Warning signs missed before prison break?

April 24, 2013 (CHICAGO)

The daring escape caught the attention of many Chicagoans when two inmates used a make-shift rope to scale down the side of the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

An email obtained by ABC7 reveals prison officials may have been warned about a possible prison escape plan days before it happened. The union that represents prison staff says its people told administrators about a possible escape plan. It was a tip that originated from an inmate.

The escape was as bold as it was brave.

Two men, in the middle of the night, scaled 17 stories down the side of the federal prison facility in downtown Chicago, and to freedom.

"They must have had a lot to lose. I couldn't have done that! That's unbelievable!"

The men, Joseph "Jose" Banks and Kenneth Conley, widened a narrow window in their cell, tied bed sheets together, even fastened a harness to ease their decent.

Now we've learned it appears they were conducting trial runs for at least a week leading up to the escape, apparently testing to see if their makeshift rope was long enough.

Eight days before the escape, union officials say this internal prison email shows guards alerted administrators to a possible escape plot.

"I was informed by an inmate that there is a rope being dropped from the south side of the building between 1 and 3 a.m.," a cell unit manager wrote in an email to the facility's intelligence team, lieutenants and others.

"The rope is supposed to be big enough to have something heavy on it," the email read.

It was.

The men - awaiting trial on bank robbery charges - were last counted at 10 p.m. A post-escape report obtained by ABC 7 reveals no one noticed they were missing until 7:20 the next morning. The officer on duty wrote an "emergency lock down" was declared. "When I opened and pulled 1701 the door, it had been taped shut from the inside. When I yanked it open I saw the tape."

The escape prompted a manhunt that stretched from Chicago to Tinley Park. Joseph Banks was caught after two days, his cellmate Kenneth Conley had 18 days of freedom before being arrested in Palos Hills.

A federal bureau of prisons spokesperson has repeatedly denied requests for details about the escape, citing an ongoing investigation. In a statement she wrote:

"Escapes from secure facilities within the Bureau of Prisons are rare. When they do occur, we thoroughly investigate; security policies, practices and procedures are all examined to determine if changes are necessary to enhance the safety and security of the institution."

The email describing the inmate tip eight days before the escape also mentioned jail staff would be searching windows on upper floors of the facilities for cracks.

It's unclear whether that happened.

There are 619 inmates inside the facility, 75 percent over capacity, a problem that plagues the entire prison system.

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