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Washington Prisoner Escapes from State's Most Secure Lockup

In July, 1996, John Allen Lamb, 33, hijacked a prison truck at knife point and attempted to ram the truck through security fencing at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) at Walla Walla [later reported in PLN's News In Brief]. The unsuccessful escape attempt earned Lamb an extended stay in the state's most secure lockup, the penitentiary's infamous Intensive Management Unit (IMU).

On Sunday, March 16, 1997, Lamb strolled out of the IMU, scaled two fences unnoticed by nearby tower guards, and walked away from the maximum security prison. He was captured a few short hours later.

"You look a lot like a guy we're looking for," Walla Walla police officer said to Lamb who was hitchhiking on a highway on-ramp near downtown Walla Walla.

"You got me," Lamb replied, then turned and place his hands behind his back, according to published news accounts.

Although Lamb failed to make good his getaway, he did manage to seriously embarrass prison officials who were left to answer questions about how a prisoner managed to escape from Washington's most secure facility, the same unit that houses the state's death row prisoners.

"It is kind of like a wake-up call," said WSP warden Tana Wood, "a pretty serious one, but nevertheless a wake-up call. It is time for us to look at a lot of stuff."

According to information published by the Associated press and Washington newspapers, Lamb managed to smuggle a 4- to 5-inch piece of hacksaw blade into his IMU cell. With the blade, Lamb was able to cut a hole in the plastic cover of the light fixture on a wall just below the ceiling of his single-bed cell. Then he swung the hinged light fixture back and sawed through the bars behind the fixture, Tom Rolfs, state director of prisons, told reporters.

Nobody is sure how long it took Lamb to finish the job. He concealed the work in progress by smearing toothpaste over the glass light cover. When he finished sawing through the bars, Lamb, who is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 164 pounds, squeezed through the space behind the light fixture and made his way into the pipe chase. Again, this is according to official DOC statements to the press.

Using a heavy steel grate he tore loose from the pipe chase, Lamb banged on the inside of a service door to the pipe chase, breaking the lock. Once through that door, said prison officials, Lamb was outside of the IMU building.

Lamb, apparently wearing only shorts and shoes, scaled two chain-link fences topped with razor wire. A nearby tower guard didn't see a thing. Lamb wasn't missed until the 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning count. He was captured that afternoon.

When the $3.7 million, 96-cell unit opened in 1984, then director of state prisons W.L. "Kip" Kautzky touted the IMU building as "state of the art." Shortly thereafter, however, prisoner Thomas Freeman forced open the light fixture in his cell, squeezed through the opening, and made his way out of the building. Freeman never made it off the prison grounds, and was apparently not trying to. Freeman's breakout was reportedly nothing but a stunt; he wanted to prove there never has been a prison that a convict couldn't outsmart.

After Freeman embarrassed prison officials with his demonstration, prison officials strengthened the way the plastic glass cover of the cells' light fixtures were secured. Bars were also then installed behind the light fixtures to prevent anyone who got past the super-strong plastic from going any further.

Lamb proved, though, that there has never been a prison a convict -- and a hacksaw blade -- couldn't outsmart.

"If he hadn't had the hacksaw blade," said correctional housing unit supervisor Ron Jenson, "he wouldn't have gotten out."

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Times, Associated Press

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