A couple of years ago, a prison break in New York State made headlines. Convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt cut through steel walls in the back of their adjoining cells, crawled down a catwalk, broke through a brick wall, then sliced through steel pipes, locks and chains to pry open a manhole cover and flee the scene. They left behind power tools, blankets stuffed with clothes to mimic their sleeping bodies. They also left a cheeky smiley-face drawing with the message ‘Have a nice day’, and a trail of suspicion.
In newsfeed, reporters called the prison break ‘sophisticated’ and ‘Shawshank-redemption like’. As bold and creative as the escape was, in my opinion it holds a dim candle to an earlier prison break. While it’s only speculation, this one may have influenced Stephen King when he wrote Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the novella on which the film was based. It might have inspired the two escapees from New York State, too. You be the judge.
On the night of June 11, 1962, three prisoners in Alcatraz’ s ‘escape-proof’ prison fled their separate cells through holes chiseled out of the flaky concrete around air vents under the sinks along the far walls. That gave them access to a utility corridor behind it. It had taken 9 months of coordinated effort to reach this point – nine months of scratching the wall each evening with metal spoons stolen from the kitchen and drilling with an improvised drill made from a broken vacuum cleaner. To keep their work hidden, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin covered the holes with cardboard grills and draped pants over the faucets.
On the night of their escape, the three tucked life-like dummy heads under blankets fluffed with clothes. The heads were works of art, crafted out of soap and toilet paper, topped with hair clippings from the prison barbershop, and painted with flesh-tone paint stolen from the prison art shop.
Once inside the utility corridor, the men climbed plumbing pipes to reach a small landing. They squeezed through a ventilation shaft that led to the roof, ran across the top and slithered down a vertical pipe to the ground. Lugging a raft made out of 50 green prison-issued raincoats and oars carved from plywood taken from the maintenance shed, the three prisoners skirted down the hill to the water’s edge.
Despite an intense manhunt, neither the escaped prisoners nor their bodies were ever found, leading to a wave of speculation. Did the inmates make it or did they die trying to cross the choppy, shark infested and bone-numbingly cold waters of San Francisco Bay? The FBI file is still open and active, pending further information.
So there you have it. A bold attempt, with elements similar to Shawshank Redemption and the New York prison break. Inspiration or pure coincidence?