Prison Break: True Stories of the World's Greatest Escapes

Prison Break: True Stories of the World's Greatest Escapes

by Paul Buck


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A comprehensive history of major prison breaks by those who paid a heavy price for their misdeeds, and risked all to regain their freedom

In the folklore of World War II, the memory of those heroes who staged great escapes from POW camps still endure. But what about the other side of the coin: the audacious and daring breakouts of gangsters and villains today? This book focuses on great escapes from civilian prisons, whether the escape was planned or opportunistic, aided from within by corrupt guards or facilitated by a violent gang of intruders. The exploits of such legendary Houdini type figures as the 18th-century rogue Jack Sheppard and the Canadian serial escaper Wayne Carlson are recounted alongside tales of breakouts from seemingly unassailable jails; Alcatraz, Northern Ireland's Maze prison, and the Bangkok Hilton. This book thrillingly describes a phenomenon as old as imprisonment itself. For despite the ever more sophisticated technology of surveillance and security equipment, the escapee will always find the weakest link.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843589600
Publisher: John Blake Publishing, Limited
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Pages: 234
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Paul Buck is an author and translator. 

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Prison Break

True Stories of the World's Greatest Escapes

By Paul Buck

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Paul Buck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85782-762-0


Time to Go

As if the Great Train Robbery had not already gained its place in the annals of criminal history, usually with 'crime of the century' attached as an exhibit tag, the events that occurred after judicial proceedings finished lifted the offence onto a new level of notoriety.

One of these events is fitting to open these accounts, because it's not the norm for an inmate to escape prison via outsiders breaking in to swing open the cell door and indicate it's time to go. But that is what happened on 12 August 1964, when Charlie Wilson, one of the leaders of the Great Train Robbery, was freed from Winson Green Prison, a high-security jail near Birmingham. Wilson was barely four months into his thirty-year sentence.

Let us recapitulate and give context to this, the first of two audacious, high-profile escapes that would strike at the jugular of the penal system and reveal its laxity. Escapes which would elevate two of the robbers, Wilson and Ronnie Biggs, despite their opposing status within the robbery team, to a level that would reinforce the everlasting notoriety of the crime.

The Great Train Robbery occurred on the night of 8 August 1963. It netted £2,631,684 (equivalent to something in the region of £50 million or more, in today's terms) in used bank notes. The great British public, always on the lookout for entertaining newspaper stories through the summer holiday period, took to the escapade like a duck to water. Comedy films, in the manner of the Carry On series or The Lavender Hill Mob, were conjured up. These rascals had won the lottery, in today's terms, or the football pools in the vernacular of the day. Lucky blighters! But, as we all know, because the authorities made it abundantly clear, the train driver, Jack Mills, was coshed (though the robbers say punched) on the head. No one had suggested that violence should be treated lightly, but, as it seemed that the balance of public sympathy was tipping towards clemency for the villains, everyone had to pay. The public needed its wrists slapped, the criminals needed theirs cuffed. And to remain cuffed for a long time.

Whilst the accused were on remand awaiting trial, they knew that escape had to be urgently contemplated. For, though they were unaware of the hefty thirty-year sentences they would be receiving, they realised it would be easier to escape from the custody of their current residence than from any top-security prison they were to be carted off to after sentencing. The trial was not held in London, but in the area where the robbery occurred: Aylesbury, a market town in the county of Buckinghamshire. Thus the defendants were housed together in the hospital wing at Aylesbury Prison, which had been prepared especially for the occasion.

The initial plan of escape was to drug the two night guards, with Wilson doing the honours as it was his job each evening to prepare snacks and hot drinks in the small kitchen of the hospital wing. Once the guards were drugged, friends of the robbers would come over the wall and lead them out. Note that the inverse approach to escape was already under discussion. That possibility, however, was laid quickly to rest, once they discovered that drugging an officer was punishable by fourteen years' imprisonment.

Gordon Goody, another part of the robbery team's main force, had the job of cleaning the officers' quarters. He discovered that it was possible to enter the loft of the prison via a cupboard in one of their rooms, and from there to walk under the roof, right along to the end of the building, where one could remove some tiles and find a way down to the street below.

