How to spice up your corrections training with a dash of history

A dose of corrections history provides some great learning points masquerading as war stories

As a jail staff trainer, I am fully aware of the challenge to keep training fresh, interesting and interactive. In one of my new classes, Outsmarting the Inmates: Keeping Them Confined, I discovered that a dose of corrections history provides some great learning points masquerading as war stories.

Every CO and civilian in a facility are part of a security network, and that network is critical in preventing inmate escapes. From inmate informants relaying information to effective searches for contraband and security breaches, we all have a hand in maintaining safe and secure custody of society’s criminal offenders. It is embarrassing to a sheriff, a jail superintendent or a prison warden to step in front of the public and admit that his or her security perimeter has been breached and inmates are on the run. Just think back to 2015 when two convicted murderers escaped from a maximum-security New York state prison by manipulating a civilian prison worker and a veteran correctional officer.

Thinking outside the box

In this June 12, 1962, file photo, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay is shown the day three prisoners escaped.
In this June 12, 1962, file photo, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay is shown the day three prisoners escaped. (AP Photo/File)

When teaching about how to prevent inmate escapes, traditional methods usually include a discussion of contraband, searches and perimeter security, and a review of the facility’s escape prevention standard operating procedures.

But effective trainers have to think outside the box. A veteran CO audience can be a tough crowd. While many want to learn and welcome new ways to do their jobs, others attend classes just to get their hours in. A challenge for all correctional trainers is to get these veterans to share their experiences and advice especially for the younger officers in the room, as everyone has something to offer.

Using lessons from history

As I put my class together I thought of my enthusiasm for history and concluded that whenever anyone from criminals to prisoners of war have been locked up, they have schemed, planned and manipulated their captors into making mistakes, sometimes with success. I use examples such as the 1962 Alcatraz escape, the 1864 Union prisoner of war escape from the Confederacy’s Libby Prison and the Great Escape during World War II.

I am sure many of you have seen the 1963 film “The Great Escape” starring Steve McQueen and James Garner. If you have not, it is worth a look. Considered one of the best movies about World War II, it tells the amazing real-life story of how 76 allied prisoners of war escaped a Nazi Germany prisoner of war (POW) camp in 1944.

When you watch the movie, you see POWs befriending and bribing the guards. You also see POWs forging papers and obtaining information about the outside world. This information was used by escapees to get as far away as possible from the camp.

Three tunnels were dug to confuse the Germans if any one tunnel was discovered. The ingenious POWs also:

  • Used slats from their bunks to shore up the escape tunnels.
  • Used powdered milk cans, called ‘KLIM’ cans, to fashion candle holders, tools, tunnel ventilation ducts and digging scoops. KLIM cans were supplied to the POWs by the Red Cross.
  • Made candles for lighting by taking the soup that was served to the POWS and skimming off the layer of fat; old clothing was used for wicks.
  • Constructed air pumps from hockey sticks, KLIM cans and knapsacks.
  • Devised an ingenious way to get lighting: electric lights were tied into the camp’s electrical grid.
  • Improvised small rail cars to move the dirt from the tunnels; in 12 months the POWs moved 200 tons of dirt.
  • Made sure that they got rid of the dirt while not attracting the guards’ attention. Old socks were used under the clothing to dispense the dirt. POWs would walk around while talking to fellow prisoners and letting the dirt out to mix in with the soil being tilled for gardens.
  • Manipulated and bribed friendly Germans into giving up civilian clothes and identification papers that were used to make forgeries for the escapees.

What is the bottom line for the trainer? After all, these escapes were heroes fighting against the Third Reich. Seventy-six made it out, 73 were recaptured and 50 of those were shot by the Nazis. But there is a larger lesson here and it is this: Any time you have people confined against their will, they will try to get out. To do so they will stop at nothing to hoodwink you, manipulate you and make things to fool you, no matter who they are or what they are being confined for. Desperate people do desperate things.


A challenge for all corrections trainers is to generate enthusiasm about a topic. Using historical events to teach inmate escape prevention is a great tool. The schoolteachers we remember are the ones who brought subjects to life, and the same applies to corrections trainers.

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