Real-Life ‘Shawshanks’

13 Greatest Prison Escapes, From Alcatraz to Piedras Negras (PHOTOS)

See daring escapes by prisoners using whatever they could find or create—from helicopters and tunnels to mattresses and raincoats—to make their way to freedom.

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An estimated 130 inmates escaped from a prison in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on Monday in a real-life Prison Break. From an Alcatraz raincoat raft to a mattress in Nazi Germany, The Daily Beast rounds up other daring escapes. 

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Piedras Negras, Mexico (2012)

Using a tunnel 10 feet long by 4 feet wide, about 130 inmates in a Mexican prison escaped to freedom Monday. The tunnel, which began in a wood shop inside the prison, had “been there for months,” according to Coahuila Attorney General Homero Ramos. Making their way through the tunnel, the prisoners allegedly crawled out one by one, cut open a chain-link fence, then sprinted through an empty lot to freedom in Eagle Pass, Texas. Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent out a tweet Tuesday calling the escape “deplorable.” Authorities in Mexico are reportedly offering a reward of up to $16,000 for information leading to the recapture of each inmate.

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Kandahar Prison, Afghanistan (2011)

One of the largest mass escapes in history occurred in April 2011 when close to 500 inmates in southern Afghanistan crawled to freedom through a tunnel 1,100 feet long. Al Jazeera reported that at least 100 members of the group were Taliban commanders, a fact that led President Hamid Karzai to dub the escape a “disaster.” The success of the escape, which was launched at 11 p.m., was attributed largely to the assistance of the Taliban, whose rented house was at the freedom end of the tunnel—where vehicles sat at the ready. Only 26 of the escapees reportedly were captured—two of them were killed.

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Grasse Prison, Southeast France (2007)

Sentenced to 30 years in prison for a failed robbery turned murder, Pascal Payet had already successfully escaped French prison twice when he found himself in a penitentiary for a third time. The scheming Payet’s previous two escapes had been the stuff of movies—helicopters on the roof, masked men, etc.—and his third escape did not disappoint. After hijacking a helicopter in Cannes, four disguised and armed men lifted Payet from the roof of the Grasse Prison in southeast France. The escape was successful, but Payet was discovered three months later in Spain.

Texas Department of Corrections via Getty Images (mugshots); Eric Gay / AP (prison)

John B. Connally Prison, Texas (2000)

A nondescript maximum-security prison located just outside the small town of Kenedy, Texas, it gained notoriety in December of 2000 when seven men made a brazen attempt at an escape—and succeeded. Led by George Rivas, a career criminal serving 18 life terms, the men escaped after overtaking maintenance officers through use of an ax, hijacking a van, and then driving out of the prison in civilian clothes. Ranging in age from 23 to 39, the so named Texas Seven were front and center on America’s Most Wanted until four were recaptured a little more than a month later.   

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Maze Prison, Northern Ireland (1983)

In September 1983, 38 inmates—most of whom were members of the IRA, jailed for politically motivated crimes—escaped the maximum security HM Prison Maze in Northern Ireland. Surrounded by 15-foot walls topped with barbed wire, the Maze was considered one of the highest-security prisons in Europe. Seizing control of the prison through the use of six smuggled handguns, the escapees used extreme violence, which included stabbing and beating the guards, to reach the outside. From there they hijacked a van and drove to freedom. The escape left several guards injured and at least one dead. In this largest-scale escape Northern Ireland had ever seen, more than half the prisoners were recaptured shortly afterward.

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Imrali Island, Turkey (1975)

In an escape he later claimed differed greatly from the version in the movie Midnight Express, young American Billy Hayes escaped a prison in Turkey to which he had been sentenced to 30 years. Arrested in Istanbul in 1970 for attempting to smuggle two kilograms of hashish out of the country, Hayes was sentenced to five years in prison. Weeks away from his release, the American student was horrified to learn his sentence had been extended to 30 years. Determined to flee the harsh conditions of Imrali Island, Hayes hid in a concrete bin for several days before hijacking a small fishing boat at the local harbor and escaping to Greece. He eventually made it back to the U.S., where he wrote an autobiography about his journey.

