Certainly, the contest seems tilted in favor of the guards. Inmates trying to escape from prison still use the primitive tools of the Bird Man of Alcatraz: hacksaw blades pilfered from the wood shop, soup spoons, fingernail files.
Prison security, by contrast, has advanced into the space age: motion sensors, night-vision goggles, Nikon-sharp video cameras that record inmates' every move.
Despite the lopsided advantage, some prisoners still manage to escape - as death-row inmate Martin Gurule showed last week with his flight from a maximum-security prison in Texas. His experience is a reminder of how difficult it can be to keep prisoners inside the razor wire.
"The prisoners have 24 hours a day, seven days a week to devise ingenious ways to beat the system and find a way to escape," says Todd Craig of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. "For that reason, corrections always has and will be a people business, no matter how many improvements in infrastructure you have. It is the daily business of constantly being on your toes."
For the most part, though, guards are succeeding in keeping prisons secure. True, in 1997 some 5,380 inmates escaped from state and federal prisons in the US. But that represented only 0.5 percent of the prison population and was down from the 1.5 percent escape rate in the 1980s. Then, as now, the escapes were overwhelmingly "walkaways" from low-security facilities.
More desperate inmates
The falling rates don't mean prison officials are becoming complacent. In fact, many longtime observers of the corrections system are worried that it is producing an increasingly desperate breed of inmate, and they point to Mr. Gurule as an example.
Dollars for security infrastructure are increasingly abundant in today's "tough-on-crime" political environment, but often at the expense of educational programs. Such programs can serve a vital security role by giving inmates something productive to do with their lives, says Robbin Ogle, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Combine this with the trend toward mandatory minimum sentences, strict "three strikes and you're out" rules, and ever-wider application of the death penalty, and the result is a larger prison population with scant incentive not to try to escape, regardless of the risks, she says.
"I was thinking the other day that if I were him [Gurule], I would have tried to do the exact same thing," says Ms. Ogle. "What does it matter if he gets shot ... if he ... knows he's going to die in a year or two anyway? In some ways, the prison system really creates its own problems."
But for the vast majority of inmates - who are not on death row - the increased security measures at prisons nationwide can act as a powerful deterrent. Attempted jail breaks are also down since the 1980s, and last year 70 percent of escapees were reapprehended within the year.
Indeed, America's prison system today is doing a better job of keeping inmates in jail, prison officials say. "Our prisons today are more secure than they ever have been," says Jim Turpin, spokesman for the American Correctional Association in Laurel, Md. "After all, if this kind of thing happened every day, nobody would be writing ... about it."
Tool for escape
Still, inmates have shown that their best tool - ingenuity honed by years of idleness - can sometimes be enough to foil the most alert of guards. Inmates become masters at exploiting even the smallest variations in the routine of prison life, says Mr. Craig, such as which kitchen orderly is likely to be generous or which guard is likely to perform a certain search for contraband on any given day.
As an example, he points to the case of three inmates who vanished from America's highest security prison in 1962. The inmates left papier-mch dummies in their bunks - complete with hair stolen from the barber shop - to hide their escape, tunneled through the wall to an air duct to the roof, then donned homemade wet suits before jumping the sea wall at Alcatraz.
Other creative, if less successful, escape attempts include an April incident when a mother drove a bulldozer through the walls of a Florida penitentiary in a failed bid to free her son. A year earlier, six inmates were recaptured in Texas after escaping by tunneling through the walls of a Pittsburgh prison with spoons.
As for Gurule, he was one of seven death-row inmates who bolted toward freedom shortly after midnight on Thanksgiving Day. They used a hacksaw blade to cut through a caged recreation area, then sprinted for the perimeter in prison uniforms dyed black with felt-tip markers. Guards, alerted by motion detectors, got the other six inmates to surrender, but Gurule kept moving through a hail of gunfire.
He is the first inmate to escape Texas' death row since 1934.