Inmate: Escape from Loop federal lockup ‘not one you want to relive’
BY STEFANO ESPOSITO Staff Reporter September 26, 2013 6:06PM
A rope hangs from a window opening at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop after two convicted bank robbers — Joseph "Jose" Banks (inset) and Kenneth Conley — escaped on Dec.18, 2012. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
Updated: October 28, 2013 7:33AM
In the World War II movie “The Great Escape,” the heroes tunneling out of a German prisoner of war camp used sledgehammer blows and singing to conceal their noisy digging.
That technique — as well as luck and lapses in security — perhaps explain how two inmates managed to set up the audacious escape from a downtown federal lockup last year, wriggling out of a tiny hole in their jail cell and rappelling down 17 stories on a rope cobbled together from bed sheets and dental floss.
At least that’s how Jose Banks, one of the escapees, explains things in a Sept. 16 letter to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Banks, a colorful character who has been known to rob banks in disguises and use a Jamaican accent, says in his letter that he initially had no intention of escaping from the Metropolitan Correctional Center last year.
“It came unexpected and it happened fast,” Banks, 38, writes, saying it was an “opportunity presenting itself.”
Banks’ luck began when he was housed in a cell with a “perfect exiting route.”
“It leading into an alley way, a narrow enclosed passageway at ground level serving as a concealment . . .” Banks writes. “As opposed to the unfavorably northeast-facing main entrance where the front desk and secured lobby is situated — rather placing one out in the open and highly exposed.”
But how did Banks and his cellmate, Kenneth Conley, allegedly manage to chip away — undetected — at the concrete beneath their cell window, allowing them to make a hole large enough to squeeze out?
They depended on a noisy construction project on their floor, Banks said, as well as the “talking, singing, yelling and arguing simultaneously” of other inmates, “which would increase to the point where one could hardly hear [oneself] think.”
Banks doesn’t explain how he managed to amass the bed sheets required to dangle down some 17 stories, nor does he talk about reinforcing them with dental floss — details that came out in a bank robbery sentencing for Conley last May.
In a 2009 letter to a federal judge, in which Banks is seeking to be released from the MCC, he talks about his background as a “tailor by trade.”
Banks chastises MCC guards for failing to see his preparations for the escape.
“Also, had the administration been just a little bit more thorough in their daily/weekly rotational routine shakedowns and inspections . . . they could have easily spotted what [lay] right in plain view before their eyes — overall preventing the entire ordeal from occurring,” Banks writes.
The actual escape, Banks describes as a “horrific, unimaginable nightmare.”
“A suicidal one — if I may add,” he said. “One you would not want to relive — wearing the same shoes. Trust me. I was probably numb the whole while making my way towards the ground (losing and catching my grip at stop-and-go intervals). My legs up and giving out on me. I collapsed my body to the ground upon contact.”
Banks explains that “the entire experience was not a death-defying act bent on entertaining the masses,” saying there was no “intent or desire to play stunt man with my life.”
Besides the knotted bed sheets, investigators found window prison bars hidden in a mattress inside Banks and Conley’s cell, according to an FBI affidavit filed the same day as the escape. Fake metal bars were also found in the cell and the cell’s window had been broken.
In the days after the escape, a union official told the Chicago Sun-Times that a staffing shortage in the federal jail contributed to a series of security snafus that made the escape possible. The breakout was caught on surveillance video, but a guard assigned to monitor the cameras didn’t see it because he was counting prisoners on another floor, the official said.
Meanwhile, Ed Ross, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said this week: “BOP’s investigation of the escape has been completed and is being reviewed for any possible staff disciplinary actions. While we cannot provide specific information contained in the investigation, we can tell you that physical security at MCC Chicago has been enhanced along with a re-emphasis of security procedures. “
Banks was captured two days after his escape, after a tipster alerted authorities he was staying in Lincoln Park, an area where he once lived. Conley was caught in suburban Palos Hills about two weeks after the escape.
Escape charges against Banks were dropped in January. He already faces up to 80 years behind bars for a string of robberies. His sentencing is tentatively set for Oct. 11.