The Panopticon Effect

Roman Mars [00:00:01] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. In the Netherlands, about an hour and a half south of Amsterdam, there’s a city called Breda. Like many Dutch towns, it has cozy, narrow streets, canals, and plenty of bicycles. 

Tatiana Kim [00:00:18] Last year I moved all the way from an island in the far east of Russia to this medieval Dutch city. 

Roman Mars [00:00:25] Here’s producer Tatiana Kim. 

Tatiana Kim [00:00:28] I’d never been to the Netherlands before. Moving to Europe was exciting. The contrast between this thousand-year-old Dutch town and the young city in Russia that I came from is striking. Instead of great Soviet structures, I’m now surrounded by Gothic churches and narrow redbrick houses–something you see on the postcards that your friends sent from Europe. There is one historic building right in the middle of town that’s really caught my eye: a big cylindrical structure, four stories tall, capped with this massive greenish gray dome, nearly 125 feet up. And then, stepping inside the building, there is a wide-open circular hole the size of half a football field. With a sprawling dome overhead, you feel like an ant trapped under a giant rice bowl. 

Roman Mars [00:01:22] Along the curved brick walls, there are heavy orange doors. More than 200 of them spread out evenly across the four floors. And behind most of these doors are small rooms that were once prison cells. 

Tatiana Kim [00:01:36] When this place was first built in 1886, it was a penitentiary–but not a typical one. This was a panopticon. 

Roman Mars [00:01:48] The panopticon might be the best-known prison concept in the world. In the original design, all the cells are built around a central guard tower, designed to maintain order just by making prisoners believe that they are constantly being watched. The panopticon design is more than 200 years old, and it still shows up in popular culture, like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy. 

Rocket Raccoon [00:02:10] If we’re going to get out of here, we’re going to need to get into that watchtower. 

Star-Lord [00:02:13] Look, it’s 20 feet up in the air, and it’s in the middle of the most heavily guarded part of the prison. 

Tatiana Kim [00:02:18] But the panopticon has turned into something way bigger than just a blueprint for penitentiaries. It’s become the metaphor for the surveillance state. George Orwell’s Big Brother, The Hunger Games, and The Handmaid’s Tale–they’ve all been described as panoptic. 

Roman Mars [00:02:37] In real life, when social critics talk about what it means to have cameras everywhere, the panopticon is always the metaphor of choice. Michel Foucault had probably the most popular take on the panopticon concept. He used it to warn society that what actually keeps all of us in check isn’t necessarily that someone is watching you. It’s just the feeling that someone might be watching you. 

Tatiana Kim [00:02:58] But as popular as it has become as an idea and a metaphor, relatively few real-life prisons have come close to the original panopticon design. And one of the oldest is right here in the middle of my new city. This giant cylindrical building that locals call the Koepel van Breda–the Dome of Breda. 

Roman Mars [00:03:19] It closed as a prison back in 2014. Since then, Breda’s Dome has been repurposed and rented for hackathons, musicals, and wine tastings. 

Tatiana Kim [00:03:27] On the building’s website, there are pictures of the giant, circular hole filled with smiling people dining by candlelight. The tables and chairs are covered in crisp white linen, surrounded by the heavy metal doors of the prison cells. 

Roman Mars [00:03:45] When this building was completed more than 130 years ago, it was on the cutting edge of European penitentiary construction. This may seem hard to fathom today, but Dutch reformers and architects believed that they had created a humane way to prevent people from committing crimes. But instead of improving the prison system, it quickly became one of the cruelest forms of incarceration. 

Tatiana Kim [00:04:08] The whole idea of mass incarceration began around the 16th century. Locking people up was seen as a vast improvement on the old system of public flogging, hangings, and beheadings. 

René van Swaaningen [00:04:19] Netherlands was one of the first countries to introduce prisons actually in the world as an alternative to torture, to capital punishment, and to corporal punishment. 

Roman Mars [00:04:32] René van Swaaningen teaches criminology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He says in the Netherlands at the time, reformers and politicians argued that idleness was a major source of criminality and social deviance. So, the obvious cure was hard work, which would eradicate one’s, quote unquote, “inner criminal.” 

