Sunday, February 8, 2004

Daring escapes

FILM directors, both Indian and western, love to sprinkle a liberal dose of this masala. It is also a peg around which many novels and POW stories revolve. Last fortnight, many heads rolled in Chandigarh because of it. What else could we be talking about but jailbreaks?

One of the officers in the eye of the recent Burail jailbreak storm was found to be in possession of the book, The Great Escapes. The book allegedly gave the idea to the escapees about how to dig a tunnel. Clearly, this was a classic case of the printed word inspiring real-life drama. Mostly, it’s the converse. Real jailbreaks have usually found their way into print or on the reel.

Illustration by Kuldip DhimanHenri Charriere ‘Papillon’ has written an autobiographical book on his daring escape (though some critics allege it to be a figment of imagination) from French Guyana. He was convicted of manslaughter in 1931 and sentenced to life. His jail escape was made good when he chained himself to a sack full of coconut shells and rode on the biggest wave that hit the island. Similarly, The Great Escape, is a true story based on allied soldiers’ breaking out of a Nazi camp through an underground way.

Who can forget the daring escape of Frank Lee Morris’ in 1962? Morris, convicted for narcotics possession and armed robbery, escaped from Alcatraz prison on an island of San Francisco bay after seven months of meticulous planning. It was a result of superb teamwork. The tools Morris and his accomplices used were a hand-drill, electric hair- clipper, a vacuum motor, saw blades and, believe it or not, life-like dummies that they created in the prison. Morris and his gang escaped on June 11, 1962, through a ventilator. This story has even inspired a Hollywood film, Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.

In 1970, the Turkish authorities sentenced Billy Hayes, a 22-year-old American caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey, to 30 years of imprisonment. Hayes was transferred to a prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara. After six months of planning, Hayes sneaked out, stole a rowboat and made it to the shore. He dyed his blonde hair black and travelled towards the Greek border. Barefoot, exhausted, and sans a passport, he swam rivers and walked miles. Eventually, he reached Greece and later, the USA. His story later became the subject of a book as well as a movie, Midnight Express.

Hollywood has produced other jail-inspired flicks too. Seven Times Seven (1973) is a European heist movie wherein a group of prison inmates escape their jail cells to rob the Royal Mint, but return to the prison in time to stay out of trouble.

Jailbreaks have inspired Bollywood too. Sholay, Kaalia, Andha Kanoon, Gumrah, Sanghursh`85the list of Hindi movies with jailbreak either as a pivotal theme or as a climax shot is endless.

Besides, two British Indian filmmakers in Birmingham have captured the lives of 11,000 Tihar jail inmates in a sensitive documentary called Days And Nights In An Indian Jail. The 63-minute film was shot over a year inside the prison.

Indian jailbreaks

What happened in Burail on January 22 is not an isolated case. The year 2004 itself started on a sour note for jail staffers. Two undertrials escaped from Patiala’s Central Jail, on New Year’s Eve. They removed bricks from around the ventilator of the bathroom by scraping away at the joints with knives. After getting out of the cell, they joined ropes, attached an iron hook to its anterior end, and climbed over an 18-ft high boundary wall.

In a jailbreak that had all the ingredients of a Bollywood flick, four criminals serving life sentence — Chandra Kariya Devadiga, Rahul Rangnath Dandge, Raju Sudhakar Chawla and Ganesh Pandurang Avgune —fled from Kambha Jail in Kolhapur on January 1. To their bad luck, the prisoners, who were fleeing in a stolen vehicle met with an accident and one of them was caught by the police team chasing them.

And then the Burail jailbreak happened.

Statistics say that at least one convict escapes every year from Tihar Jail.

