A prison escape (or prison break) is the act of an inmate leaving prison through unofficial or illegal ways. Normally, when this occurs, an effort is made on the part of authorities to recapture them and return them to their original detainers. Escaping from prison is also a criminal offense in some countries, e.g. United States and Russia, and it is highly likely to result in time being added to the inmate's sentence, as well as the inmate being placed under increased security. Aggravating factors include whether or not violence was used.

Many prisons use security features such as motion sensors, CCTV, barred windows, high walls, barbed wire (or razor wire in some countries) and electric fencing to prevent escapes.


1,200 U.S. soldiers escape from POW camp at Limburg, March 1945

Numerous methods have been used to escape prison over time. Many escapes have been successfully conducted by inmates who have invented their own methods. Weaknesses that are found as prisoners escape are often corrected at numerous prisons around the world to prevent future escapes in a similar manner. This leads inmates to finding new ways.

Since prisoners usually have a lot of time in which they are doing nothing, this gives them plenty of time to think, allowing them to devise plans and figure out ways to escape.

The following are methods that have commonly been used by prisoners in escapes. In some instances, a combination of these are used.[1]

Cell escape

While some prisoners are allowed out of their cells at times, others remain locked in their cells most of the time, particularly those in solitary confinement. Many prisoners who are kept in their cells must find ways out of the cells. Even those who are allowed out of their cells at times still have plans that involve escape from their cells.

Cell escapes occur through either the door, the window, the light, the ventilation system, by breaking down the walls, or by tunneling underground.

Some prisoners have escaped by picking the locks on their cells, creating keys to their cells, sawing bars off of the doors or windows, carving away the walls, or breaking away the vent.

Containment penetration

Breaking down or slipping through the physical containment of the prison, including that of the cell itself and/or the surrounding complex. Methods include destruction of the cell or compound walls, squeezing through tight spaces, or entering off-limits areas. Prisoners often destroy their containment with homemade tools, smuggled objects, or other contraband.

Most prisons are contained on the outside by one or more fences, often topped with barbed wire or razor wire. Escapees manage to scale these fences successfully or cut holes in the fences, damaging them. These fences are also watched by one or more guards from a tower, but escapees manage to pass the fence when the guard is turned away, unable to see in the dark, or sleeping on the job. Outside the fences is often a perimeter patrol conducted by an officer in a vehicle, which stands as the final line of defense. Escapees manage to evade this by studying the length of time between passes and/or waiting until it is on the other side and/or using the cover of darkness.

A rare method that has been used at times involves the digging of a tunnel under the facility that exits outside the facility.

Physical force

Attacking guards with blunt force, homemade weapons, smuggled weapons, or weapons stolen from overtaken guards.

Some escapes involve one or more inmates taking over an entire unit or section of the prison, subduing guards, and stealing weapons or other objects they can use to their advantage.


Deception may involve fooling one or more guards into believing the prisoner is authorized to depart prison grounds for a legitimate reason, or the prisoner disguising himself or herself as a worker or civilian who can exit prison grounds without arousing suspicion, or the creation of a ruse to mislead guards.

In some escapes, inmates construct makeshift dummies to make guards believe they are in their cells, usually in bed, when they are not. This enables the inmate to gain a head start from the prison before guards discover they are actually missing. Such dummies are typically constructed quite crudely, often using the inmate's or another's hair, shoes, and miscellaneous materials for stuffing, hidden under a blanket to give the appearance a body is present.

Exploitation of weaknesses

Finding holes in the security of the facility, and taking advantage of them. This may include the discovery of overlooked security issues, or taking advantage of guards who are not following policies or procedures, or are otherwise not doing their jobs properly.

Exploitation of corruption

Taking advantage of intentional wrongdoing on part of prison staff. This may include the use of weapons or other contraband smuggled in by staff, or receiving assistance from staff who believe in that inmate's freedom and willingly assist.

Failure to return

Some lower security inmates are permitted to leave prison grounds temporarily on the honor they will return. These include those who depart for employment outside the facility or furloughs that allow time outside for periods of time.