Tatiana Kim [00:04:49] In 1596, the Dutch began building what they called tuchthuizen–or Houses of Correction. These were hard labor prison camps. They were based on the idea that work would correct the inmate by instilling discipline and morality. The philosophy of these prisons were written on the entrance gates: “Wild beasts must be tamed.” 

Roman Mars [00:05:12] But the goal of actually rehabilitating inmates was quickly lost. The houses of correction devolved into just convenient sources of very cheap labor. And they were miserable places.

Ros Floor [00:05:25] People–criminals–they were locked up in big groups. 

Tatiana Kim [00:05:29] Ros Floor is a sociologist who has studied Dutch prison architecture. 

Ros Floor [00:05:33] They had big rooms where they ate, where they slept, and where they worked. And in that period, the prison got a name, the University of Crime. 

Roman Mars [00:05:44] Since everyone was mixed together, these prisons became places where younger inmates were easily influenced by more seasoned criminals. Diseases spread quickly. The jails were so awful, mothers would bring their misbehaving kids to have a look just to scare them straight. 

René van Swaaningen [00:06:00] There was no individual cells. There were big cages. And like we go to the zoo, you could buy a ticket to go and watch people locked up. 

Roman Mars [00:06:10] By the mid-19th century, it was clear that the houses of correction were not getting rid of crime. If anything, they were making it worse. And so Dutch reformers began looking for a new way to design prisons that wouldn’t just punish inmates, but fundamentally change them. They found just the sort of idea they were looking for in the work of a French diplomat. 

Tatiana Kim [00:06:34] Alexis de Tocqueville had traveled to the United States to study its penitentiaries. He visited one prison, which at the time was based on a whole new model of incarceration. It was run by Quakers who believed that instead of locking prisoners up in huge cages, each individual should be kept in complete solitude. 

Roman Mars [00:06:55] Only by being alone in their own cell would each prisoner be transformed into a pious citizen ready to rejoin society. This novel approach was called “solitary confinement.” In today’s prisons, especially in the U.S., solitary confinement is pure punishment–a prison within the prison. 

Tatiana Kim [00:07:15] But in the 1800s, the Quakers thought that solitary confinement could actually be a key to healing and true religious penitence. Kind of like a monk, it was believed that isolation would bring the inmate closer to God. 

René van Swaaningen [00:07:29] So you would be locked up with one book. Guess what book? The Bible, obviously. And you were not allowed to talk, but you were to reflect upon your sins, basically. 

Roman Mars [00:07:43] Back in France, Tocqueville coauthored a small but influential report about what he’d seen in U.S. prisons. His European readers saw this American model as a big improvement on their current system of locking people up together en masse in giant cages. 

René van Swaaningen [00:07:58] They said, “Well, they do things more in a more humane way.” And this was one of the lessons Tocqueville took back from the states, and then it spread all over Europe. 

Roman Mars [00:08:08] Across the continent, solitary confinement got really popular, which led to a major design change–the rise of cellular prisons. 

Ros Floor [00:08:16] Those buildings were very different. In the old type, you needed the big, big rooms. And in the new type, you needed the small cells for one person. And they thought, by that way, it could be possible to make people repent their crimes. 

Roman Mars [00:08:32] The Netherlands was part of this wave of redesign. Solitary confinement was the new philosophy, and cellular prisons were its realization. 

Tatiana Kim [00:08:41] That approach gave Dutch prison reformers the roadmap they needed in order to overhaul the nation’s prisons. 

Roman Mars [00:08:47] There wasn’t enough space in the existing prisons to retrofit them with individual cells, so they’d have to build something completely new. 

Tatiana Kim [00:08:55] In 1817, the Dutch government turned to one of its most experienced architects to help realize this vision. His name was Johan Frederik Metzelaar. 

Roman Mars [00:09:10] Metzelaar was the head engineer for the Ministry of Justice. He had already designed and built multiple prisons and courts throughout the Netherlands. 

Tatiana Kim [00:09:19] For these new penitentiaries, Metzelaar had to create a design that would fit a lot of inmates but give them each an individual cell and enough supervision. And each cell had to be strictly isolated from each other, allowing zero interaction between the inmates. He was drawn to a prison design idea that originated outside of the Netherlands. It was called a panopticon. 