Tihar, the much-guarded yet much-maligned Indian jail, has been broken a couple of times. In 1965, Walcott, an international smuggler, landed at Safdarjung airport. He was arrested and locked up in Tihar Jail and his plane was impounded. A few days later, Walcott escaped from the jail, drove straight to the Safdarjung airport hangar, bluffed his way through the security and flew off in his impounded aircraft. By the time the authorities woke up and alerted the Air Force, Walcott’s aircraft had crossed the Indian airspace. Walcott’s small propeller aircraft would have taken at least an hour and a half to cross the Indian airspace but that was not enough time for India’s security authorities and the Air Force to thwart the smuggler’s escape!

Charles Gurmukh SobhrajThe most sensational Tihar jailbreak was executed by Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj. Escaping from Tihar was a (birthday) cakewalk for him, literally. Born to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother, Charles was implicated in more than 20 murders in various countries, including Thailand, Nepal and India. The law finally caught up with him in 1976, when he was arrested in connection with the murder of a French tourist, Luc Salomon. Lodged in Tihar, he ordered drug-laced sweets for the jail staff on March 16, 1986, on the pretext of birthday celebrations. When the securitymen collapsed under the influence of drugs, he simply took the keys and walked away.

He was re-arrested but his offence of breaking out of Tihar jail ensured that he would not be extradited to Thailand where he might have faced the death penalty for more serious crimes. The 1986 jailbreak added fresh charges against Sobhraj and another jail term. By the time he was released from Tihar in 1997, the 20-year period to try him in Thailand had lapsed.

As many as 43 LTTE cadres escaped from Tipu Mahal inside Vellore Fort on August 15, 1995, after digging a 153-foot-long tunnel.

In March 1998, in one of the biggest jailbreaks of India, 78 prisoners escaped from the Nizamabad jail, taking advantage of mob strength and official laxity. The same year in October, three Pakistani mercenaries, including the prime accused in Jammu’s 1995 Republic Day bomb blasts case, escaped from Kot Balwal Prison, Jammu.

In 2002, eight prisoners, two of them serving life sentences, escaped from Bettiah divisional jail in Bihar’s West Champaran district late on August 10 night after scaling the jail’s wall. The prisoners escaped by cutting the iron rods of the ventilator in the prison cell and scaling the prison’s wall.

In September, 2000, 15 prisoners escaped from the district jail in Mahendargarh, Haryana. They escaped through a ventilator allegedly with official connivance. Coincidentally, the same number of prisoners escaped from Mokokchung jail of Nagaland the next month. They broke the toilet wall and climbed the main prison walls using blankets.

The January 2001 earthquake in Gujarat was good news for prisoners in Bhuj. They exploited the chaos in the aftermath of the killer quake and some 270 ‘hardened criminals’ escaped from the Bhuj jail, considered the most impregnable in the state.

Bihar prisons have been notorious for jailbreaks. On March 11, 2002, 11 prisoners escaped from the Jamui prison after exploding bombs inside the jail. And two wardens were arrested for their role in the escape. The Chapra jail was taken over in March, 2002, when prisoners protested the shifting of five prisoners to nearby Buxar and Bhagalpur.

In August, 2003, two undertrials escaped from the Ferozepore Central jail. The two prisoners managed to open their ward’s lock and used a 20-ft long pipe to scale the 18-ft high boundary wall. Before escaping, they even played cards for some time!

On December 20, 2003, three lifers lodged in the high-security Palayamkottai central prison In Tamil Nadu escaped by making a hole in the cell wall. Once out in the compound, they used bedsheets provided by the jail authorities to scale the 14-ft high compound wall.

Global phenomenon

Jailbreaks have taken place the world over. Their incidence is predictably more in the developing countries than the developed ones though. During the 1930s, when the USA was not a power to reckon with, a famous jailbreak of John Herbert Dillinger, aka the Leaping Bandit, was splashed worldwide. Dillinger was perhaps the most notorious of all US bank robbers. His career was short— from mid-1933 to mid-1934— but he reaped sensational publicity for his escapades. Once when he was lodged in a jail in Lima, Ohio, the police found a jailbreak plan from his pocket. The police kept him under surveillance on him while he kept denying that he ever had anything to do with the plan.