Their cells were locked at night from the outside, with one officer on guard in the corridor whilst another slept on the floor below. Goody set about making a key. He studied those hanging on the warder's chain, even asking if he could draw the guard – and his keys – whilst he was seated, playing chess with Biggs.

Overnight, he filed the necessary key from the appropriate blank with the needle files that had been brought in. The fit was successful. But, as the cell doors could only be opened from the outside, they needed help. Billy Boal had less secure confinement in a dormitory on the first floor, with a lock that could be easily removed with a chisel (also smuggled in). Boal was responsible for releasing Wilson and Goody. Then the pair of them would go down to the basement and take Biggs out of his cell. Only those three were determined to go at that point; the others had decided to remain, as they thought there was a reasonable chance that the charges wouldn't stick.

Wilson had arranged for his boys to have transport readied outside, behind the hospital. They had chosen a Saturday night as the traffic on the roads would be busier, making it easier to disappear.

However, on the scheduled evening Boal never showed. He appeared to have taken fright, worried that any appeal he might make sooner or later would have less chance of success, and his sentence might be increased when it was discovered he'd aided their breakout. This was relevant in his particular case, because Boal was not a train robber, or even a career criminal, but simply a friend of one of the robbers, Roger Cordrey, who'd unfortunately found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The escape never happened, though the next morning the guards went straight to the crevices beneath the sinks in the washroom to find the key and the other equipment. They would likewise find further items in a ransacking of the cells. As always, this underlines how professionals throw a dice when they involve amateurs, no matter which métier we are talking about.

Charlie Wilson's next move back into the public eye occurred not long after, once he had received his thirty years. He had refused to attend his appeal against sentence, as he expected it would entail moving from Winson Green to a prison closer to the Appeals Court in London, where he would perhaps remain or be transferred to another prison altogether. He didn't want to move, for his escape plans were already underway. (Not that he told his lawyers; as far as they were concerned, his reason was that he didn't think he stood a chance on appeal.)

Nobody twigged that something was afoot. Even after it happened, there was a double-take on the fact that he had paid upfront for his daily newspaper to be delivered to his cell, right up to the end of that week. As if the cost of a few days' papers was important, when freedom was imminent.

Though many others shared three to a cell, Wilson merited a cell to himself. On maximum-security, he had to endure his light being kept on day and night, which meant he had to lessen its glare with black grease brought from the workshop. His prison employment entailed sewing mailbags which, given that he was incarcerated for robbing the Royal Mail, was a subject of some hilarity.

Wilson had been planning his escape right from the off. He'd sprinkled sugar on the floor outside his cell so that he could hear the warders patrolling at night, working out that it was at fifteen-minute intervals that they checked him through the spyhole in the door. He also noted that younger, tougher guards tended to be on duty at weekends. Given his high-risk status, he always had a warder with him, or close at hand, at all times of the day. As with so many of the people in this book, his chances of escape were limited, given the number of eyes watching over him – at least in theory.

Various accounts have been given as to how the escape was made. In essence, they all have the same modus operandi; only the perpetrators and what occurred beyond the prison walls seem to change.

It was just after 3am on Wednesday 12 August 1964 when Wilson's cell door in C-block was unlocked and three men in black stocking masks entered. Wilson was in his vest, his clothes being removed from the cell each night to hinder any escape attempt. He was tossed a bundle of clothes and hurriedly dressed in a black roll-neck sweater, dark trousers, plimsolls and a balaclava. They all walked down the corridor, passing the elderly guard who lay unconscious, having been coshed, bound and gagged, towards the centre of the prison and then through A-wing, passing the bathhouse before going down some stairs.

The intruder who had opened the locks of the various doors on the inward journey with duplicated keys systematically closed everything behind them. Indications of their entry and flight were thrown into disarray. Once outside, they kept to the shadows as the moon was bright, making for the twenty-foot walls. The three men who had entered to liberate Wilson were taking him back the same way as they came. They went up a rope ladder, dropping it, and then themselves, into a builder's yard next door, crossed another wall to a towpath beside a canal, and left in two cars that were waiting for them. It took little more than three minutes from leaving his cell for Wilson to land on terra firma outside the walls.

