Here Are All The Craftiest Ways Criminals Have Broken Out Of Prison

As con artist Steven Jay Russell once said, "I don't think I'm cleverer than the police, but I managed it because they think anyone who is a [crook] is stupid, and they're complacent. I think anyone can escape from anywhere." Sure enough, the most elaborate escape schemes in prison history involve decoys, knives transported in hunks of frozen meat, and helicopter hijackings.

Upon recapture, escapees typically face tighter security, harsher restrictions, and even longer sentences. Authorities, meanwhile, rarely elaborate on the details of escape attempts for fear of inspiring others. Many offenders, however, end up escaping again.

Some convicted offenders who escaped sought the adrenaline rush, while others say they needed a way to kick the boredom of prison life; many merely want their freedom. Though inmates on the loose and breaches in "maximum" security may concern those on the outside, many prison break stories are so smart you can't help marveling at their ingenuity.


  • Seven Men Pulled Off The Most Daring Escape In Texas History
    Photo: Texas Department of Criminal Justice / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Seven Men Pulled Off The Most Daring Escape In Texas History

    Many elaborate prison breaks often end in recapture simply because the planners didn't devote enough time to what exactly they'll do if the escape works. Staying out is far more difficult than getting away in the first place, as was the case with seven convicted felons in the state of Texas. Dubbed "The Texas Seven" by national media, their prison break was one of the most brazen ever in Texas.

    On December 13, 2000, seven men inside the John B. Connally Unit, a maximum security prison located in southern Texas, set their daring plan to escape in motion. The mastermind and acknowledged ringleader was George Rivas, a man serving 18 consecutive life sentences for multiple armed robberies. The group began their multi-stage escape plan during the prison’s lunchtime. While officers oversaw the various duties involved in feeding 2,500 inmates, Rivas and the others remained behind in the maintenance unit where they worked.

    One of the inmates distracted the maintenance unit supervisor, allowing another inmate to strike him on the head from behind and rendering him not conscious. The escapees stripped the supervisor's clothing, gagged and tied him, and locked him inside a utility room - where eight more employees and guards soon joined him.

    With complete control of the maintenance unit, Rivas called the central Guard Tower that controlled the exit gates. Posing as the maintenance supervisor, Rivas informed the tower he was sending out his workers to install cameras. The ploy worked, and the group took control of the Guard Tower and a variety of weapons. From there, they climbed into the maintenance truck and drove away through the gates. The father of one of the inmates placed an SUV in the parking lot of a nearby mall, and the "Texas Seven" exchanged vehicles at the location.

    Their freedom lasted just over a month. The owner of an RV park in Woodland Park, CO, where the seven wanted men laid low, recognized them from an episode of America's Most Wanted and contacted authorities. Realizing they were surrounded, the escapees surrendered peacefully - except for Larry James Harper, who opted to commit suicide rather than return to prison. 

  • Richard Matt And David Sweat Snuck Hacksaw Blades Into Prison Using Frozen Meat
    Photo: Bubby1124 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Richard Matt And David Sweat Snuck Hacksaw Blades Into Prison Using Frozen Meat

    Richard Matt and David Sweat used connections on the outside to carry individual hacksaw blades into the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY - inside shipments of frozen hamburger meat.

    Sweat wrapped the tools in cloths and towels to protect his hands from the bare blades and proceeded to carve tunnels through the walls and ceilings - eventually finding a route to the outside. No easy task, the hacksaws needed to cut through concrete walls, piping, and other sturdy materials, and the tunnels often came to a dead end. Sweat reportedly worked every night for months, even hand-rigging a fan when toiling in the walls became too hot.

    After a few weeks on the lam, Matt was fired upon and eliminated by police. Two days later, they recaptured Sweat. Upon his return to prison, Sweat admitted he and Matt planned to terminate their outside assistants. Sweat remains incarcerated in New York and is allowed only one hour outside his cell each day. 

  • Alcatraz Inmates Created Dummies Of Themselves
    Photo: Benlechlitner / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alcatraz Inmates Created Dummies Of Themselves

    Thirty-six Alcatraz inmates tried various methods of breaking out of the remote prison over the years, but were shot dead, drowned, or quickly recaptured. The prison's reputation of being escape-proof came to an end with Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers.

    Morris, an intelligent, seasoned offender, drifted in and out of prison his entire life - and escaped on seven different occasions. Even more than his sprees, Morris's propensity to flee from custody earned him a trip to Alcatraz. He arrived at the island on January 18, 1960.

    Brothers Clarence and John Anglin made repeated attempts to escape a federal prison in Atlanta, before landing in Alcatraz for robbing banks. Given their similar backgrounds, it was only a matter of time before Morris and the Anglins hatched a plan to leave the island together. Inmate Allen West assisted the trio with their enterprise, but did not embark on the escape itself. In the aftermath, West confessed the entire undertaking to investigators in exchange for leniency.

    Part of the plan included using lifelike dummies to fool the guards during the nighttime headcount. Crudely constructed, the models consisted of toilet paper and soap wax. Oil paint and hair from the barbershop lent enough of a realistic appearance in the dim lighting that a guard, in theory, might not even glance twice.

    The escape plan began in December 1961, but not until May 1962 did the inmates manage to chip away at their vents enough to crawl through and start working on the one above their cell block. They operated in rotating shifts, with one inmate working the cement while another kept lookout. Morris eventually built an inflatable raft out of prison-issued raincoats, supposedly based on a schematic found in Popular Mechanic.