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Alcatraz, San Francisco, Calif. (1962)

After nearly a year of elaborate planning, Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and Alfred Anglin did the impossible in 1962: escaped from Alcatraz. In the first step of what is still considered one of the most meticulous escape plans of all time, the three men scrambled out of their cells and up a utility chute, placing dummy heads made of soap, paper, and human hair in their cots to buy them time. Sliding down a water pipe from the roof and running to the shore, they boarded a handmade raft—constructed from more than 50 rubberized cotton raincoats—to escape into the San Francisco Bay. The three were never seen again. Given the lack of evidence that the men ever set foot on land, many assume them to be dead.

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Auschwitz, Germany (1944)

Auschwitz was Hitler’s largest concentration camp during World War II. It is estimated that by the mid-1940s tens of thousands of Jews were being executed there each day. With Auschwitz’s massacres largely hidden from the outside world, two prisoners—Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler—decided to make it their mission to escape and expose the horrors inside. Upon hearing rumors that the Jews of Hungary were going to be the next group to be executed, the two hid in a woodpile—directly under the guards’ lookout—for three days. Donning stolen suits, they then walked silently to their freedom days later at the Polish border. Once free, they revealed the unthinkable crimes that took place at Auschwitz in an account—later crucial to the persecution of the Nazis—that would come to be known as the “Vrba-Wetzler Report.”

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Stalag Luft III, Germany (1944)

Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run POW camp used to house downed airmen. Originally conceived by Roger Bushell in the spring of 1943, the Great Escape, as it is known, involved one of the most ambitious escape plans ever imagined. Digging for 11 months, 600 prisoners worked to build three intricate tunnels in the hopes that one would work. Nicknamed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry,” the tunnels were extremely small but advanced, containing a built-in wooden railway system used to transport men and carry excess sand out. Between March 24 and 25, 76 Allied prisoners escaped through “Harry,” the only tunnel completed at the time. Although the tunnel delivered the inmates to the other side of the prison, nearly all were immediately recaptured—50 were shot and 23 reimprisoned. All told, only three men reached freedom.

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Colditz Castle, Germany (1940)

Following the start of World War II, Colditz Castle—formerly a mental institution—was converted into a prisoner of war camp. Oflag IV-C, as it was known, was used for high-profile Allied offenders who either had escaped previously or were deemed “extremely dangerous.” Located near Leipzig, Germany, the castle was considered the Nazi’s most escape-proof prison. Hundreds of men allegedly attempted to escape Colditz (with only 31 succeeding), but the most ambitious escape plan was by British officer “Peter” Allan. Dressed in a Nazi uniform, Allan sewed himself into a mattress that was being transferred to another camp. His plan worked for a short time—he arrived at the new camp and broke out of the mattress. But after nine days on the run he collapsed due to lack of food. Allan awoke to find himself back where he started, at Colditz.

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Lake County Jail, Crown Point, Indiana (1934)

An infamous bank robber during the United States Depression era, John Dillinger had audacity and bravado that helped make him the FBI’s “Enemy No. 1.” Charged with the murder of a police officer he was placed in prison, though never officially convicted. After escaping prison in Lima, Ohio, only a few months before, Dillinger made his most infamous escape from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Ind.—a high-security prison guarded by National Guardsmen and regularly referred to at the time as “escape-proof.” Allegedly with nothing but a hand-carved wooden gun dyed with shoe polish, Dillinger boldly walked out of the prison. To the entire city’s relief, after an embarrassing ordeal, Dillinger’s freedom didn’t last long: he was shot dead months later in Chicago after a manhunt. 

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Libby Prison, Richmond, Va. (1864)

In one of the most celebrated escapes of the Civil War, 109 Union soldiers imprisoned in Virginia dug their way to freedom. Using chisels and a wooden spittoon, a small group of officers worked for several weeks to dig a 60-foot passageway out of the prison. Tunneling underneath the building in an expanse nicknamed “rat hell,” the soldiers fought through nauseating air, scores of rodents, and darkness. Although 109 men made their way through the tunnel to a vacant lot on the other side, only 59 succeeded in reaching freedom, with 48 recaptured and two drowning in a nearby river.

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Tower of London, England (1597)

After enduring extensive torture in the infamous Tower of London—where he was imprisoned during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I—Jesuit Priest John Gerard escaped his looming execution. First using a letter, written in the juice from an orange so it was nearly invisible, Gerard sent word to friends to help plan his escape. When the plan finally was in place, Gerard climbed down a weighted rope—almost falling due to his recently tortured hands—into the safety of a friend’s boat that had been berthed in the surrounding moat.