Roman Mars [00:09:45] Credit for the panopticon concept typically goes to British reformer Jeremy Bentham. But Philip Steadman, who has researched panopticons, says that’s not quite right. 

Philip Steadman [00:09:54] His brother, Samuel, was the man who actually invented the idea. We think of Jeremy Bentham as the inventor of the panopticon, but he always says, “I got the idea from my brother.” 

Tatiana Kim [00:10:04] Samuel Bentham first thought of the concept as a way to keep an eye on the man who worked for him. He told Jeremy about his idea for a circular workshop with a central tower where the manager would have a 360-degree view of his workers. Samuel’s theory was that if the laborers even thought they were always being watched, they’d automatically be more productive, and you’d need fewer supervisors down on the shop floor. 

Roman Mars [00:10:30] The idea that we’re under constant surveillance seems familiar to many of us now. We just kind of accept that there are cameras and CCTV everywhere and that we’re always being tracked on our computers at work. But back in the late 1700s, a design for watching so many people all at once in a way that Bentham hoped would make everyone more productive–this was a major innovation that could bring big economic benefits. 

Tatiana Kim [00:10:53] Jeremy Bentham saw huge potential in panopticons. He envisioned circular schools, hospitals, asylums and, of course, prisons. 

Roman Mars [00:11:03] But he wanted his panopticon to be different from his brother’s idea. Jeremy was a social and legal reformer; he envisioned something that didn’t just suit the needs of those who ran the place. Jeremy imagined a prison that would make inmates’ lives better. 

Philip Steadman [00:11:17] Bentham wanted the panopticon to be a place where prisoners were trained in crafts, which they could then carry on when they left the prison and so on. So, it was a reforming institution. 

Tatiana Kim [00:11:30] In 1787, Bentham published a series of letters detailing how he wanted his panopticon prison to be designed and operated. “First of all,” he said, “it should be circular.” And of course, he called for a guardhouse right in the middle so the jailer could see each and every prisoner at all times. Bentham hoped that this kind of constant surveillance would keep things orderly inside the penitentiary. 

Philip Steadman [00:11:55] He was very taken with the central idea of observation from the center. He thought this was a key idea–a very profound and powerful idea in architecture that would have a lot of influence. 

Roman Mars [00:12:07] But Bentham was interested in more than just this centralized surveillance point that has become so synonymous with the panopticon. In his letters, he stressed another critical design feature: individual prison cells. 

Tatiana Kim [00:12:19] He believed that isolating inmates was key to a functioning panopticon prison. Individual cells kept prisoners from fighting or conspiring to escape. It was easier for guards to keep an eye on inmates who were alone, making sure they did nothing but repent for their crimes. 

Roman Mars [00:12:37] For Jeremy Bentham, isolation and centralized surveillance worked hand in hand. He said that inside a well watched cellular panopticon, jailers would see the inmates as a multitude, though not a crowd. And the prisoners would be, he wrote, “solitary and sequestered individuals.” 

Tatiana Kim [00:12:56] Bentham hired an architect to draw the design, which showed a building with large windows, a lot of light, and lots of internal mechanisms, which allowed the whole prison to operate like a well-oiled machine. 

Philip Steadman [00:13:09] You could think of the panopticon as a gadget. It was meant to have a lot of advanced technologies–not obviously CCTV, but the inspectors had speaking tubes, there was a supply of water to all the cells, there were lavatories in all the cells, they had means of getting hot meals up from the basement kitchens to the cells, and so on. It was a very advanced building. It would have been. 

Roman Mars [00:13:34] It would have been because as passionate as he was about his circular prison and as hard as he tried to get the British government to build one, Jeremy Bentham died in 1832 without ever seeing his panopticon prison completed. 

Tatiana Kim [00:13:48] But several decades later, Dutch architect Johan Metzelaar picked up Bentham’s ideas. He was drawn to the Panopticon because it solved several practical concerns. 

