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Prison breaks

Published This article is more than 2 years old.
  • Quartz Obsession — Prison breaks — Card 1

    Over the past six weeks or so, inmates have broken out of prisons in, among other places, Oklahoma, Washington, Italy, Brazil, and Iran. In Paraguay, 75 inmates tunneled out of a prison in Pedro Juan Caballero through a passage police officials described as one “like we see in the movies, complete with internal lighting.” In New Jersey, a suspect in US Customs and Border Protection custody disappeared into the ceiling at Newark Liberty International Airport, nearly getting away. In Alabama, an inmate doing time for murder simply walked off the job during work release.

    Covid-19 has given the incarcerated another reason to escape. Infection rates on the inside far outpace those on the outside. Inmates and detainees (the latter have generally not yet been convicted of a crime) cannot practice adequate social distancing, and several recent US prison breaks have reportedly been carried out by inmates scared of catching the disease. Nations like Germany and Iran have furloughed thousands of non-violent inmates to mitigate its spread.

    But escape is eternal, and has captured the imagination just as long. There have been prison break TV shows, prison break songs, prison break movies, prison break video games, and prison break shoes. Let’s tunnel our way out.

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    3: Tunnels—named Tom, Dick, and Harry—used by prisoners to escape a Luftwaffe prison camp

    36: Inmates who attempted escapes from Alcatraz during its 29 years of operation

    3: Escaped Alcatraz inmates who were never found

    50: Raincoats those Alcatraz inmates used to make a life raft

    $1 million: Reward the US government is offering for the capture of fugitive Joanne Chesimard, who shot and killed a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 and fled to Cuba

    6 inches by 18 inches (15 cm by 45 cm): Size of the food slot yoga expert Choi Gap-bok, the “Korean Houdini,” wriggled out of by oiling himself and “moving flexibly like an octopus.”

    22: Escapes pulled off by notorious Danish thief Brian Bo Larsen

    1,084: Escapes per 10,000 prisoners from Finnish prisons in 2013, mostly from their progressive “open” prisons

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    The most straightforward approach, naturally, is for an inmate to escape through a window, vent, or tunnel—the method used by notorious drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán when he busted out of a Mexican prison in 2015, his second successful prison break. Serial killer Ted Bundy escaped incarceration twice—once by jumping out the window of a law library, once by losing enough weight to squeeze through a light fixture in his cell that hadn’t been welded in place.

    Escapees can opt for brains over brawn. A dozen inmates escaped from an Alabama jail by smearing peanut butter over the numbers on a door leading to the outside and convincing an unwitting guard to open it for them. In 2015, a correctional officer in upstate New York was duped into helping two inmates escape by providing them with seemingly benign items he thought they were using to cook food in their cells. Making prison employees feel “special” also works.

    If all else fails, there’s always a helicopter, or the old helicopter and tangerines painted as grenades trick.

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    Although the federal government has not executed a prisoner in many years, the Bureau of Prisons, and several US states, surround their facilities with electric fencing designed to kill inmates who attempt escapes.

    The first shock is meant to incapacitate the potential escapee. If they try again, they are hit with a 5,000-volt shock. By comparison, most electric chairs deliver somewhere between 1,700 and 2,400 volts.

    Lethal electric fencing came about in the 1990s, and was meant to be a money-saving measure, replacing human shotgun-toting guards in towers. It’s legally permissible, but it worries many human rights activists.

    “Under international law, guards standing on towers—or any automated system—must weigh whether or not the use of lethal force is strictly necessary,” Alison Leal Parker, director of US Programs at Human Rights Watch recently told Quartz. “There are times when technology can be rights-respecting and even rights-protecting in a way that human decision-making may be flawed. But there are also many, many instances—and I would argue this is one—where the need to assess whether killing someone is strictly necessary cannot be done by an automated fence.”

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    1594: Jesuit priest John Gerard plots an escape from the Tower of London using orange juice as invisible ink.

    1621: After being wrongly imprisoned by political opponents, Dutch prosecutor Hugo Grotius smuggles himself out of prison in a bookcase.

    1755: Italian intellectual and libertine Giacomo Casanova—sentenced to five years for threatening social stability—escapes from his cell in the Doge’s Palace of Venice.

    1881: Legendary outlaw Billy the Kid shoots his way out of New Mexico’s Lincoln County Jail, killing two cops. He is recaptured two years later.

    1934: While awaiting trial in an “escape proof” jail in Indiana, notorious bank robber John Dillinger whittles a wooden gun and uses it to break out. A few months later, he is shot dead by the FBI.

    1949: Joseph Holmes escapes a Maryland prison by digging a 70-ft-long (21 m), 26-ft-deep (8 m) tunnel, four hours at a time, over 20 months.

    1975: Drug smuggler Dwight Worker escapes from Lecumberri prison in Mexico, aka The Black Palace, allegedly becoming the second escapee since Pancho Villa.

    1979: Three supporters of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress escape a prison in Pretoria using wooden keys.

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    For those who try to make the best of their time behind bars, programs run by groups like Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) has changed—and continues to change—lives. RTA graduates reoffend at a rate of less than 5%, compared to a 60% recidivism rate nationwide.

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    Although often used interchangeably, the two well-known DIY prison weapons are in fact two different things. Fashioned from metal bedframes, ballpoint pens, nail files, combs, or melted chunks of plastic sharpened to a razor’s edge, these homemade fighting tools have historically been used by inmates to battle other residents or escape.

    But, strictly speaking, a “shiv” is meant for stabbing, while a “shank” is meant for slicing. Collectors can find examples of both on eBay.

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    Surveillance cameras captured the exact moment international drug lord El Chapo escaped from a Mexican prison cell in 2015. One of the people reportedly on the kingpin’s payroll? Former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto.

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    Easy enough, but what if you want to go to prison? South Korea’s Prison Inside Me is a mock prison that serves as a silent, simple, phone-free retreat for guests looking for a respite from the stresses of life on the outside.

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    Scratching a deeper itch for liberation, the subject has long been fodder for film. Here are a few of the greatest hits:

    Cool Hand Luke—Paul Newman plays a man with an unbreakable desire for freedom and an innate disdain for authority.

    Out of SightGeorge Clooney plays a bank robber; Jennifer Lopez plays a federal Marshal with a shotgun. Chemistry ensues.

    Shawshank Redemption—All you need is the power of hope, plus a really good plan.

    Down By Law—An absurdist, 1990s hipster take on jailbreak.

    La Grand Illusion—Jean Renoir’s 1937 film follows French prisoners plotting an escape from a German camp during WWI, and from the class identities that define them. US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a fan.

    The Great Escape—Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, and Richard Attenborough, it’s an American Grand Illusion.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Prison breaks — Card 13

    What can prisons do during the Covid-19 outbreak to keep their inmates safe, and to give them one less reason to break out? Start with a century-old lesson. In 1918, San Quentin Prison in California experienced three separate waves of the Spanish flu, and resident physician L.L. Stanley used the highly regulated nature of the institution to contact-trace infections and study transmission.

    His report details initiatives like providing inmates with flour sack masks, canceling a popular movie-screening event in a poorly ventilated basement room, and immediately isolating patients exhibiting symptoms. During the April outbreak, 27% of the prison population became ill; in October, that number dropped to just under 4%. “The most effective means available for combating the spread of the disease in this prison were hospitalization, quarantine, isolation, and closure of congregating places,” Stanley wrote.

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