in time being added to the inmate's sentence, as well as the inmate being placed under increased security. Aggravating factors include whether or not violence was used.
Numerous methods have been used to escape prison over time. Many escapes have been successfully conducted by inmates who have invented their own methods. Weaknesses that are found as prisoners escape are often corrected at numerous prisons around the world to prevent future escapes in a similar manner. This leads inmates to finding new ways.
Since prisoners usually have a lot of time in which they are doing nothing, this gives them plenty of time to think, allowing them to devise plans and figure out ways to escape.
While some prisoners are allowed out of their cells at times, others remain locked in their cells most of the time, particularly those in solitary confinement. Many prisoners who are kept in their cells must find ways out of the cells. Even those who are allowed out of their cells at times still have plans that involve escape from their cells.
Cell escapes occur through either the door, the window, the light, the ventilation system, by breaking down the walls, or by tunneling underground.
Some prisoners have escaped by picking the locks on their cells, creating keys to their cells, sawing bars off of the doors or windows, carving away the walls, or breaking away the vent.
Breaking down or slipping through the physical containment of the prison, including that of the cell itself and/or the surrounding complex. Methods include destruction of the cell or compound walls, squeezing through tight spaces, or entering off-limits areas. Prisoners often destroy their containment with homemade tools, smuggled objects, or other contraband.
Most prisons are contained on the outside by one or more fences, often topped with barbed wire or razor wire. Escapees manage to scale these fences successfully or cut holes in the fences, damaging them. These fences are also watched by one or more guards from a tower, but escapees manage to pass the fence when the guard is turned away, unable to see in the dark, or sleeping on the job. Outside the fences is often a perimeter patrol conducted by an officer in a vehicle, which stands as the final line of defense. Escapees manage to evade this by studying the length of time between passes and/or waiting until it is on the other side and/or using the cover of darkness.
A rare method that has been used at times involves the digging of a tunnel under the facility that exits outside the facility.
Attacking guards with blunt force, homemade weapons, smuggled weapons, or weapons stolen from overtaken guards.
Some escapes involve one or more inmates taking over an entire unit or section of the prison, subduing guards, and stealing weapons or other objects they can use to their advantage.
Deception may involve fooling one or more guards into believing the prisoner is authorized to depart prison grounds for a legitimate reason, or the prisoner disguising himself or herself as a worker or civilian who can exit prison grounds without arousing suspicion, or the creation of a ruse to mislead guards.
In some escapes, inmates construct makeshift dummies to make guards believe they are in their cells, usually in bed, when they are not. This enables the inmate to gain a head start from the prison before guards discover they are actually missing. Such dummies are typically constructed quite crudely, often using the inmate's or another's hair, shoes, and miscellaneous materials for stuffing, hidden under a blanket to give the appearance a body is present.
Exploitation of weaknesses
Finding holes in the security of the facility, and taking advantage of them. This may include the discovery of overlooked security issues, or taking advantage of guards who are not following policies or procedures, or are otherwise not doing their jobs properly.
Exploitation of corruption
Taking advantage of intentional wrongdoing on part of prison staff. This may include the use of weapons or other contraband smuggled in by staff, or receiving assistance from staff who believe in that inmate's freedom and willingly assist.
Failure to return
Some lower security inmates are permitted to leave prison grounds temporarily on the honor they will return. These include those who depart for employment outside the facility or furloughs that allow time outside for periods of time.
Escape from outside
Breaking while in custody outside facility grounds. Prisoners are often transported for work duties, to be moved between facilities, attend court hearings, for hospitalization and medical appointments, and other reasons.
Receiving aid from an accomplice outside prison walls, including those who provide a ride to the inmate following their penetration, smuggle in contraband as visitors, use helicopters, among other methods.
When a banned item is smuggled, it can either be slipped through or tossed over the fence from outside, hidden in a gift to the inmate that is legal, or slipped past corrupt security officers. In some cases, the staff are the source of the smuggling themselves.
Escape from island prisons
Escaping from an island prison brings another challenge of crossing the water to free land. This can be done by construction of a makeshift raft or receiving outside help from the owner of a boat. In the famed 1962 Alcatraz escape, a makeshift raft from raincoats was confirmed. One additional theory is that a boat was used to transport them in the water.
Prevention of prison escape includes the numerous security measures that are in effect. How many and which measures are used depends on the security level and specific institution. Some of the preventative measures are:
- One or more fences surrounding the facility
- Barbed wire or razor wire on topping fences that surround the facility
- Razor wire on the ground between fences, thereby making one's presence in this area dangerous and possibly deadly
- Multiple locked doors between the "pods" (sections of cells) and the exit
- Cell windows are too narrow for a human body to fit through
- Rounds: Guards within the facility make rounds checking inmates at set intervals
- Full-time watch: High-risk inmates are watched non-stop around the clock one-on-one
- Guard towers: Guards in towers at corners of compound can observe edges of the facility and are often authorized to use deadly force against fleeing escapees
- Perimeter patrol: A guard in a vehicle circles the compound from the outside, watching for escaping inmates
- Surveillance cameras allow guards to monitor areas of the compound without being physically present there
- Floodlights enable guards to watch inmates passing through a certain area at night
- Microwave motion sensors alert security if an inmate nears the fence
- Thermal cameras detect heat signatures and can notify guards if an inmate (or other unauthorized person) is present in a restricted area or moving towards the fence
- Alarms, buzzers, or sirens make guards aware if any doors or gates are open, signifying a possible breach
- Head counts at set times to assure the number of inmates actually in the facility matches the number on record
- Cell searches to make sure inmates do not have contraband that can be used to aid an escape or commit violence against guards or other inmates
In almost all jurisdictions, including the United States, escaping from jail or prison is a criminal offense. In Virginia, for instance, the punishment for escape depends on whether the offender escaped by using force or violence or setting fire to the jail, and the seriousness of the offense for which they were imprisoned.
In Mexico, Belgium, Germany and Austria, the philosophy of the law holds that it is human nature to want to escape. In those countries, escapees who do not break any other laws are not charged for anything and no extra time is added to their sentence. However, in Mexico, officers are allowed to shoot prisoners attempting to escape, and an escape is illegal if violence is used against prison personnel or property, or if prison inmates or officials aid the escape.
Famous historical escapes
Escapes in popular culture
Non-fiction: Film and literature
- A Man Escaped, a 1956 film which depicts the true story of André Devigny's escape from Montluc prison, a Nazi occupied prison during World War II.
- Le Trou, a 1960 film by Jacques Becker, depicts the attempted escape of five French prisoners from La Santé Prison in 1947.
- Papillon (1973 publication) tells the autobiographic story of Henri Charrière's escape from Devil's Island in 1943.
- Breakout, a 1975 film based on an actual helicopter prison escape from a Mexican prison.
- Escape from Alcatraz a 1979 film based on the 1963 book, which depicts the escape of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers.
- As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, a 2001 film based on Cornelius Rost's escape from a Siberian prisoner of war camp.
- Breakout, a 2010 National Geographic Channel TV series portrays reenactments of real life prison escapes.
- Real Prison Breaks, a British television series, documents famous prison escapes from around the world.
- I Love You Phillip Morris, a 2009 film based on the life of con-man, Steven Jay Russell, who escaped from prison multiple times.
- She Made Them Do It, a 2012 film based on the life of Sarah Jo Pender, who escaped in 2008 from Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana.
- The Mind of Mark DeFriest, a 2014 documentary film about Mark DeFriest, a prisoner of the United States known as the 'Houdini of Florida', for his numerous successful escape attempts.
Novels and film adaptations
- Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is a novella by Stephen King which revolves around a prison escape, and was made famous by the subsequent film The Shawshank Redemption featuring actors Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards.
- The Count of Monte Cristo depicts protagonist Edmond Dantès's falsified arrest and internment, years of isolation and finally recruitment into an escape from prison to exact revenge on his captors.
- In the movie The Fugitive, as with the television series on which it was based, Dr. Richard Kimble is mistakenly accused of his wife's murder. He escapes along with another inmate when their transport crashes.
- In both the novel and the film The Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lecter escapes from his specially designed maximum security cell in Memphis, Tennessee by killing his two guards and using the face of one of them to fool the ambulance crew. He later murders the ambulance crew and a tourist and flees Memphis.
- In 1965 Cool Hand Luke, a fictional novel by Donn Pearce, which was also the basis of the film of the same name, a prison drama film starring Paul Newman. Luke becomes notorious for his repeated attempts to escape prison.
- Prison Break, a 2005–2009 television serial drama that screened on the Fox . The series revolves around two brothers, one of whom has been sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, and the other who devises an elaborate plan to help his brother escape prison and clear his name. The series got revived for a fifth season which aired from April 4, to May 30, 2017.
- Breakout Kings, a 2011–2012 drama television series that screened on the A&E Network
- In the 2013 action thriller film Escape Plan, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) breaks out of prisons for a living to test their reliability. After he is incarcerated in the world's most secret and secure maximum security prison, he must escape along with accomplice Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
- Beam, Christopher (April 25, 2011). "The Great Escapes". Slate.
- "§ 18.2-477. Prisoner escaping from jail; how punished". Code of Virginia. Virginia General Assembly. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
- "§ 18.2-479. Escape without force or vio to jail". Code of Virginia. Virginia General Assembly. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
- "§ 18.2-480. Escape, etc., by setting fire to jail". Code of Virginia. Virginia General Assembly. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
- Jordan, Mary; Sullivan, Kevin (15 Nov 2002). "Mexican Jailbirds Get to Fly for Free". The Washington Post. Retrieved 7 Aug 2018.
- Boyle, Robyn (10 Sep 2015). "No prison escapes so far this year in Belgium". thebulletin.be. The Bulletin. Retrieved 7 Aug 2018.
Prison escape in Belgium is not punishable by law, but escaped prisoners are punished if they commit criminal offenses in the course of trying to break out.
- Zubrin Gold, Judith (Sep 1979). "Prison Escape and Defenses Based on Conditions: A Theory of Social Preference". California Law Review. 67 (5): 1183–1204. Retrieved 7 Aug 2018.
- "Correctional Services in Austria" (PDF). justiz.gv.at. Republic of Austria Federal Ministry of Justice. 1 Aug 2016. Retrieved 7 Aug 2018.
Considerable attention is being focussed upon rights and obligations of prisoners [...] The violation of certain obligations of conduct is called a misdemeanour. Some misdemeanours are listed as examples: − Escape
- "More on the Kaplan Caper" (subscription required). Time Magazine. September 20, 1971.
- "'Prison Break': Robert Knepper, Rockmond Dunbar, Amaury Nolasco returning for revival". EW.com. Retrieved 2018-03-18.