Roman Mars [00:13:58] One of the things Metzelaar liked most was the emphasis on individual cells–an ideal design for solitary confinement. Since the cells were arranged in circles, inmates would have minimal interaction. 

Ros Floor [00:14:10] It was important to isolate the prisoners from each other. And in the round prison, your opposite neighbor is about 50 meters away from you and it’s very difficult to make a conversation then. 

Roman Mars [00:14:25] Also, the panopticon was a cost saving design. It would require less construction than a typical prison because there’d be no need for a separate church. The priest could just deliver his sermons from a central structure without the inmates ever leaving their cells. 

Tatiana Kim [00:14:40] Plus, the prison was designed so it would take fewer people to run it. 

René van Swaaningen [00:14:44] Today you would call it the “business model,” right? In the sense that you would try to economize on guards. 

Tatiana Kim [00:14:52] You wouldn’t need as many guards as the typical prison because just the specter of constant surveillance would do a lot to maintain order. 

René van Swaaningen [00:15:00] I always saw the panopticon as a very, let’s say, economic measure–try and construct a prison with a maximum overview on the cells and a minimum of staff to manage the prison. 

Roman Mars [00:15:16] But Metzelaar wanted the new prisons to be more than just practical. Throughout his life as an architect, he often looked for ways to integrate art into his buildings. As strange as it may sound, he hoped to do the same thing with this prison; Metzelaar wanted to create something elegant. 

Tatiana Kim [00:15:32] He pulled these artistic and practical considerations together and drew up plants. And in 1886, Johan Metzelaar finally managed to achieve what Jeremy Bentham could have only dreamed of. The 68-year-old Dutch architect completed Breda’s panopticon. 

Roman Mars [00:15:53] The domed prison became the first part of a large complex that grew to include a courthouse, a detention center, and a women’s prison. 

Tatiana Kim [00:16:00] Today, the buildings are still full of original details–floral patterns carved into wooden panels, intricate metalwork, and stone archways. The gatehouse looks like a castle. 

Roman Mars [00:16:13] As soon as the panopticon was finished, prison officials opened it up to tours. The town’s bourgeoisie would pay to go inside the circular building and stare up in amazement at Metzelaar’s magnificent domed roof. 

Tatiana Kim [00:16:26] By the end of the 19th century, prisons in the U.S. and across Europe were being built with an emphasis on individual cells. These were expected to be penitentiaries in the truest sense. And the Dutch were among the first to take that concept and pull it off in the form of real, working panopticons. Three of them, actually, including Breda. 

Roman Mars [00:16:50] When Breda’s prison first opened, it filled up quickly. In the 19th century, just smuggling some butter across the border could land you a few days behind bars. 

Tatiana Kim [00:16:59] There were 205 cells, each one just slightly smaller than an 11 by 11-foot room. The prison was very modern. There was central heating and even electricity. The inmates spent almost their entire days in their cells, in complete solitude, eating, sleeping, reading their Bibles, and theoretically repenting for their crimes. 

René van Swaaningen [00:17:24] In the very early prisons, you had one cell to yourself, and you were not allowed to speak. If you went to work, you would wear a kind of bag over your head so nobody would recognize you. So solitary was solitary. 

Roman Mars [00:17:40] The Dutch believed that this form of punishment was the best way to make criminals more fit for a God-fearing society. The Netherlands enthusiastically used solitary confinement to both discipline criminals and prevent crime. 

Tatiana Kim [00:17:52] But by the early 1930s, about four decades after the Breda dome prison first opened, people were realizing that this whole theory of rehabilitation was nonsense. The expansive, groundbreaking panopticon experiment in the Netherlands was actually a torturous disaster. 

Roman Mars [00:18:13] Dutch researchers were finding that isolation wasn’t rehabilitating anyone. Instead, it was causing severe mental illness and death among prisoners. Although this was a panopticon building, the main issue wasn’t surveillance. It was solitary confinement. 

René van Swaaningen [00:18:28] People do not really improve if you lock them up–solitary confinement–with the Bible. They got crazy. 

Tatiana Kim [00:18:35] It’s been very hard to find personal accounts of the inmates who experienced the horrific conditions inside Breda. But prison administrators were reporting what we all know today–that solitary confinement is one of the cruelest and ugliest forms of punishment ever invented. 

