/ 1 May 2021

Escape from Pretoria: ‘Our cells were on the first floor, so there was nowhere to dig to’

In this extract from the book, the author describes the beginnings of a plan to break out from prison

In our first weeks at Pretoria, Steve and I carefully studied the layout of the prison to see if there were any obvious cracks in the prison’s security. From our initial observations, all escape routes had their origin in the prison yard. It was reasonable to think that way, for once you were in the yard the only barrier between you and freedom was the yard wall. Any other starting point meant that you were placing more barriers in front of yourself, not fewer. You could take your cell as the point of departure but once out of it you had to get out of the prison building, and that meant into the yard.

There were only four doors leading out of the actual prison building, and three of them led directly into the yard. The fourth, the front door, led directly into the street but that was out of the question because the only way to get to it was by clean through the administrative section where the prison staff hung out, and opening many doors and gates on the way.

How to get out of the prison yard was another question. The yard gate, although it led out of our prison, opened into prison property — into the site of the old Pretoria Local that was about to be demolished. That was not useful, but as the demolition progressed, we thought it might begin to offer some prospects. 

The opportunities for traditional escape methods, such as digging tunnels, making holes in walls and crawling through ducts and pipes were nil. Our cells were on the first floor so there was nowhere to dig to. There were no opportunities to dig a tunnel from the yard as it was mostly concreted and visible to the guards. Anyway, where would the tunnel go and where could we hide the rubble? Our prison was in a prison complex, so if we could have dug a tunnel it would have come up somewhere in prison property.

Nonetheless, we believed that it would be possible, somehow, to get over or under the yard wall and into the street. There had to be a way. We would eventually discover it — it would just take time.

The security arrangements that had been installed indicated that the prison authorities also recognised that if an escape was to be attempted it would have to start from or go through the yard. There were searchlights that illuminated it at night like a football stadium, and after lock-up a large, ferocious guard-dog was placed in it. The dogs were of a breed that would have torn apart a prisoner on the loose. The pos, with its armed guard, eliminated the possibility of prisoners making a dash for freedom during the day.

We did, however, notice a few cracks in the security; the dog was never placed in the yard exactly at lock-up (4.30pm) and sometimes up to an hour later; between lock-up and 10pm there was no guard on the pos. This meant that if we could get out of our cells shortly after lock-up and into the yard before the dog arrived, it might be possible to scale a wall to get into the street. The prospects did not look brilliant but there was some hope. One thing was clear, we could not rely solely on cracks in the security arrangements to get out, we had to develop our own capabilities to exploit them and expose others.

To be able to get into the yard after lock-up, or to be able to do anything at all for that matter, we needed keys. But how could we make them? How could we get the dimensions? Between us we knew only a little about how locks worked. I had once removed and opened the lock of the back door of my parents’ home to see how it worked, and had made a pick with a piece of bent wire. The giant prison locks looked more formidable than anything we had experienced in civilian life. Still, we couldn’t allow ourselves to be intimidated by their size. Inside they were probably the same as any ordinary locks of a similar kind.

For several nights I sat on my bed and stared at the lock on my grille. It was completely accessible as it was right there, bolted to the frame. I could even see right through the keyhole and get my hand around the other side of it because there was a fair space between the grille and the outer door. I had to make a key for it, but I didn’t know where to start. Since the warders never left their keys lying around for us to take measurements or impressions, there was no alternative but to work it out for myself.

I dared not tell anyone apart from Stephen that I was planning to make a key, for we had no idea how the comrades would respond if we raised the subject first. We knew that it would be a different matter to announce that we had made a key that worked.

Extract from Escape from Pretoria by Tim Jenkin (Jacana Media).