On New Year’s Day in a medieval town in eastern France, three prisonniers fled a medieval prison using equally medieval materials: a table leg and a rope made out of bedsheets.
Around 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, the three used the table leg to break a hole into their cell’s ceiling, authorities say. Once they climbed onto the historic Colmar prison’s roof, they entered a nearby courthouse through another hole and then sneaked out, disappearing onto the cobbled alleys of Colmar, the daily Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace reported. It took the guards two hours to notice their disappearance, despite an alarm bell going off in the courthouse.
Two of the three inmates were being held in pretrial detention, while the third was sentenced to the prison until May 2014. The men, between 19 and 24 years old, had been locked up together in one of the tiny rooms that have served as cells in Colmar since 1791, the year the French royal family was caught fleeing from revolutionaries and the same year that Vermont became a U.S. state.
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If the holey ceilings and walls come as a shock, prison authorities don’t seem to be rushing to fix them. The prison is “in an advanced state of decay” and heating is “very basic, if not nonexistent,” according to a judicial report on the prison’s conditions issued just last month. The prison, which has a capacity of 120 inmates, is located in a building that was repurposed into a jail in the 18th century — almost 500 years after its original construction. Built in 1316, the jail is right in the historic heart of Colmar, then a booming trade hub of the Holy Roman Empire and, much later, the hometown of the Statue of Liberty’s sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, located south of Strasbourg, on the border of France and Germany.
“It appears that the ceilings in the cells are made of a crumbly material that was attacked with a makeshift tool made of objects from the cell itself, notably a table leg,” prosecutor Bernard Lebeau told Reuters. But their escape method is hardly unique. In 2004, three inmates escaped from the prison in the very same way. In 2009, another inmate escaped by sawing through a beam, according to Le Pays.