Warnings Preceded Convicts' December Escape from Metropolitan Correctional Center

Threat Joseph Banks allegedly made against judge should have raised flags, correctional officer says

There were clear warning signs in the days leading up to the dramatic escape of two convicted bank robbers from the Metropolitan Correctional Center last December, NBC Chicago has learned.

The daring escape captured the attention of the nation when inmates Joseph Banks and Kenneth Conley tied together bed sheets and rappelled down 17 stories of the prison in the early hours of December 18th. The cell’s window had been broken, the bars had been removed and concrete was chipped away from the window to allow them to slip out.

Correctional Officer Gary Mills worked at the MCC for more than 20 years and is a top union representative. Mills was not at the prison on the day of the escape but told NBC5 that he spoke with many people who were.

"There were warning signs, yes,” said Mills.

Mills said that before the escape, a memo was sent to top prison officials warning to "check the windows for cracks and openings," because a rope had been spotted "being dropped from the south side of the building."

NBC Chicago obtained a copy of another memo dated December 14, 2012, which was a little more than 72 hours before the escape.

The memo warned correctional officers of a publicized threatening remark that Banks allegedly made in court to U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer.

It said:

"We better watch this guy. It will be very embarrassing if he does something foolish at our facility and it goes undetected," the memo said.

Banks' attorney denies his client ever made the threat. Still, Mills said that memo should have meant increased vigilance in the complex.

"They should have tightened security down," he said. "If you were to say there were red flags, there were definite red flags."

Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the organization that oversees the MCC, declined any interview about the information uncovered by NBC Chicago but issued the following statement:

"Due to the fact that this incident is the subject of several ongoing investigations and there are still criminal cases pending against at least one of the inmates involved, we cannot provide comment at this time. I can tell you that 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."

NBC Chicago has also learned that inmates at the MCC have access to clothes irons.

"It’s inconceivable to me that they would have an iron in a prison cell," said Associate Professor Sheldon Mostovoy, a materials engineer at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and an expert in glass.

Mostovoy said the sharp edge of an iron can break glass, and the hot side can cause cracks in damaged glass -- especially on a cold December day.

"If one side of the window is hot, and the other side cold, heating the window up to a high temperature and then cooling it quickly could give tremendous thermal strains to that window," Mostovoy explained.

Mills agreed that irons should not be allowed in correctional facilities.

"To me it’s extremely dangerous … take a hammer and put it on a stove, and that’s what they have at the Metropolitan Correctional Center today," he said.

The Bureau of Prisons issued a separate statement in response to NBC Chicago’s inquiries about the potential dangers of allowing inmates to have clothes irons.

"As in most Bureau of Prisons' facilities, inmates at MCC Chicago are permitted to use irons in the common area of each unit. Inmates cannot purchase irons and cannot retain irons in their cells. MCC Chicago is evaluating this practice as part of continued efforts to enhance security throughout the institution," the bureau said.

Joseph Banks (L), Kennth Conley
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