LONDON • It was a flourish worthy of the 1962 escape from Alcatraz.
It wasn't until guards at Pentonville prison in North London discovered pillows underneath inmates' bedsheets, arranged to look like sleeping figures, that they realised two men had escaped from the Victorian-era lockup, British news outlets said on Tuesday.
That ruse, reminiscent of the legendary escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco, helped give the fugitives a 12-hour lead on their pursuers. The men apparently cut through their cell bars, jumped onto an 8m-high wall and climbed down a makeshift rope of bedsheets to freedom.
In the Alcatraz break, three inmates put pillows under their cell bedclothes, with papier-mache heads with real hair and closed, painted eyes, before vanishing.
The audacious escape from Pentonville by James Anthony Whitlock, 31, who was charged with burglary, and Matthew Baker, 28, who was found guilty two weeks ago of attempted murder, is reverberating in Britain. Scotland Yard said a search is under way and warned the men could be dangerous.
According to the police and news reports, the brazen plot began playing out late on Sunday. The two inmates, possibly using diamond-tipped cutting tools, sliced through the windows of their fifth-floor cells .
There was speculation that drones may have been used to drop cutting equipment to them. A recent report from a prison watchdog group warned that inmates were using drones to smuggle in drugs, taking advantage of broken and dilapidated windows that made the prison accessible from outside.
Last year, Mr Michael Gove, the former justice minister, pledged to close crumbling Victorian prisons like Pentonville, which he labelled the "most dramatic example of failure within the prison estate".
The Prison Governors Association, which represents prison managers, said the escape marked "a new low in the prison service" and blamed funding cuts.
"This is an institutional failure in one of our most core functions - keeping prisoners in custody," it said. It added that older prisons like Pentonville were squalid and vermin-infested, and said prison governors did not have the resources to tackle the problems.