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History’s Ten Greatest Prison Escapes14

By Steven Novak

History’s Ten Greatest Prison Escapes

The primary purpose of a prison is to keep the bad people in, and for the most part, they’re quite successful at doing exactly that. Occasionally, however, a resourceful few manage to get out – it’s never easy though. This is the case in the KoldCast TV series Cell, a story about a man that wakes up in a cell after a night on the town and soon realizes that he’s not alone and he’s not exactly in jail. Whether you’re guilty or not (everyone claims to be), we thought we would “applaud” those that have successfully beat the system… well, sort of. Here is a list of history’s most famous prison escapes.

1. The Texas Seven

Known as the Texas 7, this group of guys successfully escaped from the John Connally Unit near Kenedy, Texas on December 13, 2000. The seven men carried out an elaborate scheme and managed to escape a maximum-security state prison using several well-planned ploys: the seven convicts overpowered and restrained nine civilian maintenance supervisors, four correctional officers and three uninvolved inmates during the slowest period of the day when there would be less surveillance of certain locations. After gagging them, the seven inmates stole their clothing, credit cards, and identification. They eventually made their way to the prison maintenance pickup truck, which they used to escape from the prison grounds. Believe it or not, they were actually apprehended January 21-23, 2001 as a direct result of the television show America’s Most Wanted.

2. Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba

Alfred Wetzler was a Slovak Jew, and one of a very small number of Jews known to have escaped from the Auschwitz death camp during the Holocaust. He and fellow escapee, Rudolf Vrba, with the help of the camp underground, dug their way inside a hollowed-out woodpile just outside the barbed-wire inner perimeter, but inside an external perimeter the guards kept erected during the day. The other prisoners placed boards around the hollowed-out area to hide the men, then sprinkled the area with pungent Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline to fool the guards’ dogs. The two remained in hiding for 4 nights before putting on Dutch suits, overcoats, and boots they had taken from the camp and headed for the Polish border. The pair compiled an incredibly detailed report about the inner workings of the Auschwitz camp including construction details of the gas chambers, crematoriums and, most convincingly, a label from a canister of Zyklon gas. The 32-page Vrba-Wetzler report, as it became known, was the first detailed report about Auschwitz to reach the West that the Allies regarded as credible.

3. The Escape From Alcatraz

In its 29 years of operation, there were 14 attempts to escape from Alcatraz prison. Officially, every escape attempt failed. The most famous and intricate attempt to bust loose from the world’s most famous prison came on June 11, 1962. Frank Morris, and the Anglin brothers burrowed out of their cells, climbed to the top of the cellblock, and then proceeded to cut through bars and make it to the roof via an air vent. They then scurried down a drainpipe, over a chain link fence and to the shore where they assembled a pontoon-type raft and then vanished. It’s widely believed that the trio actually drowned in the San Francisco Bay, though their bodies were never discovered. Seeing as “technically” their whereabouts are unknown, I’m going to call this one an escape and give it a spot on the list.

4. Yakutsk, Siberia

Landscapes don’t come a heck of a lot more unforgivable than Siberia. Among Stalin’s imprisoned Polish in 1939 was a cavalry officer by the name of Slavomir Rawicz. While in Siberia, Rawicz befriended the camp commissar’s wife, and with her help, he and six other prisoners managed to escape during one of many blinding snowstorms. A journey of absolutely epic proportions followed. A Polish teenage girl who had escaped her own camp joined the ragtag group of escapees as they skirted Lake Baikal, slipped over into Mongolia, traversed the Gobi Desert, and crossed the Himalayas. After a journey of 4,000 miles, the Polish officer and four others that managed to survive the trip staggered into British-controlled India nearly a year after their initial escape, finally free.

5. The Libby Prison Escape

Easily the most famous (and successful) prison escape during the American Civil War, the Libby Prison escape took place overnight between February 9th and 10th, 1864. More than 100 imprisoned Union soldiers broke out of their POW building at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia that night by breaking into the basement area known as “rat hell” and digging a tunnel. After 17 days of digging, they succeeded in breaking into a 50-foot vacant lot on the eastern side of the prison beneath a tobacco shed. From there they collected themselves into a group and simply strolled out the front gate unchallenged. Of the 109 escapees, 59 succeeded in reaching Union lines, 48 were recaptured, and 2 drowned in the nearby James River.

