Why jail escapes capture our attention
BY MARK BROWN December 18, 2012 8:46PM
Officers on the scene after two inmates escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center by knocking out part of a cinder-block wall and climbing down ropes from the side of the building Tuesday, December 18, 2012. I John H. White~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 20, 2013 6:32AM
There’s something about a prison escape that captures the public’s imagination, an interest that goes well beyond the simple fear of a criminal on the loose.
Nobody understands this better than the folks who produce “Breakout,” a television series that re-creates real life prison escapes.
When Metropolitan Correctional Center escapees Joseph Jose Banks and Michael Conley are finally caught, and experience tells the folks at “Breakout” that occasion will come relatively sooner than later, the convicted bank robbers may find themselves in a future episode.
“We’ll definitely have to keep our eyes on this one,” agreed Kate Harrison, an executive producer for Cream Productions in Canada, which co-produces the docudrama with the UK’s Raw TV.
Doesn’t that take the cake: Canadians and Brits outmaneuvering Americans to make money off our own criminals.
Tuesday’s escape certainly would seem to provide all the elements for great television:
† A daring and dangerous escape from a rare urban high-rise prison using an improvised rope made from bedsheets.
† A criminal who comes complete with his own nickname (“The Secondhand Bandit”) and back story (threatening “You’ll hear from me” to the judge who convicted him just a week earlier).
† And as of this writing, both of them evading authorities for at least one cycle of news and daylight, apparently getting at least as far as the suburbs for a change of clothes.
I’m not trying to minimize the seriousness of what is happening here with its obvious potential for violence. Both men are considered armed and dangerous.
But the fact remains that whether you’re talking about true stories like John Dillinger’s Lake County, Ind., jailbreak or Frank Morris’ escape from Alcatraz or the entirely fictional “Shawshank Redemption,” we have long taken a peculiar rooting interest in prisoner escape exploits.
Personally, I think there’s something in the human subconscious that makes people want to fantasize about what they could do if they ever found themselves unjustly imprisoned or simply enjoys seeing somebody else beat the system — as long as it doesn’t put them personally at risk.
Harrison, the “Breakout” producer, isn’t so sure about my theory.
“You don’t want to root for them,” she says of the escapees chronicled on the show, which will soon release its second season. “Breakout” is shown here on the National Geographic Channel.
Maybe not, but here’s how they promote it: “These are stories of dangerous and intelligent men who refused to be caged, and the determined law enforcement officers whose job it was to hunt these fugitives down.”
Harrison thinks viewers are more captivated by the planning: the painstaking preparations, patience and powers of observation that go into a successful escape. Almost all escapees share a “single-minded vision” that aids them in that planning, she said.
In the case of the MCC escapees, “I bet they knew where the guards would be during that time,” Harrison said. “I bet they knew when someone was going to catch onto them being missing.”
“Successful” escape is relative in this context, as all escapees on “Breakout” have been caught, which is why they are available to tell their stories. Very few prison escapees ever remain free, Harrison said.
Most “Breakout” episodes draw directly from the words of the participants, who are interviewed either in prison or through correspondence.
One escapee produced a 90-page document for the show detailing how he planned and executed his escape, Harrison said.
“The prisoners want to tell their story,” she said. “They’re a different breed of people. I think they want attention more than anything else.”
As you might imagine, prison authorities aren’t always cooperative with the show, sometimes going so far as to move an inmate the night before a scheduled interview, she said. “It’s not a proud moment for some of these prison systems,” she observed.
For all the planning that goes into the escape, most prisoners admit they never had much of a plan for what they would do after they actually got out, Harrison notes.
That’s why most are captured very quickly, she said.
Of course, in this case, we have the added element of Banks allegedly having stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars that were never recovered.
He’s going to want his own series.