Escape from outside

Breaking while in custody outside facility grounds. Prisoners are often transported for work duties, to be moved between facilities, attend court hearings, for hospitalization and medical appointments, and other reasons.

Outside help

Receiving aid from an accomplice outside prison walls, including those who provide a ride to the inmate following their penetration, smuggle in contraband as visitors, use helicopters, among other methods.

When a banned item is smuggled, it can either be slipped through or tossed over the fence from outside, hidden in a gift to the inmate that is legal, or slipped past corrupt security officers. In some cases, the staff are the source of the smuggling themselves.

Escape from island prisons

Escaping from an island prison brings another challenge of crossing the water to free land. This can be done by construction of a makeshift raft or receiving outside help from the owner of a boat. In the famed 1962 Alcatraz escape, a makeshift raft from raincoats was confirmed. One additional theory is that a boat was used to transport them in the water.


Prevention of prison escape includes the numerous security measures that are in effect. How many and which measures are used depends on the security level and specific institution. Some of the preventative measures are:


  • One or more fences surrounding the facility
  • Barbed wire or razor wire on topping fences that surround the facility
  • Razor wire on the ground between fences, thereby making one's presence in this area dangerous and possibly deadly
  • Multiple locked doors between the "pods" (sections of cells) and the exit
  • Cell windows are too narrow for a human body to fit through

Guard placement

  • Rounds: Guards within the facility make rounds checking inmates at set intervals
  • Full-time watch: High-risk inmates are watched non-stop around the clock one-on-one
  • Guard towers: Guards in towers at corners of compound can observe edges of the facility and are often authorized to use deadly force against fleeing escapees
  • Perimeter patrol: A guard in a vehicle circles the compound from the outside, watching for escaping inmates


  • Floodlights enable guards to watch inmates passing over a certain area at night
  • Microwave sensors alert security if an inmate nears the fence


  • Head counts at set times to assure the number of inmates actually in the facility matches the number on record
  • Cell searches to make sure inmates do not have contraband that can be used to aid an escape or commit violence against guards or other inmates


In almost all jurisdictions, including the United States, escaping from jail or prison is a criminal offense. In Virginia, for instance, the punishment for escape depends on whether the offender escaped by using force or violence or setting fire to the jail, and the seriousness of the offense for which they were imprisoned.[2][3][4]

In Mexico, Belgium, Germany and Austria, the philosophy of the law holds that it is human nature to want to escape. In those countries, escapees who do not break any other laws are not charged for anything and no extra time is added to their sentence.[5] However, in Mexico, officers are allowed to shoot prisoners attempting to escape[6] and an escape is illegal if violence is used against prison personnel or property, or if prison inmates or officials aid the escape.[7]

Famous historical escapes

Escapes in popular culture

Non-fiction: Film and literature


Novels and film adaptations

See also



  1. ^ Beam, Christopher (April 25, 2011). "The Great Escapes". Slate. 
  2. ^ "§ 18.2-477. Prisoner escaping from jail; how punished". Code of Virginia. Virginia General Assembly. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  3. ^ "§ 18.2-479. Escape without force or vio to jail". Code of Virginia. Virginia General Assembly. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  4. ^ "§ 18.2-480. Escape, etc., by setting fire to jail". Code of Virginia. Virginia General Assembly. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  5. ^ "Mexican Prisons". Foreign Prisoner Support Service. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  6. ^ Jordan, Mary; Sullivan, Kevin (November 15, 2002). "Mexican Jailbirds Get to Fly for Free". Washington Post.
  7. ^ "More on the Kaplan Caper" (subscription required). Time Magazine. September 20, 1971.
  8. ^ "'Prison Break': Robert Knepper, Rockmond Dunbar, Amaury Nolasco returning for revival". EW.com. Retrieved 2018-03-18. 


  • Dowswell, Paul (1994). Tales of Real Escape. London, England: Usborne Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7460-1669-7. 
  • McMillan, David (2007). Escape. Singapore: Monsoon Books. ISBN 978-981-05-7568-7.