Attempts by prisoners to break out of custody have caught the public imagination for many years. Whereas in some cases, those seeking freedom have been the targets of harsh repression or captured during wartime, others have been criminals of all kinds who have sought to outwit their jailers.
Efforts at escape are by no means a modern phenomenon. In the past, the lack of freedom of speech led to many outspoken individuals being imprisoned for their beliefs or opinions. Almost as soon as such imprisonments began, records show that there were individuals quite prepared to risk everything for a chance at freedom.
But nowadays, the frequency of inmates escaping from prison is extremely rare. In the United States, barely 50 prisoners escape from around 1500 high and medium security facilities on an annual basis, according to recent estimates. A big part in the decline of successful escapes is the huge improvements in technology, including surveillance equipment and the design of prisons. Yet, in spite of this, the following list shows that there are still a few daring individuals who have managed to get out without being caught against all the odds.
The popularity of escape stories is shown in the wide range of films that have had this as their main theme. Fictional Hollywood works like Shawshank Redemption, or movies based on true events such as Escape from Alcatraz or the Great Escape have become cinema classics that are loved by millions of people around the world. Here are eleven of the most daring prison escapes.
11. Hugo Grotius
Grotius was a Dutch jurist and theologian in the early 17th century, who made major contributions to the idea of international law. He was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in a religious dispute over the role of the state in ecclesiastical matters. In 1621, he was able to slip out of Loevestein Castle, where he had been held in a book chest. Following his daring bid for freedom, Grotius fled to Paris where he lived for several years and completed his most significant philosophical works. Even today in the Netherlands, his escape remains a legendary episode, and two museums continue to claim that they hold the original chest he used almost 400 years ago.
10. Libby Prison
During the American civil war, 109 Union prisoners broke out of a Confederate jail near Richmond, Virginia, in February 1864. The prisoners dug a tunnel carrying them under the prison walls and out to a small shed from where they fled into the night. It was the third tunnel they had tried to excavate, with the first two having failed when one ran into the water and the other came up against the foundation of the building. Of the total who escaped, 57 were able to reach union lines. Libby prison was notorious for the mistreatment of prisoners and the squalid conditions in which inmates lived.
9. Rene Belbenoit
Belbenoit’s story is worthy of the old saying that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again.” He was sentenced in 1920, to eight years’ hard labor in the French penal colony of French Guyana. This meant that even after the eight year period, he would have to remain in the colony for life. Before his successful escape on March 2nd, 1935, Belbenoit tried to leave the colony on four different occasions, each either with a makeshift raft or boat. His eventual escape route included stopovers in Trinidad, Colombia and Panama, before he reached the United States almost two years after leaving captivity. On the way, he spent time with native American tribes before concealing himself in a boat, which carried him from El Salvador to Los Angeles.
8. Colditz Castle
Colditz became the most infamous jail for prisoners of war used by Nazi Germany during World War II. It was allegedly impregnable and it was therefore chosen to house those prisoners thought to be most at risk of escape. But in spite of the low likelihood of success, it was considered part of British military honor by the officers held there to try to secure their freedom. A total of 174 escape attempts were made during the war. One which was successful was led by Lieutenant Commander William Stephens, who crawled through windows and over a roof, before climbing down the prison walls. With the help of forged documents, he then made it to the border with Switzerland posing as a French electrician.
7. Great Escape
Perhaps the most famous mass escape of World War II, the Great Escape saw 76 allied prisoners break out of the German prison camp Stalag Luft III, located in modern day Poland. They painstakingly dug a tunnel to carry them under the barbed wire fencing that surrounded the camp. To keep the guards guessing, three tunnels were actually constructed so that if one was discovered, the plans could still continue. Sand produced from digging the escape routes was discreetly scattered around the camp, using small pouches inside the prisoners’ clothing. Many of the escapees were subsequently captured and only three made it to safety. Over 50 were shot by the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo.
6. Alcatraz Island Escape
The breakout from Alcatraz high security prison has gone down in US history, as one of the most infamous jailbreaks. Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin used an inflatable raft to escape the island prison, in 1962. They dug through the walls in their cells using spoons, a process which took a year. After scaling a ventilation shaft to reach the roof, they climbed over the prison fence and built a raft using prison raincoats on the northeast corner of the island. They left the island at about 10pm on the 11th of June. Despite an FBI investigation, it was never determined if they reached the mainland shore, although it is generally thought that they drowned.
5. Mountjoy Prison
The provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) organised a remarkable escape from Mountjoy prison in 1973, that made headlines around the world. The plot aimed to secure the release of three of its leading commanders, Seamus Twomey, JB O’Hagan and Kevin Mallon. It involved landing a helicopter in the prison’s exercise yard which was then boarded by the three escapees. They were flown to an abandoned racecourse in Dublin from where IRA members transported them to safe houses. The daring escape was a major problem for the Irish government, which was criticized for not being able to control the actions of the IRA. It took over four years before all of the escapees were finally recaptured.
4. Maze Prison Escape
On September 25th, 1983, thirty-eight IRA members managed to escape from Maze Prison, in what is the largest escape from a jail in British history. It was accomplished by smuggling guns into the prison, which were then used to take prison guards hostage in one of the blocks. This prevented the alarm from being raised, giving the prisoners time to hijack a lorry which had been delivering food supplies to the prison. A number of prison officers were injured during the escape, including two who were shot. One died of a heart attack. Around half of those who got out were recaptured relatively quickly, while the rest remained undetected.
3. Pascal Payet
The repeat offender, who has been charged with several assaults, murder and armed robbery, has escaped custody on two occasions himself, as well as organizing the escape of three others. Each attempt has been orchestrated with the help of a helicopter. In 2007, despite being classified as France’s highest security prisoner and kept in solitary confinement, a gang of four men hijacked a helicopter and freed him from jail. He was on the run for two months before being caught again.
2. Sarposa Prison Attack
In June 2008, Taliban forces in Afghanistan launched a major operation to release around 1,200 prisoners held at Sarposa Prison, near the city of Kandahar. After two suicide bombers detonated explosives at the prison, armed men on motorcycles killed fifteen prison guards before breaking the locks on every cell. The prison was a controversial institution, having held inmates without trial for up to two years and conducted trials that were considered by many to be unfair. An estimated 390 of the prisoners were Taliban fighters.
In March 2013, 11 prisoners broke out of a prison near Trikala, Greece, by breaking open cell windows and climbing down a guard tower using ropes made from bed sheets. The escape took place during an assault on the prison by a heavily armed gang firing guns and throwing grenades. The gun battle lasted over half an hour and injured two prison officers. Two escapees were captured immediately, but the rest evaded detection during the breakout. Eye-witnesses described the scene as a war zone, and bullets from the exchange of fire even hit buildings in a nearby village. It was believed that an organised crime group was to blame for the storming of the prison.
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