Prison breaks make great stories. For starters, it's a classic underdog scenario: The jailers have huge resources. They have lots of manpower. And the prisoners are in a facility which the jailers have (presumably) spent years building, refining, and maintaining. The whole setting is designed to keep the prisoners in. So when a plucky protagonist prisoner plans to break free we root for them.
This image is in the public domain (see here).
This provides us with our protagonist for most prison break stories. Someone we can root for despite (and indeed, because of) the way society views them.
Prison breaks stories are brilliant not just because the protagonist is an underdog, but because the struggle is intellectual, competitive, physical and stealthy. Intellectual because the challenge is to look at this big complicated machine (the prison) and find a way to make it work a different way. Competitive because the machinery of the prison is made up of people working in the opposite direction - both the designers of the institution and the guards. Physical because when the day of the break finally comes it will probably come down to some amazing feats of strength, speed and agility. And stealthy because all of this work needs to be done without any of the opponents becoming aware. This variegated mix makes for a very compact set of challenges, which is exciting!
Coldbath fields prisonThis image is in the public domain (see here)
So what are the ways in which a prison break can happen? It's worth keeping in mind as we answer this question that some breakouts are unassisted - the prisoners manage it without help - whereas others are assisted - someone on the outside is helping.
I thought of the following ways. Maybe you can think of more:
- Dig a hole. Physically cut through the structure of the prison. This does not have to be through the floor: One can also dig through the walls and the ceilings. It can also be somewhere other than the prison cell - in the dining room, in the courtyard. Maybe there is a way into the sewers?
- Bluff. Impersonate a guard or better yet, someone the guards don't know: like a prison inspector. Over the phone someone might be able to fake a supervisor's voice. Or another option: Instead of impersonating a person, the prisoner can just pretend there they have a gun, perhaps with a prop.
- Fight. Someone wrestles a weapon off of a guard, and then everyone just fights their way free. Perhaps in combination with a Prison Revolt?
- Massive damage. Bombs or big trucks can knock holes through outer or inner walls allowing a sudden (and noisy!) rescue.
- The distraction. Important in combination with other approaches. One team draws the attention of the guards to one place and/or makes a big racket. This can cover up a stealthier rescue attempt elsewhere.
- Smuggling. Hide the prisoner in something that is due to leave the prison. Hide in the laundry bag or a crate. What you really need then is a way to make sure that no one notices the prisoner is gone, or the jail may go to lock down.
- The Prison Revolt. Once one person is out of the cell: free another. And then another. Soon the whole prison will be in chaos. Surely in all that someone could get out?
Those are strategies. There are a whole bunch of common barriers that a potential escapee also needs to overcome. These require less ingenuity to bypass (although the inmates may need to think creatively to improvise tools to help), but they may require skill and courage.
- Bars on windows
- Long drops. (Sheets tied together? This really happens!)
- High walls
- Locked doors (Remember, these can be broken as well as picked)
- Barbed wire
- Electrified fence (Deactivated or insulated)
And after all that there is the pursuit to deal with. But that's another story. What have I missed?