Ros Floor [00:18:52] And they say there were quite certain numbers of suicides in those prisons. So, the criticisms of the system were growing in numbers through the years. 

Tatiana Kim [00:19:06] But the Dutch government had spent a lot of money building prisons like Breda and wasn’t eager to give up on them. So, they stayed open. 

Roman Mars [00:19:19] And then came World War II. 

May 10-1940 Germany Invades Holland! [00:19:22] When the sun rose on that fateful day, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Without warning or the slightest provocation, they unleashed upon their innocent neighbor… 

Roman Mars [00:19:29] When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940, they turned many Dutch penitentiaries into prisons for those who resisted the occupation. 

René van Swaaningen [00:19:38] Most of the Dutch elites who did not want to collaborate with the German occupier–with the Nazis–ended up in prison. 

Roman Mars [00:19:45] State officials, judges, and lawmakers were all put behind bars. Obviously a pretty unusual situation. But those Dutch elite got to experience firsthand the sheer awfulness of prison. 

René van Swaaningen [00:19:56] And people said, “Oh, what hellholes these are.” And they said, “Well, if the war is over, we’re going to reform drastically the prison system–try to humanize it.” 

Tatiana Kim [00:20:07] After the war, Dutch leaders once again called for transformation of the nation’s prisons. This time, criminal law reformers pushed for alternatives to incarceration. 

René van Swaaningen [00:20:18] Decriminalization–certain things were decriminalized. Also, shorter sentencing. Why sentence somebody to 20 years if five would do as well? 

Roman Mars [00:20:30] The Dutch were also once again rewriting their laws to emphasize rehabilitation, this time not by trying out a new and untested design theory, but instead by reducing the number of penitentiaries around the country. 

René van Swaaningen [00:20:42] Because prison is not inherently good. So, you want to be creative and do something else. 

Tatiana Kim [00:20:51] Starting in the early 1950s, the Dutch also began decreasing their use of solitary confinement. Inside of Breda, they got rid of strict isolation. They built spaces where inmates could interact, including a library, a gym, and several workshops. 

Ros Floor [00:21:08] Formerly, they slept, they ate, and they worked in their cell. But later they had their rooms for eating, for sports, and for working in different buildings around the dome prison itself. 

Roman Mars [00:21:23] More recent changes in Dutch law have led to an overall drop in the national prison population. In just ten years, starting in 2007, the number of prisoners in the Netherlands fell 20%. 

Tatiana Kim [00:21:35] Breda’s prison was emptying out, and the building was falling apart. With so many vacant cells and a giant maintenance bill, in 2014, the Netherlands finally moved all the remaining inmates out of the 130-year-old prison. 

Newscaster [00:21:52] A deafening silence. Breda prison is empty of inmates, like so many others in the Netherlands. 

Tatiana Kim [00:22:06] After Breda’s penitentiary closed as a prison, Dutch leaders hope to repurpose the entire complex. They began rebranding the space with its giant panopticon dome as “the crown of Breda.” The Dutch government put out a call for proposals for ways to reuse the entire facility. The place is huge, nearly 400,000 square feet–about seven football fields. And it’s on prime real estate right in the middle of downtown. 

Roman Mars [00:22:37] While waiting for a buyer, it was rented for lots of things. Easily one of the most shocking was where you’d show up to the dome, put on an orange jumpsuit, and join hundreds of others in an immersive prison escape game. 

Escape Trailer [00:22:49] In this rotten place, they will rule you, and you will obey… “You’re nothing in here.” 

Roman Mars [00:23:01] Last September, two companies with bigger ambitions for the space bought the entire complex, which covers more than eight acres. The new owners are planning to turn it into a small village with green space, offices, and concert halls. But making any changes will not be easy. The prison has been designated a national monument, which seriously limits how much the structures can be modified. 

Tatiana Kim [00:23:23] And city officials have asked the new owners to hold off on any renovations so that the space can be used immediately–not as some weird escape room, but as a shelter for Ukrainian refugees. Just outside the dome, there is an entryway decorated with welcome signs in Dutch, English, and Ukrainian. Inside the large circular hole, there is a glass floor and that attic dome roof. 