Four days later, a bunch of his co-prisoners-cum-friends escaped using the same very plan. These escapees later returned, shot the sheriff and freed Dillinger.

Nearer home, on December 27, 1997, five terrorists managed to escape from a jail in Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan, Pakistan. One of the escapees was being tried for the 1991 murder of Sadiq Ganji, the Iranian Counsel General at Lahore. In this case, six persons drove to the jail in the guise of visitors. As soon as the five-shackled prisoners — Zakaullah, Sadiq Ganji, Ijaz Chichi, Tariq and Shahnawaz — appeared in the visitors’ room, the intruders signalled their armed companions who appeared on the main jail exit in a SUV. They threw chilly powder into the eyes of the guard, opened the main gate and drove away.

A total of 135 prisoners from all over the Philippines bolted from jail between January and July, 2003, way higher than the 114 jailbreaks recorded in the entire year of 2002, according to statistics from the Philippines National Police.

On August 11, 2003,a prisoner from a maximum security San Vittore jail in Milan, Italy, made good his escape using spoons and knotted bed sheets. Ibrahim Krasmiqi (24), involved in human trafficking, who was serving 11 years broke through the crumbling plaster in his third floor cell using kitchen spoons and then lowered himself to the ground with the bed linen.

More recently, in October 2003, more than 30 Taliban prisoners and other inmates broke out of a high-security prison in southern Afghanistan. The men disappeared without detection from a prison in Kandahar, the stronghold of Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime, after digging a tunnel.

Of guts & grit

History is replete with examples of prisoners who earned not notoreity but fame for the guts and grit they showed in escaping to freedom.

The Tower of London, that served as a clammy political prison, could not hold John Gerard, a Jesuit priest, as a prisoner for long. In 1597, after breaking away the stones around the door to his cell, Gerard sneaked past the guards in the corridors and escaped using a rope.

A jail proverb — Adversity makes strange cell fellows. This one is about two persons with contrasting personalities — one a celibate and other a promiscuous polygamist, jailed for his sexual exploits. In 1755, Giacomo Casanova, who was incarcerated for adultery in the Leads Prison, Italy, fashioned an iron rod into a digging tool. He then started digging out a tunnel. Sensing some unusual movement, the officials shifted him to another cell. Before the ‘forcible shifting’ Casanova handed over the tool to Balbi, a monk, who was to occupy the cell that Casanova had to vacate. The monk continued digging the tunnel in two directions. One linking Casanova’s and his cell and another one that opened to the world outside. The monk and Casanova escaped together, never to be traced again by the law.

An audacious escape was that of Henry Brown, a born slave, in 1816. After his owner sold Brown’s wife and children to a new owner, Brown escaped to freedom on March 19, 1849. A friendly carpenter built a wooden box for him and inscribed, ‘Right side up. handle with care’ on it. Two accomplices mailed the box with Brown squeezed inside, from North Carolina to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. The journey, 27 hours long, was arduous. Brown’s only complain was: "Despite written instructions, I was handled upside down."

The escape of Jayaprakash Narayan from the Hazaribagh jail has gone down as the most daring one in the history of India’s freedom struggle history. JP escaped from the Hazaribagh jail in 1942 where the British army had detained him. He had been moved here from the Deoli Detention Camp, Rajasthan. On November 8 that year, he and some friends escaped by tying their dhotis together. They crossed over into Nepal before re-entering India.

Across the borders

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots

In times of war and political upheavals, it was but human to move towards freedom and among one’s own people. The flying machine of Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, a Luftwaffe pilot, was shot down over England in 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Von Werra was captured and imprisoned in England. He twice attempted to escape but was recaptured both times. After his second failed escape attempt, von Werra was sent to a prison camp in Canada. He managed to escape from there and reached Germany via the USA, Mexico, South America and Spain. He was the only German prisoner of war to have successfully escaped. Later, his country decorated him with a bravery award.

