Reprinted From GQ Magazine
July 11, 2015
The GQ Guide to Breaking Out of Prison
By Keith Wagstaff
After a fatal shooting, more than a thousand scrambling cops, and one heartbroken grandma, the saga of Richard Matt and David Sweat has ended. For the last several weeks, the national media (read: CNN) has been infatuated with the murderer-escapees who cut holes in their cells, broke through a brick wall, crawled through steam pipes and became famous for escaping Clinton Correctional Facility, the largest maximum-security prison in the state of New York.
In the movies, escapees are usually falsely accused misfit rebels like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or Tom Waits in Down By Law. But there is nothing cool about Matt (who was killed by authorities) and Sweat (who was captured), who were both convicted of brutal murders, the former snapping his victim’s neck and carving up the body with a hacksaw, Robert Durst-style. So yeah, don’t feel too bad for them.
“These guys are vicious killers, but I don’t think they’re stupid,” Larry Levine, founder of Wall Street Prison Consultants, told GQ. He should know. Levine spent 10 years in various prisons for things like narcotics trafficking and securities fraud. These days, he gives advice to people who are heading to the clink.
“People call me when they’re fucked,” he said. “I just unfuck things a bit.”
Now breaking out of jail isn’t the best idea, since so few escapees actually get away with it, and the legal system isn’t too kind to people who spark intense manhunts. Still, there are a smart strategies you can adopt should you feel compelled to break out of prison. (Ed. note: GQ does not condone committing crimes, busting out of jail, or eating 50 eggs in one hour, no matter how cool it makes you look in front of the other inmates).
STEP 1: Get Sexy with the Prison Staff
Matt and Sweat reportedly had help from Joyce E. Mitchell, a prison worker who, according to a criminal complaint, brought them “hacksaw blades, chisels, a punch and screwdriver bit.”
Before the jailbreak went down, Mitchell, a 51-year-old grandmother who taught in the prison’s tailor shop, had already been investigated for having a sexual relationship with Matt, who was, according to several very important news reports, “well-endowed.” (At one point during their tryst, Matt apparently gave Mitchell an oil painting he created of her and her family. Romance!)
But it was hardly the first time a prison staffer was seduced by a charming inmate.
“This shit happens all the time,” Levine said. “The staff spend a substantial amount of time with the inmates and they get to know each other.”
Think of it like having a “work husband” or “work wife,” except instead of spending eight hours a day with an attractive coworker, you are interacting with prisoners who are dying for human contact and a link to the outside world. The result can be sex, relationships, and even marriage.
In 2005, for example, George Hyatte broke out of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee with the help of his wife Jennifer, who ambushed two guards with a gun as they were transferring him into a van. George and Jennifer met while she was working as a prison nurse. Now, they’re both in the clink after tasting just 36 hours of freedom.
But what if you don’t have the looks and charisma and sizable junk to charm a prison employee? Well, sexy accomplices don’t hurt. Earlier this year, in the most Brazilian jailbreak ever, two women in skimpy police officer costumes seduced guards at a Sao Paulo prison, spiked their drinks, and then let 26 prisoners free. The Brazzers script practically writes itself.
STEP 2: Procure Digging Tools—Anything Will Do
Oddly enough, this isn’t even the Shawshank-iest escape ever to happen at Clinton Correctional Facility, despite reports that this was the facility’s first lapse ever. That happened in 1903, when bank burglar Peter James and three other inmates escaped through the sewer system after James spent four years chipping away at the prison walls with pieces of smuggled tin.
More recently, Oleg Topalov broke out of a Russian prison by digging a hole in his cell’s ceiling with a spoon. Ralph “Bucky” Phillips also escaped through the ceiling, in his case using a can opener in the prison kitchen, before he was captured near the New York-Pennsylvania state line. (He later pleaded “guilty as hell” to murder charges).
Now power tools are obviously preferable to spoons, can openers, and pieces of tin. But what about all the noise? Matt and Sweat reportedly used a grinder to cut through the steel walls of their cell, which isn’t exactly a quiet process. How’d they get out despite all the racket? One theory from an iron worker who talked to CNN: they could have dampened the sound with blankets and a light touch.
STEP 3: Cover Your Tracks
Worry not, sculpture majors! Your skills could come in handy one day. Matt and Sweat apparently made dummies of themselves with laundry-stuffed sweatshirts and paper mâché heads, complete with clippings of their own hair. (Crafting skills can also be used to make weapons. Lorenzo Pollard fashioned nunchucks out of bedsheets and a chair, which he used to fend off guards as he escaped from a prison in St. Louis.)
Or you could, once again, draw inspiration from The Shawshank Redemption. In 2007, two inmates at Union County Jail in New Jersey removed a cinder block from their cells and were gone for 20 hours before anyone noticed. How is that possible? They covered the hole in the wall with a sexy pinup poster.
(If you go this route, don’t bother Tim Robbins for advice. He can’t help you.)
STEP 4: Avoid the “Oh Shit, Now What?” Moment
Once you escape from prison, you aren’t magically transported to beaches of Zihuatanejo, where Morgan Freeman meets you with a cold Bohemia.
No, it takes careful planning to stage a prison break and the subsequent run from the law. In prison, Levine said, people were always keeping track of things like the number of guards, when trucks would enter the prison grounds, and the exact times staff would come by to count the prisoners. They would do this even if they weren’t seriously planning an escape, mostly because there isn’t much else to do while locked up.
Then, it’s usually the people with long sentences who take the next step—coordinating with other inmates, prison staff, or people on the outside. The key is to make sure the timing lines up: Smart escapees will do everything in their power to maximize the hours before the next body count, or wait until the holidays when prison guards are working unfamiliar shifts.
“You need to time it,” Levine said. “It’s kind of like an eclipse, where everything kind of falls in place at once.”
Once you get out, it’s good to have a getaway car waiting, or if you’re like Frenchman Pascal Payet, a helicopter stolen from nearby Cannes. Then, you’ll need food, money, non-prison clothes, a place to hide … all very difficult to procure while inside of a cell.
Not having a vehicle or place to stay can ruin everything. Last year, Kentucky inmate Robert Vick simply turned himself in after one night of freedom. His reason? It was a chilly 18 degrees below zero and he had nowhere to sleep.
STEP 5: Don’t Get Caught
Motion sensors, surveillance cameras, and sturdier facilities have made it harder than ever to break out of jail. There is only about one escape per 10,000 prisoners in the United States today—and many of those are people simply walking away from minimum-security or transitional facilities.
Along with the high-degree of difficulty, there are repercussions to think about. If you get caught, you can get a brand-new sentence, often around seven years, slapped on top of whatever you were already serving. Not that the extra time really matters to some people.
In 2013, Joseph “Jose” Banks had the charges dropped for his Rapunzel-like escape in Chicago—in which he used bedsheets to rappel down the side of a high-rise prison—he was already serving an 80-year sentence.
Prisoners stuck in the slammer for life still have something to lose. Jail isn’t exactly Club Med, but inmates do get time outside, phone calls, and visits from family. These are all things that can be taken away as punishment for trying to escape. And even when you’re old and retired in Florida, the cops can still find you. That is what happened to Frank Freshwaters in May. He was lured by authorities into giving up his fingerprints 56 years after escaping from Ohio State Reformatory, which just so happens to be the place where they filmed Shawshank.
Prisoners know how risky and futile escape attempts can be. But, Levine said, watching birds fly in and out of the prison yard while serving his 10-year sentence, he understood why some people sure as hell tried.
“I thought about it,” he said. “I never did it, but did it cross my mind? Sure.”