Prison break: It's harder than ever to escape from prison. How do inmates still do it?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
April 25 2011 6:55 PM

The Great Escapes

It's harder than ever to escape from prison. How do inmates still do it?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

A 24-year-old inmate reportedly "walked away" from a state prison in Shirley, Mass., Monday morning. On March 9, Texas prisoner David Puckett sawed through the bars of a recreation yard roof, jumped to the ground, scaled a fence topped with razor wire, and commandeered a pickup truck. (The keys were already inside.) Two prisoners escaped from a St. Louis detention center on Friday using the oldest trick in the book— a rope made of tied-together bed sheets.

Such reports make it seem as if escaping from prison is easier than ever. And yet the number of state prison escapes has declined steadily since the early 1990s, according to data provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1993, 14,305 prisoners of a state prison population of 780,357 escaped or went AWOL. By 1998, that number had been cut to 6,530. Escapes continued to decline in the 2000s, with only 2,512 escaped prisoners in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, even as the state prison population has risen to 1.4 million.

If escaping from prison is so hard these days, how do inmates do it? Same as always—though with an occasional high-tech twist. Here's a rundown of the most common techniques.

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Cut and run. Find a hole in the facility's security structure and exploit it. In 2006, career criminal Ralph "Bucky" Phillips used a can opener to cut a hole in a prison kitchen ceiling. (When police finally caught up with him he pleaded "guilty as hell.") Eight inmates in a New Mexico county jail used "homemade instruments" to cut a hole in the roof and escape in 2008.

Fake it till you make it. In 2005, convicted killer Charles Victor Thompson slipped out of a Texas jail by changing into a set of smuggled civilian clothes and bluffing his way past guards. (He told them he was a "state investigator" and flashed his prison ID.) The infamous Texas Seven snuck out of a maximum-security state prison in 2000 by impersonating supervisors over the phone, among other ruses.

The Shawshank-esque redemption. Slow and steady wins the race and, in some cases, freedom. Just this week, nearly 500 Taliban escaped from Sarposa prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, after militants spent months digging a 360-meter tunnel that led from one inmate's cell. In 2007, two New Jersey convicts, apparently taking inspiration from The Shawshank Redemption, used tools to carve holes in their cell walls and covered them with pinup posters.

Brute force. This might be the toughest technique of all. In March 2005, Brian Nichols overpowered a security guard at an Atlanta courthouse and took her gun. He went on to shoot a judge, a court reporter, and a police officer before taking a woman hostage in her home. He eventually surrendered to police. In 1998, a friend of Florida inmate Jay Sigler drove a giant truck through four layers of security fence and blasted guards with a shotgun while Sigler jumped into a second getaway car driven by Sigler's mother.

Cry for help. Friends don't let friends rot in prison. Three convicted murderers escaped from an Arizona state prison in August 2010 by using wire cutters thrown over the prison fence by a woman outside. When David Puckett drove his stolen pickup to Houston after escaping from a Texas prison, he had money wired to him by a woman he'd met online while in prison. But the Best Friend Award probably goes to Pascal Payet. The French criminal first escaped from prison in 2001 in a helicopter hijacked by a group of friends. In 2003, he paid it forward by helping three friends escape from the same prison—again via a helicopter. He was soon arrested and returned to prison, from which he escaped once again in 2007—by helicopter. He was caught in Spain two months later.

Not all escapes require a helicopter. But a little technology helps. According to some experts, a major threat to prison security is cell phones. Puckett wouldn't have had any money after escaping were it not for the woman he met online while using his cell phone in prison. In 2008, a death row inmate in Texas used a smuggled cell phone to threaten a state legislator. Even Charles Manson was recently caught with a mobile phone. Some penitentiaries have begun installing phone-jamming systems to keep prisoners from making calls.

But in the end, preventing escapes usually comes down to having enough competent officers on duty. There's a strong correlation between prison security and the officer-to-inmate ratio, says Kevin Tamez of MPM Group, a security consulting firm. "Yes, technology can assist with escape issues," says Tamez. "But it doesn't alter the fact that you gotta have feet on the ground."

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.