    On June 11, 1962, the trio of bank-robbing escape artists placed the dummies in their beds and pulled up the blankets. Slipping from their cells through the enlarged vents, they made their way down to the mist-shrouded waters of the San Francisco Bay and vanished. They have never been recaptured, nor heard from by anyone. And while the FBI closed their case in 1979, the US Marshals Service continues the search for the three escapees.

  • Steven Jay Russell Posed As A Doctor And Faked An AIDS Diagnosis

    Stephen Jay Russell's many elaborate prison and jail escapes inspired a book about his life and misdeeds, and a movie starring Jim Carrey. Russell's first escape occurred on May 13, 1992, in the midst of a six-month sentence. Somehow, he obtained a walkie-talkie and street clothes and walked right out of jail. Russell fled to Mexico, where he stayed for two years.

    Upon his return to the US, Russell was promptly taken into custody and sent back to jail with an added three-year sentence. Russell then met the love of his life, a prisoner named Phillip Morris. But when Russell was released, Morris stayed in jail. 

    Soon after leaving, Russell was hauled in again on embezzlement charges. He escaped jail by impersonating a judge and lowering his bail amount, which he paid off using a bounced check. Russell was eventually detained again and sent to a maximum security prison in Huntsville, Texas. From there, he stole green felt-tip markers and dyed his prison clothes the color of scrubs - allowing him to walk by several correctional officers and head out the door.

    In an interview, Russell admitted his Achilles heel turned out to be his love for Morris. "I did those things because I wanted to be with Phillip. I was out of control," he told The Guardian. The article expanded on this, saying, "And therein lay his fatal flaw; despite managing repeatedly to outwit the federal authorities, Russell was always caught because, each time he escaped, he would end up beating a path to Morris's door."

    Russell's final escape proved his most brazen yet. Russell took laxatives, stopped eating, and lost a considerable amount of weight. He then doctored his prison medical records to claim he was HIV positive. Russell faked AIDS symptoms, leading to special parole at a nursing home for terminal care. Once in the facility, Russell impersonated a doctor and called the prison board to tell them Russell passed from AIDS-related complications.

    The plan worked for a little while, but Morris remained in jail. Russell visited, posing as a lawyer. Police eventually apprehended Russell in 1998 and sent him back to maximum security prison in Texas. Reportedly, Russell is rarely allowed to leave his cell for fear he'll attempt another escape. 

  • Six Alabama Convicts Got Through A Fence With Two Plastic Jugs And A Broomstick

    The St. Clair Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison in Springville, AL. Its 5,000-volt electric fences were considered an infallible deterrent to would-be escapees, and they freed officers from manning the watchtowers. Convicted felon Steve Murphy, however, circumvented the half-million dollar security fence with a broomstick.

    In January 2001, Murphy taped plastic jugs to the end of a broom handle and used it to lift up the bottom wire of the high voltage fence enough for him and five other inmates to wiggle beneath without touching. Once clear of it, the six men walked off into the night.

    This was the extent of the planning that went into their getaway, though, explaining why their newfound freedom only lasted for little more than a week. While en route to Canada in an ill-gotten car, an officer randomly pulled into the wooded area where the escapees were relaxing. Upon seeing the police car, the six inmates fled into the woods on foot. The authorities easily rounded up the escaped convicts.

  • Richard Lee McNair Used Lip Balm To Get Out Of Handcuffs
    Photo: United States Marshals Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Richard Lee McNair Used Lip Balm To Get Out Of Handcuffs

    Richard Lee McNair took the life of one man and injured another during a 1987 incident at a grain elevator in Minot, North Dakota. McNair received two life sentences for his transgressions, eventually escaping prison three times.

    McNair first broke out of the local police station in 1988. While bound to a chair, he used lip balm to grease himself free from his handcuffs. He fled on foot, but police recaptured him the same day after he fell from a tree while trying to hide.

    In October 1992, McNair and two other inmates escaped from the North Dakota State Penitentiary by crawling through the ventilation ducts. The other inmates were apprehended within days, but McNair evaded capture for 10 months. During that time, he dyed his hair a different color and traveled around in ill-gotten cars. 

    In April 2006, McNair was incarcerated again in the United States Penitentiary in Pollock, LA. While repairing mailbags, McNair created an "escape pod," complete with a breathing tube, and left with the outgoing mail. Hours afterward, a police officer spotted McNair running near train tracks and stopped him. McNair told the officer he was just out for a run, and the officer informed him there was an escaped inmate in the area. The cop eventually let McNair go, assuming he wasn't the suspect. The officer's dash cam recorded the entire exchange, and it later played on the news. 

    While on the run, McNair taunted the police, along with his former prison warden. He even mailed a Christmas card to the warden and signed it with his name. McNair purchased a cell phone using his real name, too. Eventually, he made it to Canada, narrowly avoiding capture by Canadian police. McNair traveled back and forth from the United States to Canada in taken cars, using the internet to keep up with what local news said about him. He was also prominently featured on several episodes of America's Most Wanted.

    After 18 months of living on the lam, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police finally caught McNair in New Brunswick in October 2007. McNair now serves his multiple life sentences in perhaps the most secure prison in the world: the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility, in Florence, CO.