There are separate versions of events from here on. The first is that he was taken to a flat not far away, where they stayed for two days while arrangements were made by phone to move on the third day to a London safe house. Another account has it that they drove directly to London down the M1 and Wilson went to ground in a flat in Knightsbridge, where he remained for some months. His carer was not one of Wilson's known associates, which could be asking for trouble given the police pressure on his obvious contacts, but was connected to Charlie and Eddie Richardson. Many of the London villains didn't want to know where he was hiding, as it gave them "a kind of responsibility", as gang boss Joey Pyle later noted.

One of the more romantic escape stories that was spread around suggested that, once outside Winson Green, Wilson climbed into an adapted petrol tanker with two of his rescuers and reclined on mattresses whilst they were driven to a deserted airfield, from where he was flown to Northern France in a small plane.

Though the guard came round and was freed by 3:20am, reporting the escape to the orderly officer, they didn't report it for a further thirty minutes as they believed the intruders were still in the building and might attack them. The other guard on C-block had actually gone down to the kitchens to start cooking the breakfast porridge, leaving the five night staff who patrolled all the wings effectively locked in without a pass key.

The police were roused, not through any emergency system but via a direct call at 3:50am. They arrived at 4am and had to wait at the main gate until someone with keys could let them in. By then Wilson was well away. It was a few hours before a full alert was in operation and the traffic scrutinised.

Wilson's copy of the Daily Sketch, with the photos and story of his breakout splashed across the front page, was delivered to his empty cell the following day.

On the other side of the world, Bruce Reynolds, the leader of the Great Train Robbers, still not arrested at that point, said that when he saw the headlines, "His success filled me with pride. We'd finessed the Establishment yet again."

Charlie Wilson had taken leave of prison life not by breaking out, but by others breaking in to open his cell door. This seemed to be a first, at least in modern times. Once again, the whole world was laughing. No one knew precisely how they had obtained duplicates of the keys, other than through a corrupt officer at the prison. Only half a dozen master keys existed and they were closely guarded. It was said that traces of soap were found on one, signifying that a copy had been made from an impression in a bar of soap, though other reports claim this wasn't so.

The escape had hit a sore point, and the police search for Wilson was not going to die down quickly. He grew a beard and, by the end of the year, realised his only way to regain anything akin to a normal life was to go abroad. In March 1965 he left from Dover, catching a channel ferry to Calais, masquerading as a schoolteacher on a hitchhiking holiday. He was collected by car in the French port and driven to the South of France where, a couple of months later, his wife and one of his daughters joined him in a villa at Ramatuelle, near St Tropez. That was to be the start of his foreign adventures, until his capture in Rigaud, a suburb of Montréal, just under three and a half years later by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

After he had finally served his sentence, Wilson moved with his wife to a town near Marbella in Spain. He died bloodily in 1990, gunned down by a young visitor sent to assassinate him. Not long after, the drug dealer who is believed to have issued the contract was himself shot down, in a bar in Amsterdam.

The idea that others should come into a prison to collect an inmate resonates with earlier times, as we will note with the cases of Jack Sheppard and Bonnie and Clyde, both from different eras. Our notions of the American Wild West, as seen in countless films, include the associates of jailed men marching into the sheriff 's office with guns drawn to rescue them from their cells. Even the John Dillinger story has an angle on this method.

In modern times, such approaches have to be a bit more sophisticated. With that said, going over a wall into a prison is not an unheard of event. There are stories of people going over to leave tools hidden in the prison yard for their friends inside to collect, or to deliver drugs. There are recent accounts of prisoners going out for a 'pub crawl' and then climbing back in to sleep it off, or, in one case, of a prisoner getting so drunk that he couldn't manage to get his leg back over the wall. There are even stories of burglars scaling the wall into Brixton Prison to raid the staff officers' club – more than once! A further twist will appear later, when we look at the notorious French criminal and escapee Pascal Payet ...


Going Places

It is only to be expected that our gadget-laden world will provide ever more powerful and sophisticated surveillance cameras to maintain watch over those imprisoned – along with superior designs of locks and other fastening contrivances that make it difficult for duplicate keys to open them. And that's not to forget sensors that can pick up slight vibrations, ideal for use at night.

The job of the escapee is rarely an easy one, particularly for those in the most secure prisons, or 'prisons within prisons', as some are now styled. But it has always been the case that a prisoner in transit is passing through the penal system's weakest link, whether being taken to prison in the first instance, transferred from one prison to another, or transported to court for an appearance. The prison system itself inadvertently presents this enticement via its own policy of unsettling prisoners by continually shifting them from one prison to another, providing greater potential for escape than is perhaps necessary. Of course, there are also instances when prisoners themselves engineer a day out in court just to take advantage of that weakest link, making a bid for freedom in the most fundamental way.

Such an occasion attracted attention in May 1966, at the time of a spate of escapes. The government of the day ordered a report by Earl Mountbatten into what it saw as an intolerable situation, which recommended a mass of improvements to prison security. The escape in question was hatched in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight by John McVicar, whom we will encounter again in his role in another major breakout. The Parkhurst inmates knew that if they caused an incident (in this case one prisoner stabbing another), it would require them being taken before Winchester Assizes on the mainland.

This is indeed what happened, and on return from their day out, thirteen convicts (nine of whom were involved in the plot) set about seven prison officers and escaped. The authorities had received a tip-off that an attempt would occur, but the likelihood pointed to it happening at Portsmouth, where they would take the ferry back to the island. Police had been deployed around the terminal for just such an eventuality but they had it wrong, for it happened as the coach passed through Bishop's Waltham.

The prisoners had three improvised keys with them. Ten of the men who had been handcuffed in pairs freed themselves. The other three were joined to prison officers. On a signal, the freed men jumped up, most going for the guards whilst another went for the driver to take control of the steering wheel. As the coach ground to a halt, the door was opened and nine men took off.

The police escort behind them radioed for help, and two policemen quickly multiplied to one hundred and twenty personnel, along with dogs and an RAF helicopter. Seven prisoners were rounded up within a few hours, and another one a couple of days later. Only two got clean away, McVicar being one of them. He had all summer to stretch his legs before being recaptured.

And yet, despite such machinations, there will always be room for the opportunist to seize the moment. John Bindon, the villainturned-actor (Poor Cow, Get Carter, Performance), who helped give the 'hardman' archetype its cinematic image in 1970s Britain, recounted how, in his earlier days, he was being transferred by prison bus from one borstal to another, along with his friend Alan Stanton.


Excerpted from Prison Break by Paul Buck. Copyright © 2012 Paul Buck. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii

Over the Walls and Far Away ix

I Time to Go 1

II Going Places 9

III Under your Noses 27

IV Not Stopping 51

V Who Goes there? 55

VI Up and Over 65

VII Into the Blue Beyond 97

VIII Forcing the Issue 115

IX Beyond the Bounds 123

X Taking their Leave 131

XI Room to Move 139

Bibliography 225

Index of Escapees, Would-Be Escapees, and (Named) Associates 229

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Prison Break: True Stories of the World's Greatest Escapes 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lincoln Burrows, Michael Skowfield, Cyco Guy, BlackGuyFamily, OldGuyWithCat, FatGuy, other Cyco Guy,amd GuyWhoBelievesTooRealisticWithJesus! The general, vice president, who ends up getting the punishment Lincoln was going to get. Haha, the electric chair. But why the last episode the 2nd to last? That doesn't make sense. Okay, first Michael Skowfield decides to save his bigger brother, who always took care of him and turned him into a Structual Engineer. [I want to be a Civil Engineer,(Cool! I get to build bridges!) And my brother pratically wants to be a Structual Engineer like Michael.] Then he ended up in a prison which takes a long time to get out of there!!! He had to plan carefully and precisely,(like every prisoner does.) Then he meets all these criminals and thy are able to escape.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago