One of my long-standing interests as a student of the Shadow arts is “prison breakology”: the art and science of busting out of jail. This is a field as old as imprisonment itself, which demands the full extent of human ingenuity, daring, determination and endurance. As I see it, the Shadow-minded are all prisoners of civilization to some extent, so we should take inspiration and learn from these escape artists where we can. And for those who do live dangerously in the shadows, whether as a criminal, spy, special operator or what have you, these skills could be the key that frees you from years of non-life in a human cage, or even death.
Prison Break: True Stories of the World’s Greatest Escapes by Paul Buck is a compendium of prison breaks pulled off over the past two or three centuries. Focusing mostly on British convicts, Buck profiles dozens of amazing and ingenious breaks and the clever individuals who executed them. Buck’s research is impressive; not only do we learn about high-profile escapes from maximum security prisons such as Alcatraz and the Maze, but we get many lesser-known breaks that are almost all interesting in some way. Whether the escape involves climbing over walls, tunneling under them, busting out during transit, fleeing from courtrooms, impersonating others or being flown out by helicopter, we get many examples to study. We also learn about some of the most amazing and celebrated escape artists of all time—men like “Honest Jack” Sheppard and Walter “Angel Face” Probyn, who seemed to make a career out of breaking out of prisons and making fools of their captors. Such men are the champion athletes and maestros of escapeology, and in my book are at least as worthy of glorification!
One of the most striking things about these accounts is how quickly most of the escapees are caught—usually within a few weeks or months of their escapes. Most go back to their old haunts, old tricks and old associates, and soon find themselves back in the big house. It’s clear that many of these criminals, while geniuses at outsmarting the authorities while in prison, are not brilliant at figuring out how to do the same on the outside. Their biggest challenge, it would seem, is learning to live in the rather dull and domesticated manner of the typical law-abiding citizen—and who can blame them?
One solution to this dilemma was found by “Gentle Johnny” Ramensky during World War II. A safecracker who had escaped from prison five times, he was contacted by members of British Intelligence who were looking for skilled and daring men to parachute behind enemy lines and steal top secret documents from Axis safes. Ramensky excelled in his new Shadow profession, breaking numerous safes, including some in the HQ’s of Goering and Rommel. Despite being set free and winning high praise for his war-time work, after the war Ramensky went back to his old ways, soon landing in prison and making several more escape attempts. Which goes to show that for some men, the Shadow life is the thing, regardless of whether society gives it their stamp of approval or not.
Prison Break is not as detailed as the Shadow War student would like; it’s broken into short accounts of each escape, most just a few paragraphs long. For more detailed study, the bibliography has an excellent list of references. This probably isn’t the kind of book you want to sit down and read in long stretches; the accounts tend to blur together and the stories become somewhat repetitive, but it makes excellent casual or bathroom reading. Definitely recommended for all students and fans of prison breakology.
You can purchase a copy of Prison Break here.