Wednesday, 20 June 2012

How to break out of prison

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.

Moyamensing Prison

Moyamensing Prison

This image is in the public domain (see here).
Of course, I am not saying I am against prisons. In real life they provide a valuable (essential?) service to society, and most of the inmates are people that we want to serve their full sentences. But even in real life there is that crucial exception: The wrongfully imprisoned man. No earthly system is perfectly just and, tragically, people do sometimes go to jail for crimes they did not commit. Equally, in a war soldiers or captives may be imprisoned and try and break free.

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 prison

This image is in the public domain (see here)
In this blog post I wanted to take a review of the ways in which prisoners might break out of jail. The idea is to look at things in a quick abstract way so that game designers and story writers have a resource they can reference. I may at some point write a post from the opposite point of view - the ways of defending a prison, keeping the inmates in, and which ones you might want to employ in a game or story.

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. Fight. Someone wrestles a weapon off of a guard, and then everyone just fights their way free. Perhaps in combination with a Prison Revolt?
  4. Massive damage. Bombs or big trucks can knock holes through outer or inner walls allowing a sudden (and noisy!) rescue.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?


  1. Love this post - here's my two bit contribution!

    The classic key to any escape attempt is location. Often getting injured so as to be in the sick bay (or to be relocated to hospital), or to take on a job with high mobility (the always classic library cart monitor!) is essential to success.

    A key part of smuggling or the bluff is often "the substitute" where another prisoner or a guard is switched into the escapee's place to buy time and obfuscate whether anyone is really missing.

    Ultimately of course, the biggest obstacle to any escape is the guards. Any physical barrier can be circumvented given time, but being noticed is what stops any subtle escape attempts dead!

  2. Excellently written mon frère!

    Another element of competitiveness comes from the other prisoners, many of whom may (and typically do in dramatisations) have a hostile relationship with the protagonist. They may have their own escape plans or beneficial relationship with the guards that they do not want disrupted. They also make great antagonists beings as they are (presumably) criminals!

    In a modern/futuristic setting there are also lots of exciting technological hurdles available to place in the path of the prospective escapee such as cameras, motion detectors and the gamut of security measures based around scanning retinas/fingerprints/DNA etc. And don't forget scary dogs!

    Blog looks wonderful, hope you keep it up :)

  3. You could play the guards against each other, especially if you're a POW in an active war. Soldiers are on edge, let them suspect each other of stuff. Perhaps stuff can be placed on them by one prisoner that is good at sleight of hand. The attention they give to each other is attention that is not given to you. Divide and conquer.