This Free Running Collective Tests Prisons To See If They’re Escape Proof

You’ve seen parkour before – it’s the go-to skill for access-all-areas action in games such as Assassin’s Creed and films like Casino Royale – but just how practical would it be for breaking out of (and into) secure facilities in real life? Very, says Parkour Generations’ Tactical Team – prisons and the super-rich are paying them to prove it...

Illuminating The Obvious

‘There are things that are obvious to a parkour guy that just aren’t to anyone else,’ says Dan Edwardes, founder and CEO of Parkour Generations. ‘For instance, one of the facilities we’ve tested had a door that led into a yard. And they wanted to know, OK, can people get out of this yard? This wall they’d built was tall enough that you couldn’t get over it, and it was completely straight – no way over, it was, like 20ft high. Good, lovely great wall. What they didn’t realise was that the door opened outwards, and that immediately meant that anyone who could get on top of it could get out of the yard in about ten seconds. Even its hinges could have been used by a climber, if they were good enough. That’s the sort of thing most people don’t think about.’

‘If you build a wall that’s 20ft high next to a lamppost that’s 25ft high... People can get pretty creative’

It’s also, on the flipside, the sort of thing that practitioners of the art of parkour – the movement discipline that teaches efficient movement through urban spaces – think about all the time. Which is probably why, when one maximum security mental health facility was considering the accessibility of their new building, they approached Parkour Generations (one of the world’s most influential groups) to test it out. “Penetration testing has existed for a long time, but it’s usually worked in a sort of technological way, where people will test an IT structure or the electronics of door locks or CCTV,’ says Edwardes, who created the ADAPT training programme. ‘There hasn’t really been a raw, “Can people access your facility?” style of physical testing, based on their skill and ability to climb. So we deepened that protocol and got into it more.’

Since then, Parkour Generations’ Parkour: Tactical division – which also offers lessons to the military and emergency service responders, teaching them to negotiate the environments they operate in more efficiently – has expanded its operations, testing, says Edwardes, between five and ten facilities a year. And they usually find something.

The Real Life Prison Break

‘People underestimate what people can do,’ states Edwardes. ‘They’ll build a wall and put barbed wire on top, and what they don’t realise is that it has to be incredibly well-constructed to stop a dedicated human being from getting in or out. The whole barbed-wire-and-spikes thing, that’s incredibly easy to bypass, as long as you can get to the top of the wall. If they’re building it in an urban environment, the architects won’t always have the remit to alter other bits of land, including the structure next to their building. If you build a wall that’s 20ft high next to a lamppost that’s 25ft high… Well, people can get pretty creative.’

‘We also have a better grasp of what the body is capable of, so we might go: “Well, I might not do that, but I certainly know people who are capable of that,” says Andy Pearson, Parkour: Tactical consultant. ‘The devil’s in the details. The corners and the tiny bits, that’s what the people with motivation are going to be looking at, those tiny cracks, those little bricks. I might look at a wall that’s almost totally featureless and and go: “OK, I know that the tiny ledge there – somebody could jam their fingers in it and hold their entire bodyweight.”

Entering The Escape Artist’s Mindset

For penetration testers-in-training, the first shift in training is mental: moving to a tactical mindset. ‘You don’t have that luxury of being on the terrain, where you can feel it,’ says Pearson. ‘That’s a big difference.’ The skills come slightly easier – anyone taking on the job has already mastered the essentials, after all – but there’s a subtle change in emphasis. ‘Arguably even stuff like vaulting, which we use in regular parkour a lot, there’s not as much need for,’ says Pearson. ‘If a wall’s low enough to vault, anyone can get over it. Instead, you’re going: “How do I get up that big-ass wall? Could someone make that huge jump?”’

Flips and acrobatics get ignored entirely, while wall-runs and ‘cat leaps’ – in which the parkour practitioner jumps up to grab a ledge and then propels himself upwards and on top of it – become more important. And ‘buildering’, or clambering up man-made surfaces using techniques from climbing, sees a huge uptick in emphasis. So, of course, do the skills involved in death-defying jumps. ‘If someone’s escaping from a prison they might not care about rolling their ankle, so they’ll do more than even we might do,’ says Edwardes. ‘Human beings that are motivated and dedicated are pretty creative. Look at the prison escapes in history, some of the creativity is phenomenal.’

‘For operational groups and soldiers, it allows them to do their jobs more safely’

Right now, Parkour Generations are the only company in the world to offer this sort of penetration testing, and NDAs and security concerns mean that publicising exactly how they operate can be tricky. But there’s already been interest from TV companies, and this year, Generations’ annual ‘Rendezvous’ meet is themed around tactical, real-world skills, including extreme first-aid, survival and self-defence.

Learning to clamber up a wall or leap between buildings, after all, isn’t just a skill that’s useful to specialists. But there’s another reason to tackle it, too. ‘You’ll find out what your body can do,’ says Edwardes. ‘For operational groups and soldiers, it allows them to do their jobs more safely, and train in a way that replicates what they actually do in the field. But for everyone else, it’s a way to see what your body can do.’ And if you ever end up in prison for a crime you didn’t commit – well, you’ll just have to hope that the Parkour: Tactical penetration team weren’t there before you...

WHAT NEXT? Read more about the philosophy behind parkour on Generations’ website – and then give it a go. There’s no need to start by scaling walls or making leaps of faith: you can master basic movements including the cat hang pull-up or precision jump without ever leaving the safety of the ground:

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.