Prison Break: A History of Mass Escapes


What seemed to be a prison riot sparked by rival gangs housed at the Apodaca correctional facility in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, that left 44 fatalities turned out to be a brazen mass escape in disguise. Thirty members of the notorious criminal cartel, the Zetas, slipped away during the melee

Although this mass escape is certainly a black spot on the records of prison authorities, some of whom have been implicated in assisting the effort, how this escape plays out for the prisoners who are now on the lam remains to be seen.

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If history of mass escapes is any guide, it usually ends badly. See for yourself in this timeline of other mass escapes throughout history:

The Libby Prison Escape, 1864

Like many of the facilities during the Civil War, Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., must have been hell on Earth, even by prison standards. Lack of food, proper medical care and sanitation caused thousands of deaths among the inmates.

On Feb. 9, 1864, Union soldiers determined they had had enough, and over 100 of them slipped away in the night through tunnels they had built from the prison basement. Considered a generally successful mass escape, more than half of the inmates made it back to Union lines.

'The Great Escape,' 1944

Like the Union soldiers held at Libby prison during the Civil War, Allied POWs during World War II also used their ingenuity to stage what might be the most famous prison break of all time.

Dubbed "The Great Escape," the plan was part of a nearly year-long effort to dig three tunnels, dubbed "Tom," "Dick" and "Harry," 30 feet underground and involving as many as 600 prisoners. Led by a British officer named Roger Bushell, nearly 200 inmates attempted to bust out through the first tunnel that was ready, "Harry." The prisoners also had on them fake documentation to prevent their recapture.

Unfortunately for the inmates, because of an error in planning, the tunnel was too short. As a result, only 76 prisoners actually made it out. All except three were recaptured.

As a warning to any POWs still contemplating escape, the Gestapo killed 50 of the recaptured prisoners.

Cowra POW Camp, 1944

The Cowra prisoner-of-war camp in Australia housed prisoners from the Axis powers, including Germany, Italy and Japan. Unlike other prisoners who were more complacent with their fate, Japanese inmates were more restless, partly due to the cultural barrier but also the shame of being captured.

In the early hours of Aug. 5, 1944, a Japanese fighter pilot sounded a charge with a banged up bugle on the prison guards, backed by some 1,000 Japanese POWs brandishing hand-crafted weapons, flinging themselves into barbed wire and machine gun fire. Nearly 230 inmates were killed and 100 more wounded. Four guards also died.

Following the escape, many of the inmates committed suicide rather than submit to recapture.

Batticaloa Jail, 1983 and 1984

In September 1983, over 40 political prisoners part of the separatist guerrilla group, the Tamil Tigers, and around 150 other inmates who just took advantage of the opportunity, escaped from prison in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. They smuggled in weapons and overpowered the guards before fleeing by boat to India.

Tamil Tigers broke back in in 1984 to retrieve a female inmate who had been left behind in the original escape a year earlier.

The Maze Prison Escape, 1983

The same month as the first Batticaloa escape, half a world away, 38 members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), who had been convicted of a range of politically motivated crimes including murder, escaped from a maximum security prison in Northern Ireland. The prisoners smuggled in handguns, held the guards hostage and escaped using a prison van. One officer was murdered and another injured in the process.

Half of the prisoners were caught shortly after escaping. Many of the other escapees were recaptured years later or died before they could be.

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Sarposa Prison, 2008 and 2011

Sarposa prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, has seen more escapes than all of the other jails on this list combined.

In 2008, over 1,000 prisoners, nearly half of which belonged to the Taliban, escaped after a truck bomb detonated outside the gates to blast open the facility. Then, according to a Taliban spokesperson in a report from The Guardian, 30 motorcycle-mounted militants and two suicide bombers attacked the guards, allowing virtually every prisoner in the facility to escape.

Three years later, despite an overhaul of the facility with major security upgrades, nearly 500 prisoners escaped through a tunnel. Once again, inmates had assistance from Taliban insurgents on the outside. It took roughly four and a half hours to clear all of the prisoners through, though they managed to flee without a shot fired.

Photo credit: Corbis Images

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