In the USA there are approximately 1,500 medium and maximum security facilities (the nation has more jails than universities), from which around 50 people manage to escape each year.
In June, convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat made global headlines tunnelling out in a Shawshank Redemption-like escape from New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility. Around three weeks later Matt was shot and killed while his accomplice, two days after, was shot and taken back in.
Just last month, in a similar incident, Mexican crime boss Joaquin Guzman, aka El Chapo or Shorty, made a break from a maximum-security prison for the second time through a specially constructed underground 1.6 km-long tunnel complete with ventilation, lighting and stairs (quite unlike the sewerage pipe through which the fictional Shawshank hero crawled). The drugs lord, reputedly worth a cool US$1 billion, is thought to have paid in the region of $20 million in bribes to corrupt guards. “It’s not just like someone took a couple of tools, shovels and pickaxes,” former senior official at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Alonzo Pena, told the Associated Press. “This is a very sophisticated operation. How could they be there and not hear that construction was going on underneath? It’s just impossible.” In 2001, the Mexican fled another jail by hiding in a laundry basket. At the time of writing, he’s still at large.
One of the most famous prison breaks of all time occurred in 1962 at the supposedly ‘inescapable’ Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary which is situated on a tiny island off San Francisco’s coast. Crooks Clarence Anglin, his brother John Anglin along with Frank Morris cut holes in their cell walls and, having left dummy heads in their beds to fool the guards, made for the icy bay waters where it thought they perished in the strong currents. The breakout inspired the 1979 Hollywood movie, Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.
North of the border, a couple of Canadian convicts a couple of years ago made the most brazen of bids for freedom when they escaped from the St. Jerome prison on the outskirts of Montreal by grabbing hold of a rope attached to a hijacked helicopter after it landed on the roof. Both men were captured in a matter of days. Murderous Frenchman Pascal escaped Gallic jails – and aided with the breakout of others – three times using the same method between 2001 and 2007, as did armed Greek robbers Vassils Paleokostas and Alket Rizai in 2006 and 2009.
Others have sprung out using rather more understated means. In 1983, Jeffrey McCoy descended nine stories of the Manhattan Correctional Center using a rope made from bedsheets, after which he eluded the law for six years, living quietly in suburban New York.
Also using bed sheets, New Zealander George Wilder fled Mount Eden Prison, his second of three breakouts during the 1960s. After breaking into Kiwi holiday homes, the convict would leave notes of thanks and apologies for the owners. He achieved a cult hero status, with people eventually leaving food out for him, and the Howard Morrison Quartet wrote the number one hit, George, the Wild(er) New Zealand Boy for the crook. Back in New York, in 2006, convict Ralph Philips fled Erie County Correctional Facility after tearing open a ceiling with a can opener. He remained at large for nearly half a year.
There was nothing subtle about the Maze Prison breakout of 1983, often referred to as the ‘Great Escape’, which remains the largest jailbreak in British history. Thirty-eight members of the Provisional IRA used smuggled guns to overpower prison guards, two of whom were shot. One later died of a heart attack. Three member of the gang were found the same day hiding in a nearby river using reeds to breathe.
Perhaps the most notorious jailbreaker on the list also happens to be one of the most notorious criminals in history. Serial killer, rapist and necrophile Ted Bundy eventually confessed to 30 murders, but his total victim count is thought to be much higher. Following his first arrest for kidnapping and assault in 1976, Bundy opted to defend himself in court. The trial took place in 1977 and not only was the defendant excused from wearing leg chains and handcuffs so that he could more easily address the court, but was even allowed to retreat alone to the courthouse library during a break from where he jumped from a window and escaped. He remained on the run for six days. The criminal case against Bundy was weak at the time with him looking at around a year-and-a-half in prison. There was even a possibility of acquittal. Instead, however, Bundy set about a new escape plan, purchasing a hacksaw blade from a fellow inmate and cutting a hole in the corner of his cell. Later that year, he escaped once more to continue his murderous spree. Bundy was to be executed by electric chair on 24th January, 1989.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces