Inmate Ingenuity: Escapes and Attempted Escapes

NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series. You can read the first article, “Inmate Ingenuity: Improvisation and Manipulation Behind Bars,” here.

If you are an institutional corrections officer or a juvenile detention officer, you will remember — from the time you entered the recruit academy until now — how instructors and supervisors emphasized security. You know that security means staff, inmates and the public are kept safe. You are constantly searching for contraband, always on the lookout for things you can do to prevent escapes and attempted escapes.

Three phrases that I have come to embrace are:

1. Desperate people — the inmates — do desperate things. Corrections officers (COs) know this, and through experience have come to believe it.

2. Inmates are not stupid; in fact, many exhibit a high degree of street smarts. No matter what terms you use (inmate, offender, incarcerated person, and so on), people do not like to be confined. Some offenders accept their situation and get along with staff to make the best of it. Others want out and concoct ingenious ways to escape.

3. Never, never, NEVER underestimate the ingenuity of a criminal offender. Do so at your peril, as inmates will take advantage of your inattention.

No matter what changes in corrections — the technology, the research and data, training or new ways to supervise inmates — these three axioms remain constant and true.

Putting it all together, a CO can assume that incarcerated inmates do not want to be locked up or spend their lives inside the walls. Some will resort to desperate measures to get out. Think of the infamous 1962 escape from the supposedly ultra-secure island prison, the United States Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island.[1] Three inmates with long sentences escaped their cells and entered the cold, swift-moving currents of the San Franciso Bay, never to be seen again. They may have drowned, but they still escaped.

This article will discuss how inmates have tried or succeeded in pulling off escapes and attempted escapes from custody. Its purpose is to “wake up” any correctional worker maintaining custody of inmates. Complacency and a lulled sense of security are our own worst enemies.

Two Elements of Escapes

No correctional agency can prevent 100% of escapes. Like inmate suicides, escapes and attempted escapes can happen despite officers’ best efforts. But we can do some things to prevent or discourage them. We have policies and procedures in place: Searches, housing assignments, classification of known or suspected escape risks, repairs to facility infrastructure and headcounts. However, there are two things COs and staff must keep in mind at all times. These two things are not rocket science. Quite simply, they are people and “stuff.” Both are interrelated. People — the staff — have stuff. And offenders use both people and stuff in ingenious ways to get around security protocols. Let us look at each.

People

It is no secret that inmates are constantly watching institutional staff. Offenders look for staff members who are lazy and do the bare-bones minimum when it comes to security. For example, COs who predictably perform their rounds every 30 minutes on the dot will be noticed. When they do not vary or stagger their checks, offenders can predict with certainty when they will get up and walk around. COs who are more interested in socializing with inmates and other staff members will also be noticed, and their lack of professionalism can prove useful to inmates. Other failures of people include sloppy searches, being distracted during headcounts, and poor inspections. Probably the most egregious are COs who are easily manipulated, can be persuaded to view inmates as friends, can be conned into disregarding security, and are susceptible to “buttering up” by inmates. The result is that situational awareness on the part of COs is reduced. They forget where they are (inside a correctional facility) and who they are dealing with (streetwise criminals).

We can learn from history. Some escapes are notorious, such as the June 2015 escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat, convicted “lifers,” from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.[2] With the help of civilian Joyce Mitchell and CO Gene Palmer, Matt and Sweat escaped through a utility tunnel they had modified under the prison. The two were working in the tailor shop; Mitchell was the civilian supervisor. Mitchell, who was in a romantic, sexual relationship with Matt, supplied the contraband and tools necessary to fashion the tunnel. Palmer, a veteran CO, had become friends with the inmates, granting them courtesies and favors such as circumventing metal detectors, immunity from searches as they returned from the tailor shop, and tipoffs about upcoming searches. Mitchell also brought in contraband, hidden in food, which Palmer passed on to the inmates. The result was an escape by Matt and Sweat that captured the attention of the nation for several weeks in the summer of 2015. Matt was killed by law enforcement; Sweat was recaptured. Mitchell and Palmer were convicted of aiding in their escape, embarrassing the entire corrections profession.[3] The bottom line? Both inmates knew how to read people, use them, and get “stuff.”

There are other examples. In 1984, six inmates escaped from Virginia’s death row at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.[4] The inmates overpowered the COs, then dressed in uniforms and riot gear they found in a storage area. The offenders claimed to have a bomb, though it turned out to be a TV covered with a blanket. To add some drama, they sprayed the “bomb” with fire extinguishers and called for a vehicle to evacuate it from the facility. When the vehicle arrived, they drove off. The inmates exhibited patience in planning their escape, studying the correctional officers’ shifts, habits and clothing sizes. Investigators concluded that staff sloppiness made the escape possible. The facility was ordered closed by the Virginia governor in 2012. The facility cost $20 million and had the latest in security technology. However, that did not matter to the inmates, who studied the staff and learned. They knew the COs’ habits and made their move at precisely the right time.

Some escapes are ingenious, and reading people is a key factor. In 2017, 12 inmates in an Alabama facility took advantage of a new correctional officer, who was working in the control center and trying to observe over 150 inmates.[5] Using peanut butter scraped from jail sandwiches, they altered the number on a door. When the new CO thought he was opening an inmate’s cell for entry, he was actually opening the door with the altered number … which led to the outside. And out they went. Using blankets thrown over the razor wire, they gained their freedom, although temporarily. Thankfully, all were recaptured.

Based on these examples, we can safely conclude that inmates are always watching us, probing for weaknesses in our professional skills and our personalities.

It is important that all staff know and follow their agency’s policies on security, inspections, contraband and escapes.

“Stuff”

It’s almost a cliché that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. This is especially true when it comes to inmates. Stuff does not magically appear inside a facility; someone has to bring it in or discard it. And if inmates can get the stuff, they can use it to their advantage.

A CO should assume that once an item hits the trash can, it can be retrieved and used by inmates. I recall a time during one of my in-service classes when I displayed a photo I had taken of some contraband in a local jail that I had recently toured.[6] One photo was of a weapon made from a metal fork with two prongs folded back. The jail officers in the class asked me how an inmate could possess something like that. I opened up a discussion about how a staff member could have violated policy by carrying the fork in from the staff dining area and not keeping control of it. Alternatively, a trusty could have smuggled it from the staff area or even from outside. No matter how it was obtained, it was clearly contraband — a weapon to inflict bodily harm, or a tool for digging.

Sometimes, items that are not specifically prohibited can be used in ingenious ways, such as toothbrushes sharpened into weapons, bed sheets used to make a rope, paper clips fashioned into handcuff keys, and cardboard used to prevent doors from closing. COs should continuously inspect their facilities for problems like signs of digging or broken security cameras. These problems must be investigated and repaired as soon as possible. If corrections officers know about the “cracks in the security wall,” chances are very good the inmates know them as well.

If an inmate has a cell phone, everyone is in trouble. In 2017, at dusk on the Fourth of July, a convicted kidnapper in a South Carolina maximum security institution escaped by cutting through four fences with wire cutters.[7] He left a dummy in his bed and with an 18-hour head start, he managed to stay on the run for two days. He was captured in a Texas motel, and had in his possession approximately $47,000 in cash, an ID card and two firearms. Investigators stated that he used a smuggled cell phone to coordinate the drop of the escape tools by drone. It was the second time in 12 years he had escaped custody.

Every correctional staff training class should include a frank, open discussion of how inmates can use stuff to escape. In June 1962, three inmates escaped from Alcatraz. This escape has been discussed for years and gained immortality in film.[8] These streetwise, intelligent inmates planned the escape well in advance, and knew exactly when to get out of their cells. For six months, using various materials to dig out of their cells and gain access to the cellblock roof, they prepared themselves for the cold, dark swim across San Francisco Bay. Here are just a few of the ways they worked with improvised materials:

  • Used old, discarded saw blades for cutting.
  • Constructed a drill from a broken vacuum cleaner.
  • Used suitcases and cardboard to hide the holes in their cell walls.
  • Made plaster dummy heads — complete with hair and flesh-tone paint — which successfully fooled prison officers.
  • Set up a secret workshop on the roof of the cellblock building where they constructed materials for the escape.
  • Took turns watching the prison officers using a homemade periscope.
  • Made crude life preservers and a 6×14-foot rubber raft from stolen raincoats by painstakingly stitching them together and “vulcanizing” the seams using prison steam pipes.
  • Built crude wooden paddles.
  • Used a musical instrument to build a device that would inflate the raft.
  • Used soap to fashion fake bolts that disguised the damage to the roof’s ventilator cover.

Did they make it? Some say yes, and some say no. Regardless of what eventually happened to the escapees, they demonstrated a great degree of ingenuity in collecting and using stuff to their advantage.

A Wartime Example

As corrections trainers and supervisors, we must challenge staff to think outside the box when it comes to escapes and attempted escapes. This is especially true of new officers who do not have many years of experience. For example, in my trainings, I frequently speak about how we, in the 21st century, can learn from history. One of the most innovative escapes was during World War II, when 76 Allied servicemen broke out of a Nazi prisoner of war (POW) camp.[9] I always recommend the 1963 film, “The Great Escape” (starring Steve McQueen), to my classes.[10] It is a great study of people and stuff.

In March 1944, 76 Allied airmen escaped from the Stalag Luft III POW camp run by the air force of the Third Reich, the Luftwaffe. Because of previous escape attempts, the Nazis had constructed huts that were raised off the ground. Microphones were buried nine feet underground, and the camp was built on sandy soil that was difficult to dig through and would be noticed on the clothing of the POWs. The POWs were not deterred; they began digging three tunnels, each one 30 feet deep. One was discovered; of the two that remained, one was used for storage and one was extended until it went all the way past the perimeter fence. The prisoners stripped their bunks of wooden slats (4,000 in all) to build ladders and shore up the tunnel walls. They muffled the sounds of digging by stuffing 1,700 blankets against the sides of their tunnels.

Some of the stuff used in the escape came from outside the camp. For example, the Red Cross supplied the POWs with powdered milk in cans. These cans were useful in making digging tools and lamps. To make working lamps, the POWs skimmed grease and fat off the soup they were fed. This worked as fuel. They used pajama cords for wicks. Using hockey sticks, ping-pong paddles and knapsacks, they improvised a crude bellows system to pump air into the tunnels. They devised a trolley system to get the sand out of the tunnels. Finally, in a move reminiscent of another great jailbreak movie (“The Shawshank Redemption”), they disposed of the sand by mixing it with soil of the compound and dropping it out of their trouser legs.[11]

The POWs also watched the guards carefully. They developed a very subtle lookout system. When a guard approached, a signal to the other prisoners could be simple as fiddling with a shoelace or turning the page of a book. The POWs discovered that some guards could be bribed with things that were difficult to get in Germany, such as chocolate, coffee, soap and sugar. The POWs obtained cameras and travel documents. They were able to forge travel passes, identity cards and passports. Carving patterns in boot heels, they fashioned stamps for the documents and used boot polish for ink. Escape organizers hoped for 200 POWs to escape; 76 actually did, though 73 were recaptured. Of those, 50 were shot on orders from Adolf Hitler. Just three made it to safety.

Lessons Learned

There are several important lessons to be learned both from recent escapes and escape attempts and those in history. It is important that all staff know and follow their agency’s policies on security, inspections, contraband and escapes. COs must think outside the box and try to imagine what the inmates may be up to and how they might use various items to their advantage.

It is important to keep three things in mind. First, people who are confined may try to get out. The inmates you are dealing with are street-smart survivors, and desperate people do desperate things. Second, inmates are constantly checking us out, trying to determine if we can be convinced to be their friends or if we are susceptible to flirting, romance or looking the other way. Third, they will not hesitate to use the stuff they find, steal, or arrange to have smuggled in. Lots of objects and materials can be used to aid in a potential escape attempt.

The bottom line? Never, never, never underestimate the caginess, intelligence and ingenuity of a person who is locked up. NEVER.

References:

  1. “Alcatraz Escape,” FBI History. Accessed September 1, 2023, https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/alcatraz-escape
  2. Ferrigno L. “Escaped murderers took advantage of ‘systemic failures.’” CNN, June 6, 2016. Accessed September 12, 2023. https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/06/us/richard-matt-david-sweat-escape-report/index.html
  3. State of New York, Office of the Inspector General. “Investigation of the June 5, 2015 Escape of Inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility.” June, 2016. Accessed September 12, 2023. https://ig.ny.gov/sites/g/files/oee571/files/2016-11/DOCCS%20Clinton%20Report%20FINAL_1.pdf
  4. Bosun M. “Mecklenburg Six: how death row inmates busted out of prison that was considered ‘escape proof’”, New York Daily News. June 14, 2015. Accessed September 12, 2023. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/prison-serving-time-hell-article-1.2256866
  5. Fox News, “Peanut butter jailbreak: How a dozen Alabama inmates used food to bust out of jail.” July 31, 2017, updated September 26, 2017. Accessed September 12, 2023. https://www.foxnews.com/us/peanut-butter-jailbreak-how-a-dozen-alabama-inmates-used-food-to-bust-out-of-jail
  6. Cornelius G. 2021. “Outsmarting the Inmates: Maintaining Secure Custody.” Jail Staff In-Service PowerPoint Presentation.
  7. Associated Press. “Escaped inmate may have used wire cutters delivered by drone.” 7News Miami, July 8, 2017. Accessed September 12, 2023. https://wsvn.com/news/us-world/escaped-inmate-may-have-used-wire-cutters-delivered-by-drone/
  8. “Escape from Alcatraz.” 1979. Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). Accessed September 12, 2023. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079116/
  9. Klein C. “The Great Escape: The Audacious Real Story of the World War II Prison Break.” History.com. November 23, 2021, updated August 24, 2023. https://www.history.com/news/great-escape-wwii-nazi-stalag-luft-iii
  10. “The Great Escape.” 1963. Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). Accessed September 12, 2023. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057115/
  11. “The Shawshank Redemption.” 1994. Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). Accessed September 12, 2023. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111161/
Gary Cornelius

LT. GARY F. CORNELIUS retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification. Gary is an independent freelance correctional author and trainer. He has taught corrections courses for George Mason University since 1986, teaches corrections in-service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association, and the National Institute of Justice. Gary is the author of several books, including The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, and Stressed Out: Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections. His latest book, The High-Performance Correctional Facility: Lessons on Correctional Work, Leadership and Effectiveness is now available from the Civic Research Institute.

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