Top 10 prison breaks

Escape from high security prison has always been a top-choice plot for writers and filmmakers, but some of the most fantastic stories of escape have actually taken place.

1. Maze Prison Break – The largest prison break in British history, when 38 inmates who were members of the IRA and serving time for murder and bombings broke out of HM Prison Maze H-block on 25th September, 1983. The prison, in Northern Ireland, was considered the most escape-proof prison in Britain. During the breakout, an officer died from a heart attack, and many others were injured by guns that had been snuck into the prison.

The prison itself made for a highly-improbable escape, as it was surrounded by 15-foot fences and an 18-foot concrete wall with barbed wire, as well as electronic solid steel gates. The escape started with the guards being held hostage and their clothing and car keys being taken, as well as a food delivery truck being stopped and the driver being made to help them. Less than 90 minutes later, all the inmates had escaped from the compound. While 19 were caught and a few more found in the USA and extradited, the remaining were assisted by the IRA and are no longer being sought.

2. Pascal Payet is the famous French criminal who escaped twice from high security prisons in France using a hijacked helicopter. He was initially thrown in jail for a 30-year sentence for a murder he committed while robbing a security van. His first escape took place in 2001 from the Luynes prison, and he remained on the loose until he was recaptured after assisting in the escape of fellow prisoners in 2003, again using a hijacked helicopter. He was moved to Grasse prison but, with the help of four men, escaped again in 2007 in a hijacked helicopter. He was later captured in Spain after authorities recognized him, even though he had undergone cosmetic surgery.

3. The Great Escape took place at Stalag Luft III, a German Air Force POW camp during World War II. The escape plot was led by South African Roger Bushell and called for the digging of three tunnels given the codenames “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. The tunnels had to be extremely deep, around 30 feet below ground, in order to avoid detection by microphones on the surface. In January 1943, the project was begun and the first tunnel “Harry” was ready to go in March of the following year. Finally, on March 24th 1944, the escape began. Unfortunately, the tunnel came up just short of the tree line, and while, during the course of the night 76 people climbed through, only 3 escaped, while 50 were killed and the rest for recaptured and sent back to the prison.

4. Escape from Alcatraz- The 1962 Frank Morris-led attempt to escape from Alcatraz is the only attempt that is theorized to have been successful in the 29-year history of the island prison in San Francisco Bay.

Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers had all been transferred from another prison after repeated attempts to break out. Morris, the presumed mastermind behind the scheme, drew up a plan in which they cut through their cells to get to the top of the cell block and then though metal bars, up an air vent to the roof, from where they were able to descend to the water and, with a makeshift raft created from standard issue raincoats, escaped into the bay. Their bodies were never found, and while they are officially listed as missing or presumed drowned, it is believed that their escape was a success.

5. The Texas Seven – On December 13, 2000 a group of prisoners escaped from a maximum security prison near the southern Texas town of Kennedy. A little over a month later, they were recaptured as a result of the television show America’s Most Wanted. The actual escape was very well-planned and involved subduing unsuspecting maintenance workers, officers and even fellow prisoners during the slowest parts of the day, and then hiding them while taking their clothing, credit cards and identification. They also pretended to be officers and made phone calls, creating false stories to slow their detection. Once they made it to the prison maintenance truck, they escaped from the facility. They were later discovered in a trailer park in Colorado. The owner had watched America’s Most Wanted and reported that they were staying in his park. They were surrounded and eventually captured.

6. The Libby Prison Escape – is by far the best-known prison escape to take place during the American Civil War. The Confederate prison, located in Richmond Virginia, saw the escape of 109 prisoners directly on to the streets of the city on the night of February 9th and 10th, 1864. They had dug a tunnel leading out of the building into an empty lot and gained a 17-hour head-start before Confederate authorities realized they had gone missing. The tunnel was started in a rat-infested basement of the prison, but had the advantage of having a straw covered floor, allowing for their escape plan to proceed unnoticed. After the escape, one prisoner walked directly past an unsuspecting Confederate sentry. Of the 109 escapees, 59 were able to get across federal lines and find safety in the North.

7. Alfred Wetzler and the escape from Auschwitz – perhaps the most infamous Nazi Death Camp escape. Wetzler and fellow escapee Rudolf Vrba hid in a wood pile that was being used to build a new ‘arrivals’ section. They used Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline to trick the dogs and hid there for four days. On April 10, wearing clothes they had taken from the camp, they walked along the Sola River and made their way to the Polish-Slovak border 80 miles away, using a child’s atlas as a guide. Of almost greater importance was the report the two had written about the inner operation of the camp, including the gas chamber and crematorium construction plans, as well as the label from a can of Zyklon gas they had managed to grab. It was the first such report to reach the West that was considered credible. Eventually, it led to bombing key government buildings in Hungary, in which Nazi officials responsible for the Auschwitz deportations were killed.

8. Alfred Hinds – this British criminal and escape artist managed to find his way out of not one, not two, but three high-security prisons. After the final one, he was even able to get pardoned after finding a loophole in the British legal system. He was initially sentenced in 1953 to a 12-year sentence for jewelry theft. He escaped Nottingham prison by getting through locked doors and over a 20-foot wall. He gained the nickname “Houdini” Hinds in the media. He was on the run for over six months before being found by Scotland Yard and arrested. However, he sued the authorities for illegal arrest and used the court appearance as an opportunity to make his next escape. A padlock was smuggled into the toilet, and when his guards accompanied him to the toilet, he locked them to the door and escaped. After he was caught, he ended up in Chelmsford Prison, from which he escaped less than a year later. A few years afterwards he was caught again and finished serving his sentence. He then became somewhat of a celebrity, and was even a sought-after speaker on the ills of the British legal system.

9. David McMillan – escape from Klong Prem prison in Bangkok, Thailand. McMillan is known as the only Westerner ever to escape from this high-security prison, known ironically as the Bangkok Hilton. The British-Australian national had been arrested and jailed in Australia for drug trafficking. After serving a long sentence and being released on parole, he was again arrested in Bangkok for heroin trafficking and faced the death penalty. During one night in August 1996, he was able to cut his cell bars with hacksaws, scale four inner-prison walls and then, using a bamboo-pole ladder, get over the outer wall. Using a false passport, he got on a plane four hours later to Singapore. Apparently he never learned his lesson, and was later arrested in Lahore, Pakistan and also managed to get involved with a Moscow street gang, and be arrested again in Copenhagen. Interestingly enough, the warrant in Thailand still stands for McMillan, who is now quietly living in London. However, because the UK doesn’t extradite people to countries which carry out the death penalty, he seems to be safe for now.

10. Pretoria Prison – Three prisoners, who learned to pick locks, were able to pick their way through 10 locked steal doors as they broke out of this high-security prison in South Africa. Political prisoners Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris planned for 18 months, learning to pick locks and forge keys, and made their escape together in December, 1979. Tim Jenkin wrote a book on the escape, in which he also described how three white, privileged South Africans risked everything to fight for those who were being terribly discriminated against.