Another jailbreak story set in 1944 is about the escape of allied force PoWs from the Nazi camp. The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, Sagan on March 24-25, 1944, is a full-fledged epic in itself. Prisoners escaped by digging a huge multi-mouthed technically correct tunnel. This is one of the most famous jailbreaks executed till date and has even found its way in the school textbooks.

Many escape stories are scripted around the Berlin Wall. Though it cannot be termed as a jailbreak in the exact sense of the term, nevertheless tunnelling beneath the wall was a popular means deployed to escape. In 1964, Wolfgang Fuchs built one of the most vital tunnels, 140-yards long that took seven months to build, and enabled more than 100 East Germans to reach the West. A similarly successful tunnel began in an East Berlin graveyard. ‘Mourners’ brought flowers, paid respect to the ‘departed souls’at the grave and then disappeared underground.

Maiden attempts

The fairer sex is the weaker one. Says who? History is replete with instances when women either themselves found a way out of the jails or were instrumental in getting their loved ones out.

When Mary, Queen of Scots, after her exile in France, arrived in Scotland in 1561 to rule, she was imprisoned in 1567 in remote Lochleven Castle. Her first jailbreak attempt (March 1568) was a failure. Determined to succeed, Mary fled the prison successfully on May 2, 1568, with the help of an orphan she befriended at the castle.

The Earl of Nithsdale, who was jailed in the Tower of London in 1715 for his role in the Jacobite Rebellion, took the help of his wife to escape. Earl’s wife came in to meet him along with three companions. Nithsdale wore the clothes of his wife’s companion and walked off. Of course, the companion had another set of clothes with her, which she wore to trot out separately. Later, the Earl left the country and settled in Rome.

Kalpana Joshi (nee Dutt) became a legend in her lifetime for her part in India’s Independence struggle against the British colonial rule. She was among a large and dedicated group of Bengali women in the forefront of the freedom movement. Kalpana was given the task of organising the jailbreak of two leading militants - Ananta Singh and Ganesh Ghosh. Later, she with her comrades staged what is now known as the famous Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) armoury attack. The rebels hoisted the Indian national flag, took a military salute and proclaimed a provisional revolutionary government. Kalpana, who was captured 18 months later, was sentenced to life imprisonment in Kalapani (the island jail of Andamans).

Six women guerrillas made a daring escape in Nepal on March 31, 2001. This was the first incident of its kind. The women were being held in the Gorkha (in the central region) jail since 1999. Uma Bhujel, Kamala Naharki, Engela B.K., Sanju Aryal, Meena Marhatta and Rita B.K, the six prisoners, won their freedom by digging a tunnel out of the enemy’s dungeon. The tunnel, nearly 15 metres long, passed under two heavily fortified walls and was dug out using just an iron rod and a few kitchen appliances.

An escape attempt from North Carolina ended in failure. Teresa Jones Smith (44) packed a mini-blowtorch, a handheld cordless drill and a Plexiglas cutting tool when she visited her boyfriend, Roger Wayne Johnson Jr., in jail on January 20, 2004. While waiting for her boyfriend, she began melting a corner of the window that separated inmates from visitors. The billowing smoke drew attention of another visitor, who called the jail authorities. They arrested Smith and took her tools away.

Jailbreaks can occur for a number of reasons. In most of the cases, official connivance has not been ruled out. Laxity, security personnels’ carelessness, prisoner’s smartness, external help, bribery, hands-in-glove jail workers, meticulous planning... One or a combination of these may contribute to make a person, convicted by the law, to saunter off, leaving the officials responsible for the convict’s destined incarceration to face the music.

Call it the prisoner’s patience, skill, or sheer dumb luck, in real life this singular event is a jailer’s nightmare, inmates envy and escaped prisoners’ delight.