How To: Break Out of Prison


I know, I know, you're thinking, "Finally, something practical!" And you'd be right. While driving a tank and digging to the center of the earth are fun things to know how to do, the chances you'll use that info are pretty slim. Breaking out of prison, on the other hand...well, I'm pretty sure some of you will find this helpful. You know who you are.

Method 1: By Tunnel
You can get all fancy if you want, but a good, solid tunnel is still the most reliable method of prison escape. It's tradition; the kind of thing you'd learn from your grandpappy—provided you came from that sort of family. In fact, the most successful tunnel escape in American history dates back to the Civil War, when 109 Yankee prisoners dug their way out of a Confederate penitentiary. To be fair, Libby Prison in Richmond, VA, wasn't exactly Alcatraz. A former warehouse, Libby didn't have actual cells. Instead, hundreds of prisoners were kept in squalor in eight 103-x-42-foot rooms. The yard around the prison was heavily guarded. The rooms, apparently, not so much. In 1863, a group of officers realized that they could access an abandoned basement by prying through the brick floor of the kitchen room. Over a series of months, they spent their nights digging a narrow tunnel into the basement wall using their hands, clamshells, and stolen tools. By February of 1864, they'd dug enough that the tunnel reached to the far side of a board fence, across the street from the prison. On February 9, the original 14 conspirators, plus one friend each, crawled out of the tunnel and walked off as casually as possible into the night. An hour later, an associate began spreading the word to the rest of the inmates. Things went pretty well at first, but as dawn closed in the tunnel was swamped in a bum rush and the Confederate guards finally figured out that something might be amiss. Of the 109 who escaped, 38 were recaptured. The rest hiked through more than 50 miles of frozen swamp to reach the Union lines at Williamsburg.

Method 2: In Disguise
This method was also a favorite among Civil War prisoners. Particularly at Camp Douglas in Illinois, where Confederate soldiers would frequently darken their skin with charcoal and walk out the front door with the prison's black servants. However implausible, the ruse apparently fooled Camp officials so many times that they eventually stopped employing African Americans. Some of the boldest disguise escapes come from another prisoner of war facility—Germany's Colditz Castle. A former fortress-turned-insane asylum, the Castle was commandeered by the Nazis to house "difficult cases," i.e. POWs who kept escaping from other prisons. In hindsight, putting them all together maybe wasn't the best idea the Third Reich ever had. Within a year of its 1939 opening, there were so many escapes brewing simultaneously that the inmates appointed "escape officers" to coordinate attempts and make sure that no one accidentally ruined another group's plan. Using costumes from the camp's theater (the prisoners' 1941 Christmas spectacular "Ballet Nonsense" was supposedly excellent), various individuals attempted escapes dressed as the Castle's electrician, guards, even the Camp Kommandant. And in June 1941, a French Lieutenant named Boule nearly made it out dressed as a woman. Boule's drag act was apparently so good that when he dropped his watch on the way out, a British officer attempted to return it to "her." Unfortunately, this got the attention of the guards who then noticed Boule's unladylike 5 o'clock shadow.

Method 3: The Way You Came In
In the 1970s, white anti-apartheid activists Tim Jenkin, Alex Moumbaris and Stephen Lee were sent to prison for their political activism. And not just any prison. At the time, South Africa's Pretoria Central Prison was the sort of place that Alcatraz wished it could be. And yet, from the moment they got in, the three men were looking for a way out. In 1979, they finally found it. Over the course of two years, the men taught themselves lock picking and made replicas of several of the keys they'd need to escape. They fashioned street clothes by re-tailoring their own prison pants into khaki bellbottoms and using spare prison gloves and shirts to make casual hats. On the night of December 11, 1979, they put their planning to work and—without any violence or even a single confrontation with a guard—unlocked the ten doors between themselves and freedom and then simply walked out.