6. Pascal Payet

If anyone is deserving of a spot on this list, it’s Pascal Payet, sentenced in 2001, to 30 years for murder. The man managed to escape not once, but twice from high security prisons in France. Believe it or not, on both occasions he used a hijacked helicopter. The chopper used in his second escape had been hijacked by four masked men from Cannes-Mandelieu airport. It landed some time later at Brignoles, 38 kilometres northeast of Toulon, France on the Mediterranean coast. Payet and his accomplices fled the scene and the pilot was released unharmed. Payet was re-captured on September 21, 2007, in Mataró, Spain, about 18 miles northeast of Barcelona. Though he had undergone extensive cosmetic surgery in hopes of keeping himself out of prison, he was identified by Spanish police.

7. Tower of London, England

In the late 1500s, a Jesuit priest named John Gerard was incarcerated at the Tower of London, which at the time served as a jail for political prisoners. Catholicism was illegal and practicing priests were immediately guilty of treason. During his imprisonment, Gerard wrote letters to supporters on the outside and hid secret clues written in invisible ink made from diluted orange juice. He also sent some messages to another prisoner, John Arden, who was held in a separate jail in the Tower. The pair conspired to escape with the help of friends and a sympathetic guard. On October 4, 1597, Gerard hacked through stones around the door to his cell. Once out, he snuck past guards and reached a high wall overlooking a moat, where he met up with Arden. A supporter and an escape boat waited below. Via a rope tied to a nearby cannon, the pair inched down and rowed to safety.

8. Stalag Luft

Stalag Luft III was a German Air Force prisoner-of-war camp during World War II that housed captured air force personnel. In January 1943, a group led by Roger Bushell came up with a plan to dig three deep tunnels, codenamed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry.” Each of the entrances was carefully selected to ensure they would be undetectable by the guards. The tunnels were very small and shored up with pieces of wood scavenged from all over the camp. To ensure that the person digging had enough oxygen to breathe and keep his lamps lit, a pump was built to push fresh air along the ducting into the tunnels. Later, electric lighting was installed and hooked into the camp’s electrical grid. The group also managed to somehow install a small rail car system for moving sand more quickly. These rails were key to moving 130 tons of material in a five-month period. Eventually 76 men crawled through the tunnel to initial freedom but the 77th was unfortunately spotted emerging from the tunnel by one of the guards. Out of the 76 men only 3 evaded capture.

9. Billy Hayes

Billy Hayes was an American student who was arrested in 1970 when he tried to smuggle two pounds of hash onto a plane in Turkey. After being caught, he was sentenced to thirty years in the exceptionally harsh Turkish prison system. Hayes toiled in Sagmilicar Prison for five years, but he was eventually transferred to an island prison in the Sea of Marmara. It was here that Billy began to seriously plan his escape. Though the island had no boats, a nearby harbor would frequently fill up with small fishing vessels any time there was a strong storm. Hayes spent days hiding in a concrete bin, and when the time was right, he swam to the harbor and stole a small dinghy. From here, he was able to make his way to Greece and eventually traveled halfway around the world before arriving safely back in the United States. He later wrote a book about his ordeal called “Midnight Express,” which was then adapted into film by Oliver Stone.

10. The Colditz Escape

Colditz was possibly the most famous German Army prisoner-of-war camps for officers in World War II. It was located in Colditz Castle, and situated on a cliff overlooking the town of Colditz in Saxony. While there were, in fact, numerous successful attempts at escaping Colditz, it’s one in particular that stands above the rest. A pair of British pilots by the name of Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch came up with the wacky idea of building a glider and using it as a means of escape. Constructed of stolen pieces of wood, electrical wires, and anything else they could get their hands on in the lower attic above the chapel, the plan was to launch it from the roof and fly across the river Mulde, which was about 200 feet below. The end of the war saw the closing of Colditz, and the glider never actually took to air. Still, this sort of ingenuity earns Best and Goldfinch a spot on the list.

Cell – One

Watch more episodes of Cell

Like Prison Escapes? Then check out 11 Things You Didn’t Know About The Shawshank Redemption

Steven Novak is a writer, illustrator, graphic designer and admitted lifelong nerd with an embarrassingly large DVD collection. He is currently working and living in the Southern California desert. His most recent fantasy/action adventure novel, “Forts: Fathers and Sons,” is available everywhere books are sold.

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Must Reads 4/23/2014