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

Photo: escaping prison

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.

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