Jail break at the Metropolitan Correctional Center

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The rope used by two inmates in this mornings escape
  • M. Spencer Green/AP
  • The rope used by two inmates in this morning's escape
Federal prison sources say the building's high-rise design, narrow windows and electronic security equipment will virtually eliminate escapes.

Chicago Defender, September 6, 1975, shortly before the opening of the Metropolitan Correctional Center

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Escapes have indeed been rare at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the triangular federal jail at Clark and Van Buren, but two cell mates managed to flee this morning. According to the Tribune, they somehow got through the narrow window in their cell, then used a rope fashioned from bedsheets to climb down the south side of the building at least 15 stories.

The inmates, Jose Banks, 37, and Kenneth Conley, 38, were still in the jail at a 5 AM check, but were missing at 8:45 AM. They were convicted of separate bank robberies recently, and apparently were awaiting sentencing. Banks, known as the "Secondhand Bandit" because he wore thrift-store clothes at some of his robberies, was said to have been one of Chicago's most prolific bank robbers.

SWAT teams late this morning entered a home in Tinley Park, where Conley has a relative, but no one was found inside.

The MCC opened in 1975. Before that year, federal defendants were kept on a special tier at the Cook County Jail on the southwest side. The MCC was built in part to relieve overcrowding at that jail. The South Loop was chosen as its home because most of the federal prisoners have their cases adjudicated in the Dirksen Federal Building a block north.

The windows are seven feet tall but only five inches wide. In 1976, Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp called the 26-story building a "visual feast." The MCC's shape and irregularly patterned slit windows give it "wild and wonderful facades," Gapp said.

Gapp noted that on the inside, the MCC was "no ordinary prison; it is a humane, unoppressive living environment springing from contemporary penal philosophy, which holds that a prisoner's individuality must be respected."

The MCCs irregular-patterned slit windows give it wild and wonderful facades.
  • M. Spencer Green/AP
  • The MCC's irregular-patterned slit windows give it "wild and wonderful facades."

A prisoner's individuality is less likely to be respected in state facilities, where the vast majority of inmates are black or Hispanic and poor, than in federal jails, where the prisoners more often are white.

The MCC's architect, Harry Weese, chose the triangular shape in part to eliminate hallways "and their grim look reminiscent of old-fashioned cell blocks," Gapp wrote. He added that the slit windows were "highly functional" because "their floor-to-ceiling height admits a lot of light and offers a view" while their narrowness "prevents escape."

Today's break is the first from the MCC since the notorious 1985 escape of Bernard Welch, 45, the "Millionaire Burglar," and another inmate. Welch was serving a 143-year sentence for murdering Michael Halberstam, a Washington, D.C., cardiologist, during a burglary. Halberstam was the brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. Welch was a fugitive from a state prison in New York at the time he killed Halberstam.

Welch and 31-year-old Hugh Colomb, who was doing 48 years for killing an inmate, were transferred to the MCC from other prisons when they told authorities they wanted to inform on inmates at their prisons who were plotting escapes. This apparently was a ruse to get to the MCC. On the night of May 14, 1985, Welch and Colomb used a weightlifting bar to break through two small panels adjacent to a sixth-floor window, broadened the opening by cutting through a metal bar with a hacksaw, then climbed down the wild and wonderful facade to the plaza below via a 75-foot extension cord from a floor-buffing machine. The hacksaw had been supplied by a fellow inmate, a member of the neo-Nazi Aryan Brotherhood. Welch was caught three months later in a Pittsburgh suburb; Colon was apprehended two months after that in Canton, Mississippi.

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