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Prison Breaks Past: Several Inmates Have Tried To Escape From N.Y. Prison


Richard Matt and David Sweat aren't the first felons to escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility. In fact, there's been some two-dozen escapes from the prison. The first one was in 1845, shortly after the prison opened. Two inmates finished eating lunch and then jumped over a fence. The pair made impressive progress on foot through a heavily-wooded forest.

JEFF HALL: They were headed toward Canada. And without a compass, they really didn't know which direction they were running in. And by nightfall, they ended up back at the prison.

CORNISH: That's Jeff Hall, a history professor at Queensborough Community College at the City University of New York. His father was a corrections officer at the prison for 25 years. Hall wrote his dissertation on New York prisons. He says that the warden at the time welcomed the inmates back with open arms, even saying that if they behaved, there would be no punishment. The next warden was not so forgiving. He added a dungeon and used water boarding to keep prisoners in line. The prison has since been fortified heavily.

HALL: It's surrounded by a very large 40-foot-high wall. There are cellblocks and catwalks where officers basically do surreptitious patrols of the facility. And also the sewer system itself, that can also be used for other purposes, if you're, of course, thin enough and determined enough to snake through and get out that way.

CORNISH: The sewer system was how Peter James made his escape in 1903. He spent years digging his way out, which has to make him one of the most determined escapees ever.

HALL: He stole some small pieces of tin that he kept on his person. And each day when he was working in the engine room, he slowly chipped-away at the prison wall then eventually reached bedrock, began digging, and within four years he had finished a 20-foot-long tunnel which reached out of the prison into - actually connected to the prison sewer supply, climbed out through a manhole cover, ran to the Canadian border.

CORNISH: Peter James was just four miles from the border when he was caught. In the end, says Jeff Hall, all the inmates that went on the lam were eventually apprehended and sent back to prison. Unlike the first escapees, it's unlikely that David Sweat and Richard Matt will be welcomed back and forgiven. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.