What is a Jailbreak?

Mary McMahon

A jailbreak or jail break is an escape from prison. Since prison escapes are generally undesirable, jailbreaks are usually met with a formidable law enforcement response, especially when they involve high value prisoners or prisoners who have committed serious and violent crimes. Jailbreaks have been popularized in numerous films and books, and history has also seen a number of interesting real-life jailbreaks, including the 1962 escape of three prisoners from supposedly inescapable Alcatraz Island and the 1943 escape of numerous Allied prisoners from a notorious German prisoner of war camp known as Stalag Luft III.

Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.
Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.

Many jailbreaks are unsuccessful, because prison and jail officials do their best to prevent prisoner escapes. Outdoor areas in penal facilities are usually tightly controlled, for example, and prisoners are monitored at vulnerable moments such as prison transfers to reduce the risk of escape. Many prisons also have extensive action plans in place for dealing with a jailbreak; these plans are designed to lock down the prison to discourage further escapes while sending out search parties for the missing prisoners. Generally, escapees are apprehended within a few days.

A prison.
A prison.

A successful jailbreak requires extensive planning, and it often works best with some kind of assistance. While prisoners do spontaneously take advantage of situations such as poorly guarded work crews, prisoners who take the time to plan out their jailbreak can sometimes succeed in escaping and evading capture for some time. Assistance on the inside from other prisoners and guards is extremely useful, as is cooperation from outsiders who can shelter escaped prisoners or provide them with needed supplies.

When a jailbreak does occur, jails usually notify neighboring communities. By alerting neighbors, the jail can expand the network of people who might assist them in capturing the prisoner, and people can take steps to protect themselves if a prisoner is known to be violent. Usually, members of the public are asked to report sightings of escaped prisoners without attempting to stop them, since the prisoners may be armed, or they could resort to desperate moves to avoid capture.

Popular culture includes numerous depictions of jailbreaks because many people find the thought of executing an escape from prison intriguing. It requires immense organizational ability and cooperation to be successful, and some historical jailbreakers have been inspiring figures. Prisoners of war, for example, have engaged in some astounding jailbreaks to escape brutal conditions. Some notorious gangsters like John Dillinger have also distinguished themselves with daring prison escapes.

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Discussion Comments


@Azuza - Well you are braver than I am then! I would feel pretty nervous if a known criminal escaped from prison near my home.

That being said, I remember seeing the scene in the movie Public Enemies where John Dillinger makes his jailbreak. I have to say it really got my adrenaline pumping! I definitely enjoyed watching the jailbreak in the movie, and even rooted for the inmates that were breaking out. Like I said though, real life is a whole different story!


You know, I'm not sure why people get so worried over jailbreaks. I feel like if a murderer escaped from jail the last thing they would be thinking about was murdering someone else. I know if I were them I would be thinking about getting the heck out of dodge as fast as possible!

I can see worrying if a serial killer or some kind of psychopath escaped. That sounds like it would pose a real threat. But a one time murderer or someone who committed some other crime? Probably wouldn't cause me to worry all that much!


I remember when two murderers escaped from a prison near my home. I was watching a local television station at the time, and they interrupted the program with a news alert informing the public of the jailbreak.

They told everyone to stay in their homes with the doors locked if possible. Cops went around the neighborhood, telling people who were out walking around about the danger.

The men avoided being caught for two days. They were found rummaging through a dumpster in an alley outside a restaurant, searching for food.

Everyone was so relieved once they were caught. Parents could let their kids play outside again, and they could rest easier at night.


A guy from my hometown who went to prison for burglary escaped. He wasn’t very smart, in my opinion, because he went to stay with someone known to be associated with him.

The moment he broke out, alarms went off in the jailhouse, and the cops went to the home of his friend to wait for him. When he showed up, they were hiding in the bushes out front. They jumped out and tackled him.

He had a very short jailbreak. He should have known to go far away and contact his friend over the phone.


Detroit has two state prisons that are right in residential neighborhoods. They are the Ryan Road prison and the John R prison, and their lots are adjacent to each other.

In the nineties, there was construction at the prison and there was apparently a hole in a fence that led right out to the street. The inmates weren't allowed near it but apparently they figured a way to get there. They caught some guys on their way back into the prison. They had been in the habit of walking up to the local liquor store and buying booze and cigarettes to sell in the prison.

Later, that same complex had a jailbreak when somebody walked right up to the fence, which came to the sidewalk, and tossed a shotgun over it to a friend, who came up shooting and got out. I think they've improved the wall now. At least, I hope they have.


The odd thing about breaking out of jail is that the few people who do make it, are often caught right near the prison they just escaped.

I remember reading a book about a woman named Diane Downs who killed her children. She managed to escape from prison, and they found her living with a guy less than a mile from the prison complex. Not very smart, in my opinion. It would make sense to me to get as far from there as possible.


I find it very odd that people romanticize jailbreaks. Almost none of them work, and trying it sounds like a good way to get shot or chewed up by a dog. I guess watching something like that on TV or in a movie is like riding a roller coaster. It gives you the thrill of danger without actually exposing you to any.

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