Afghan prison break ranks among world's largest

The inmates at Sarposa prison in Kandahar do hard time. At least some of them sleep on rough concrete floors. As for the food, well, we haven’t had the pleasure, but news reports from three years ago say 47 prisoners stitched their mouths shut to ensure they wouldn’t or couldn’t break a hunger strike.

Still, Sarposa prison has at least one thing going for it from an inmate’s perspective. If mass prison escapes were an Olympic event, Sarposa inmates would be among the world’s elite athletes.

Nearly 500 inmates escaped through a tunnel this week, which makes it one of the largest mass escapes in history, yet still not the biggest escape from Sarposa. That honor appears to belong to the June 2008 breakout, in which militants blew open the main gate with a truck bomb. As many as 1,000 prisoners escaped.

NATO upgraded the prison afterward.  Besides the tall concrete walls and razor wire, The Washington Post reports, 40 U.S. soldiers work alongside Afghan police in the watch towers. An American official who gave a tour of the prison earlier this year told reporters that the only way to bust somebody out now would be to “put a nuke on a motorcycle”.

Or, apparently, to spend months digging thousands of feet into the prison from the outside. (There’s some confusion on this point now. The Taliban apparently claims to have dug 1,200 feet, while the warden said the tunnel ran 4,000 feet.)  

A little perspective is warranted.  Remember the movie The Great Escape, about British prisoners of war in a Luftwaffe prison camp during World War II? In the real-life 1944 breakout the film was based on, 76 Allied airmen crawled through a 348-foot tunnel. Only three made “home runs” to freedom, and Adolf Hitler ordered 50 of those recaptured to be shot as examples.

Three hundred prisoners rebelled and escaped from the notorious Nazi death camp, Sobibor, in German-occupied Poland in October 1943. Unfortunately, about 100 of the prisoners were recaptured and executed. About half of those who remained free survived the war.

Go back to the Civil War, and 109 Union soldiers escaped from a Confederate prison. During the Spanish Civil War, we find reports about an escape of as many as 800 prisoners. Another 550 or so Japanese prisoners of war broke out of a camp in Australia in 1944. More recently, mass escapes seem to have plagued Mexico. One hundred and forty prisoners simply walked away from a Mexican prison near the Texas border in December, and 53 broke out of another Mexican prison in 2009 after their accomplices on the outside attacked with guns.

There are a few other giant escapes. For example, according to the AP, as many as 23,000 of Egypt’s 80,000 prisoners across the country fled during the uprising there in February. It appears that either the government let them go in order to create chaos, much as Saddam Hussein released thousands of convicted criminals on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It’s also possible, the Associated Press reported, that many Egyptian prison guards simply ran away for fear of anti-government violence.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s office on Tuesday said the breakout this week appears to have been pulled off with help from officials on the inside. Given the scale of this week’s Afghan breakout, you almost hope that’s the case. 


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