Inmates Will Do Whatever It Takes to Get Out of the Big House

Photo: escaping prisonABC News Photo Illustration
For some inmates, time behind bars is spent not on repenting for the crimes they've convicted, but is instead passed by brainstorming creative ideas to try and escape.

For some inmates, time behind bars is spent not on repenting for the crimes they've committed, but, much to the chagrin of the prison guards, brainstorming creative ideas to try and escape from their cells.

One did it with the help of a dental floss ladder. Others use tools stolen from a prison job or fashioned out of metal, paper or other materials. One even flashed an ID of the actor Eddie Murphy to walk out of a Los Angeles jail.

Late last week, three convicted murderers escaped an Arizona prison by using pliers to cut a hole in a fence that surrounds the prison and then carjacking a truck, demanding a ride to nearby Flagstaff.

Officials say that the inmates, Daniel Renwick, 36, Tracy Province, 42, and John McCluskey, 45, passed through a door that should have been alarmed but wasn't, and that a second alarm wasn't noticed by guards.

While one of the escapees was caught in Colorado over the weekend, the other two are still on the lam and considered dangerous.

According to Mitchel Roth, a prison historian who is a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas, the evolution of work programs inside prisons has contributed to the varying ways inmates try and escape.

"They have plenty of time for conniving, and the more prison industries they have access to the more opportunities they have to get instruments to aid in their escape," said Roth.

"The prisoners are constantly watching and are very observant," he said. "Most of them are world-class manipulators before they even make it to prison."

Roth said that statistics on escapes are sparse, but that overall the attempts are down. Federal prison escapes are far rarer than those at minimum security camps, he said, where inmates are able just to walk off the premises. And even then, the great majority of inmates are apprehended.

Prison experts say that the blueprint of a prison escape has changed quite a bit since 1962, when three inmates successfully broke out of Alcatraz. The prisoners chiseled holes out of the walls in their cells, stuffed their beds with dummies and crawled out of the prison, escaping on a raft made with a raincoat. They were never seen again and are believed to have drowned in San Francisco Bay.

Even so, prison escapes still happen and sometimes involve plans that may be considered just as creative as the one used by the Alcatraz escapees.

"Many of these inmates have jobs where you have hammers, tools, wrenches," said John Webster, the managing director of the National Prison and Sentencing Consultants Inc. who has served time in prison himself. "Inmates are extraordinarily handy, and if they don't take the tools, they'll make their own."

Webster has seen inmates make shanks by rolling wet newspapers into the shape of a dagger. Others have tried snapping off pieces of metal from their beds to make weapons, a trend that resulted in many prisons installing cement block beds instead of those with metal frames.

In 1995, West Virginia inmate Robert Dale Shepard escaped after constructing a ladder out of dental floss.

Shepard told the Charleston Gazette at the time that he had used seven packages of dental floss acquired at the prison commissary and from other inmates to make the ladder that he braided into a rope as as thick as a telephone cord and 18 feet long.

The inmate tossed the self-made rope over the 18-foot cinder block wall and pulled himself up and over, remaining free for 41 days before being picked up by officials and brought back to prison.

Asked how he knew his plan would work, Shepard told the paper, "I was pretty sure about that. I think there's always ways to make a rope.

"When you take somebody and put them in here for 24 hours a day, he has nothing to do but think of some way out," Shepard said. "I think there are always ways of coming up with some idea."

"Dental floss is extremely strong when you start to braid it," said Webster, adding that many prisons have banned the sale of floss since Shepard's escape.

But rather than constructing an elaborate plan to get out of prison, Webster said, many inmates simply walk out.

"One inmate in Rhode Island recently just walked out using another inmate's release papers," said Webster, referring to 21-year-old Nayquan Gadson, who is still at large after escaping from the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston, R.I.

"False paperwork is most common in escapes," said Webster.

That apparently was how Kevin Jerome Pullum walked out of Los Angeles' Twin Towers jail in July 2001 just hours after he was convicted for attempted murder, according to the Los Angeles Times. The paper reported he walked out using a "fake employee identification badge bearing a picture of actor Eddie Murphy from the film 'Dr. Dolittle 2'" before being captured 16 days later.

Webster said that while inmates he spent time with in prison discussed escaping, it was never with the intention of actually trying it. Having spent most of his time at a federal prison camp where there is far less security and it is possible to just "walk off the property," Webster said inmates rarely tried it.

"Inmates who try to escape are not favorites with other inmates; they're considered idiots," said Webster. "Yeah, we used to talk about it, how easy it would be to just walk away. But where are you going? 100 yards? They will catch you."

Inmates who did walk away often were provoked by what prisoners refer to as a "pool boy letter," or a letter from a wife or girlfriend on the outside announcing that she'd found another man.

"But very few of these people who escape do well," he said. "Escaping requires a tremendous amount of resources, and you can't go home again. You have to disappear. And the only places you can go where our government won't find you are not really the places you want to go."

Kenneth LaMaster, a prison historian who served as a correctional officer for three decades, much of his career spent at Leavenworth, the largest maximum security federal prison in the U.S. until 2005, has seen all types of escape attempts, even an inmate trying to get out via helicopter.

While LaMaster acknowledges that modern-day security makes it harder for inmates to escape, he still said escapes are a real concern in the prison community.

"It's really hard to do it," said LaMaster, "but wherever there's a will there's a way.

"It's a 24-hour cops and robbers issue where inmates are looking for ways to defeat us and we're looking for ways to keep them in," he said. "It's a constant battle that's fought every day."