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Escape from a Maximum Security Jail

D. Babb was awarded Third Place in memoir in the 2008 Prison Writing Contest.

Los Angeles County has the largest jail system in the world. Their maximum security unit, High-power, is reserved for the most dangerous, notorious and high risk inmates. High-power inmates are single-celled, strip searched, handcuffed behind their back and escorted by armed guards any time they leave the cell. Recreation is once a week for ninety minutes in an eight by eight by eight foot cage on the roof of the jail. Six inmates are escorted by three guards at a time, following a very thorough strip search.

Typical High-power inmates are multiple murderers, guys down to court from death row, gang-banger shot callers or escape risks. I was the latter. Early on in my confinement I’d been ratted out and found in possession of a hacksaw blade, which sent me to high-power. O.J. was there at the time; he had his very own row and was treated extremely well. He was on the protective custody side of high-power. The majority of the rest of us were in side by side one-man cells, twenty five per tier. The five years I did in high-power was the best time I’ve ever done. Mandatory daily workouts got me in the best physical shape of my life, learning law as a pro-per (acting as one’s own attorney) gave me a working legal knowledge beyond what a law school could provide. Meeting and learning meditation from super-genius Joe Hunt (Billionaire Boys Club) opened my mind, spirit and imagination to vast possibilities and limitlessness.

That belief in no limits led to my crouching atop the one man recreation cage, reaching above my head, cutting through the final barrier separating inside from out as three guards sat thirty feet away and another four on video monitors about fifty feet away. As the adrenaline pounded in my ears, I was thinking, if they’re gonna catch me, now would be a good time.

It took six months to inconspicuously saw through the thick gauge wire of the cage, just a little at a time. I had to get in the same cage every time, camouflage the cut marks and ultimately, smuggle street clothes, cash, a hacksaw blade and sixty feet of rope to the roof, after a strip search, handcuffed and escorted. Not easy, but not impossible.

The rooftop rec. yard is situated four stories (each story about fifteen feet high) above the front corner of the jail. That section is also beyond areas that are fenced in with razor wire (on the ground). The concrete wall that comprises the back section of the high-power cages drops into an alcove atop the administrative offices. By our late afternoon rec. time the offices are mostly empty. The front of the jail is the visitors’ entrance where a variety of civilians and jail personnel mill about. A few times to rec. and I realized that directly on the other side of that back wall of the cage, you could drop into that alcove unseen, jump the remaining few feet from the administrative offices and stroll out front and blend in with the crowd like anybody else. But first you had to get out of the cage, cut through the fencing that covered the roof and manage the drop.

Securing the tools, manufacturing the rope, obtaining the other articles took time. Hiding the stuff was even more difficult. Once the decision was made that today’s the day and the final cuts are made through the cage, there’s no turning back. Getting that load of gear up to the roof was a heady experience in itself. The guard’s two feet in front of you, watching every move during a strip search; it’s sleight of hand magic at its most primitive. My heart was in my throat as he locked the cuffs on; I just hoped the weight of the rope didn’t pull my pants down. After the search I simply bait & switched to a different pair of pants, already packed with the gear.

D-day, every muscle is taut, I can see everything, I can hear everything yet I’m blocking extraneous distractions out. Two-hundred general population inmates are cordoned off from the high-power cages, but they can see every move I’m making. You have to go on faith that they’ll keep their mouths shut, and for God’s sake, quit staring. Months, years really, of meticulous planning culminating in these last five minutes. I cut the remaining sections and bend the wires back; one final look around and I hit the hole. Snag #1, it’s too small! I’d miscalculated by inches. I’d have to cut three more thick wires and time’s running, only about thirty minutes of rec. time left.

The previous six months I’d slowly & quietly done the cutting. Now I’m balls to the wall, full-tilt sawing on those bars like a wolf gnawing off its own leg to get free from a trap. The cage is shaking and rattling, my arms are screaming and I’m sweating a puddle. I’m using a Vaseline-type ointment on the three inch blade to reduce friction and the blade’s burning hot from the frantic sawing. Noises from huge air conditioner units on top of the roof are covering the commotion, I hope.

In a few minutes I’m through and bend back the bars. I sling the rope over my shoulder, crawl out of the cage and shimmy up the side to the top. There’s no time for hesitation, doubt or nerves now . . . I’m going. The cross meshing of the cages creates an optical illusion from the guard’s station. It appears that you can see into the cages down the row of ten, but the meshing distorts clear vision. Two minutes more and I’m through the regular gauge fencing that covers the roof. I slip through onto the fencing and peer over the side. It’s going according to plan mostly, yet it’s eerily bizarre and surreal.

I know I could get shot doing this, or jumped by a pack of enraged guards and Rodney King’d into oblivion. But my motivation and belief in my plan and ability far outweigh any lingering doubts. I’d just won a proper jury trial on a twenty-five to life case. Using the same mindset and principles . . . clearly, fear was not part of the equation. In fact, overconfidence could be my only failing attribute.

I’m lying on the rooftop, outside the confines of the jail, cages, guards, with nothing but open sky above and sixty foot drop. I secure the rope on a previously located drain pipe and slide over the side. The last minute frenzy of sawing had left ointment residue on my hands and my muscles fatigued. Almost immediately I began slipping on the rope . . . then sliding uncontrollably. The rope’s burning through my fingers . . . it’s too thin, I should have made gloves, needed more knots . . . whatever the problem(s), and it’s too late for solutions. I’ve escaped, but now I’m going to fall to my death.

I came to staring up at the sky. I attempt to crawl away, but can’t move. I’m pretty tore-up. My freedom had lasted only a few moments. But that feeling of open air on my skin, the exhilaration of the execution of such an impossible plan, so close to perfection . . . incomprehensibly satisfying.

I know from consequential deeper introspections that my physical freedom was not meant to be that day. Yet, through what I’ve gained and learned since, I know I’ve never been freer. Free from fear, from doubt, from regret and anxiety. To discover untapped potential and develop absolute belief in oneself and apply that to all aspects of life, no matter where you are . . . To drink in life in huge capfuls. There’s no greater freedom than the freeing of one’s mind from the restraint of self-imposed limits.

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