Escape from Pretoria Central Prison

South Africa marked 30 years since the end of apartheid and the birth of its democracy with a ceremony in the capital Saturday April 27th. During the time building up to the end of apartheid a large number of arrests led to long prison sentences. 


Tim Jenkin's sentence was one of those, Jenkin's and an associate Lee were charged with "producing and distributing 18 different pamphlets on behalf of banned organizations"  They were both found guilty, with Jenkin receiving a 12-year sentence and Lee eight. It was Lee's father who inspired them to escape after he brought them a  copy of the book Papillion, another classic prison escape story.  Pretoria Central Prison where they were sent was known to be a brutal prison so through daily observations they hatched a plan to escape...... by making their own keys to the prison. .

With items stolen from the wood shop they fashioned wooden keys inside their cells. During the day they would test their keys and at night refine them with stolen tools until the keys worked for their cells.

"A lot of people can’t understand how we got the shape of the key," Jenkin once remarked, "but if you break it down – most of the dimensions you get from the lock itself, you measure the hole." 



"They were very big locks so you could see the marks on the inside," Jenkin explained matter-of-factly. "When you’re making it the lock is right there, you keep filing it until it fits in the holes. You hardly have to measure."

But crafting the keys was only part of the puzzle. To truly succeed, they needed to replicate the intricate cuts and depths found in the guards' keys. 

"The actual shape, we got by looking at their [guards’] keys," Jenkin recalled. "As we had the overall height already, it was just a question of guessing how deep the cuts were and our guess was correct and the very first key was correct."

In a stroke of luck—or perhaps sheer brilliance—their first attempt proved successful. Within a mere week or two of being incarcerated, Jenkin had fashioned a working key for his cell, that only inspired them to make more. 

Fontaine and Jenkin would do test runs at night by using the wood keys leading up to the full escape. When out of their cells they would hide in a closet as the night guard walked by, then as the coast would clear they would test and modify the next wooden key. The guards search everyone's cells often but somehow failed to find anything (Including a chisel! seems they decided to hide all their tools and keys in various areas of the prison but not inside their cells). Part way though the escape planning a new problem arose a new gun tower was being built close to an area they had planned to escape from. Jenkin, Lee and a third partner Fontaine decided to execute their plan early. They gather the 13 keys hidden in various areas, place dummies in their cells (every good escape needs a dummy) and change into previously smuggled street clothes.


Once again, they hide in the closet to evade the night guard but unexpectedly, the night guard changed their night routine. Goldberg a fellow inmate that was aware of the escape plan helped out by short-circuiting the light in his cell (no idea how that was done ... fork in the outlet??), causing the electricity to go out and called for the guard, this distraction aloud for the escapees to move to the final door. For the last door a slight problem ... the key would no longer work but with sheer force Fontaine broke it open using a chisel and screwdriver. They left the prison and found a taxi making an escape into the night.


It transpires that the biggest manhunt ensued in the aftermath, but they managed to escape to London via Mozambique, and Tanzania. The three would continue their protests against apartheid under the African National Congress Party; they were ultimately pardoned in 1991. Goldberg was finally freed in 1985 after spending 22 years in prison. In 1992, a year after Jenkin, Lee and Fontaine's exoneration, apartheid ended.

Its also a Movie! ... and might be one of the best lock picking movies out there. 


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