Jailbreak! Update!

On December 22, I read the essay below at a performance of my favorite Chicago reading series right now, The Paper Machete. Four days earlier, two inmates from Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) staged a daring escape, only the second time in its history that the building has been compromised like that. The picture to the right (credit: Associated Press and Chicago Reader) should give you a hint why. This picture actually makes it look more inviting than it is. The windows are about 6 inches wide.

The story of how the two inmates escaped is actually pretty ingenious (you can read about it here at the Chicago Tribune). For the week before Christmas, the city was wondering what was going on. Frankly, despite the fact that the inmates were considered dangerous, most people weren’t taking it very seriously. It was a welcome diversion from fiscal cliff discussions and the memory of the Newtown massacre. My daughter actually goes to school about four blocks from the MCC, but I wasn’t really worried about her safety. These guys couldn’t be dumb enough to hang around the jail, could they?

No, but they weren’t much more ambitious. The flashier inmate was captured on Dec. 21, in the apartment of an acquaintance. Now, we get word that the other inmate — the one I call “The Escapee Without a Nickname” — has been caught, too, in the vicinity of an old apartment of his. A rather disappointing ending. Their escape held such promise, but these guys never planned for Act II.

Anyway, the essay is here, below the fold. Often, the Paper Machete will post audio files of some of its performers, but for about two weeks, this hasn’t been the case.


You’ve seen the Metropolitan Correctional Center before. You’ve ridden on the Brown Line or driven down Jackson Boulevard and thought to yourself, even in a city like this, that is one damn ugly building. Like a giant concrete birdfeeder designed by someone who really hates squirrels, and doesn’t like birds much, either. A building that looks like an instrument your doctor would hide under a towel if he had to carry it into the examination room.

When you find out that it’s a jail, you smack your forehead and say, “Of course it’s a jail. What else would have concertina wire on its roof, 35 stories up?” Then, every time you pass it on the way to work or school or Lou Mitchell’s landmark breakfast eatery, you smile a little at Chicago’s arrogant toughness. Because not only did the city build a prisoner warehouse two blocks from the main library, but the building looks like a weapon a prisoner might make out of a chair leg. And because you live here, you think this civic badassery rubs off on you. You put aside any questions of the wisdom of putting a 35- story jail in the middle of downtown, and ignore the glaring parallels of Marvel Comics sticking a jail full of superpowered villains like Dr. Octopus and the Green Goblin just off the coast of Manhattan. What could go wrong?

Well, if this week’s jailbreak at the MCC doesn’t qualify as superhuman, it sure beats anything ever done on “Survivor”, so cue your prison break movie soundtrack now.

Monday night, two prisoners took a rope made out of bedsheets, sewn together with dental floss, and used it to scale down 20 stories to the street and skedaddle. They got the iron bars out of their window and made fake wooden bars to insert in their place. They squeezed out through a window five inches wide. They timed it to avoid video detection by the guards. On the garage roof, they switched their orange prison jumpsuits for workout clothes. They ran down Congress to Michigan Avenue, hailed a cab by the Auditorium Theater and were gone.

And the rest of us? We show up for work late with the excuse that the buses were all “clustering” today. Pathetic.

The first escapee, Joseph “Jose” Banks, has been called the Second Hand Bandit because of the various disguises he has worn throughout his career as a bankrobber. Scouring thrift shops for different clothes to wear, Banks has a flair for the dramatic. He’s been described as an aspiring fashion designer, so it’s no wonder he broke out. Orange jumpsuits will do that to a man, especially with such limited options for accessorizing.

I’m guessing that Joseph “Jose” Banks was driven to a life of crime by bullying, and too many playground taunts of “Hey, ain’t you Joseph A. Banks, the high-end men’s clothier? Hey Joseph A. Banks, how are my cuffs breaking, muthafucka? What’s trending in ties and pocket squares, huh, bitch?” Sewing the rope out of bedsheets took ingenuity, but the toughness to attempt this daring escape came from this kind of abuse, and lessons learned from “Project Runway”.

The other escaped prisoner is a white man named Kenneth Conley. Though he has a long criminal history for petty theft and weapons violations, he is impressing me as the real schlub of the operation. First off, “Weapons violations” is a crime they convict you of just because they know you’re a scumbag. Also, Conley was serving time in the downtown jail for a bank robbery that netted him less than $4,000. By contrast, in a string of robberies, stylish Joseph “Jose” Banks had stolen more than $600,000. But out on Michigan Avenue, guess which one had to hail the cab?

So the escapees take the taxi somewhere and eventually Wednesday morning, end up in Tinley Park, banging on the door of Conley’s mother’s house. Probably Conley’s idea, because you know, no one would think to look for them there. Conley, at 6 in the morning, dressed in a t-shirt and cast-off clothes, announced to the family, “Hey, guess what? We’re out on bond.” Unconvinced, the family gave him a winter coat and kicked them both out.

In the movie that’s already playing in your head, Joseph “Jose” Banks is played by Don Cheadle, while Conley would be brother Randy from “My Name is Earl”.

Maybe Conley looks worse because he doesn’t get a cool nickname like “Second Hand Bandit.” But the choices here are limiting. We could call Conley “Big Tipper”, since he reportedly robbed his bank and then went to his job at a strip club and told people about it. Or maybe we could call him “The Guy Whose Mom Lives In Tinley Park”. If the media doesn’t come up with something, his nickname is going to stay “The Guy Travelling with Joseph “Jose” Banks, the Second Hand Bandit.”

But late Thursday night, the police caught up with Joseph “Jose” Banks. He was ratted out at an apartment near Fullerton and Ashland Avanues. Because people on the lam make lousy houseguests, and you can’t always trust people you went to grade school with and haven’t seen in 10 years.

What’s disappointing, almost heartbreaking, is that at his court hearing yesterday, Banks showed up in a shirt and tie, and answered all the judges questions politely. What happened to the memorable trash talker, who said at his sentencing “Your laws don’t apply to me” and “We’ll see each other again soon”? Where was the canny mind that pulled off this historic escape? Where was the stylish rogue, the lone Chicagoan to use wigs and an overcoat for a career in crime and not in sketch comedy?

I was expecting a mix of Steve McQueen and Alexander McQueen, and all I end up with is Art Norman from NBC-5.

Whenever we hear about a sensational crime, we waste no time before we turn it into a mental movie. We imagine whispers and moody lighting. We hear tense music with lots of violins. We picture dramatic camera angles and actors with glycerin all over their faces to mimic sweat.

And beneath it all, what grabs our hearts is the notion that humans cannot be caged, that we will struggle to breathe the air of freedom, and conquer anything that dares get in our way.

In real life, there’s no soundtrack or moody lighting. The tension comes in the planning, the secrecy, the sewing. Finally, the night arrives. Imagine the cold wind Banks and…and … the other guy felt when they broke through the prison wall and smelled the December air. Put yourself in their prison-issued sneakers. Think of the adrenaline rush of rappelling down 20 stories on a rope made of bedsheets and dental floss.

Then, you hit the ground. After the first flush of pride, imagine how grubby everything turns. In breaking out, you’ve flipped Fate the bird. Now, Fate returns the favor by laying traps in every mundane decision you make. Hailing a cab. Banging on your mom’s door before sunrise. Letting a friend from grade school leave the apartment to buy groceries. One wrong move, and you’re back in the big bird feeder downtown. Your soundtrack music stopped long ago. You’re back in court with the judge you laughed at the week before.

And for all your flair and dreams of greatness, your schlubby partner from Tinley Park, the one without a nickname, is still running farther than you managed to.

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