Tatiana Kim (field tape) [00:23:51] That is quite the space. From outside, it is hard to tell the dome is so big and impressive. It’s just massive. Makes me feel really small, really. 

Tatiana Kim [00:24:04] The panopticon building has preserved some questionable elements from the past. There are still bars on the windows, and the doors to the rooms where the refugees sleep cannot be locked from inside. But the space is actually pretty inviting. Today there is a dining hall in the center. Sun pours in through the dome skylights and falls on cozy armchairs. There is a gym in the basement where refugees get together for yoga lessons and volleyball. I met one of the dome residents, a Ukrainian athlete named Katya. She’s sharing her room with another woman from Ukraine. I asked her if it’s weird to live with someone you just met. She smiles, and she says that having a roommate makes you feel less lonely. 

Roman Mars [00:24:52] When Jeremy Bentham first designed the panopticon prison, he said he wanted it to be a place where people were treated well–where their lives might even be improved. But the failure of Breda’s panopticon shows that there’s just no such thing as a humane prison. As Bentham himself once wrote, “All punishment is mischief. All punishment in itself is evil. 

Tatiana Kim [00:25:14] So much thought went into ensuring strict solitude in the Breda prison. So, it’s ironic how much effort is going into using that exact same space to achieve the opposite goal, bringing people together and helping them feel safe and connected. 

Roman Mars [00:25:32] Despite the cell doors and old iron bars and gates, Breda’s panopticon has finally managed to become a truly humane place, but only after it stopped being a prison. Coming up after the break–when Breda was still operating as a prison, it had its own Shawshank Redemption moment. If you like getting the best of everything, then check out T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is bigger than AT&T and Verizon’s combined. So, it’s no wonder they have the most National 5G Network Awards ever. Not only does T-Mobile have a great network, but their plans are packed full of incredible extras. Customers can get a value of over $225 in benefits every single month on their MAX family plans. Benefits like travel perks and your favorite streaming services all included, which is very, very nice. Who says you can’t have it all? With T-Mobile, you don’t have to choose between a great network or great value. Find out more at That’s seewhy. Qualifying service and capable device required. $225 is based on the retail value of available monthly benefits with MAX. We’re back with Tatiana Kim, who reported this week’s episode. Now she’s going to tell us about a famous prisoner escape from Breda. So, Tatiana, what’s the story you found? 

Tatiana Kim [00:27:10] It’s about a woman named Helga Kill. Or the way she addressed herself–and everybody else–is calling her Tati. 

Roman Mars [00:27:19] Tati. Okay. What happened to Tati? 

Tatiana Kim [00:27:20] So she had this family feud going on. And one day in 2006, when she was 33 years old, Tati came to visit the family. And her brother and her new sister-in-law happened to be at that family gathering. So, Tati, in the middle of the feud, stabbed her sister-in-law. And according to the judge, she also tried to hurt her brother with the same knife. As a result, she was convicted of double attempted murder and sentenced to eight years in prison. 

Roman Mars [00:27:59] So what happens to Tati in Breda? 

Tatiana Kim [00:28:01] So as soon as she got to Breda, she started to think how to get out of the prison from the very beginning. She’s quite a smart person. She understands that in order for a plan to succeed, she needs to know more about the environment. And she noticed that in the Breda, there is a rule that the most well behaving prisoners are separated and rewarded by living in the so-called cottage. 

Roman Mars [00:28:32] Oh, okay. So, describe the cottage. So, this is, like, outside of the dome? 

Tatiana Kim [00:28:36] Yeah. We mentioned in the podcast that Breda prison is not just the panopticon itself, but it’s also several buildings on the complex. And so, one of the structures is that cottage. It’s the closest to the fence, actually. It’s like a separate house. So, it’s much milder rules. They are checked upon only twice a day, and that’s it. For the rest of the day, they pretty much leave them on their own. And so, of course, Tati noticed that. And she saw a great opportunity in that. She behaves her best, and she got to the point where she’s transferred to the cottage. And she’s going around her duties. She’s mopping the floor. And she puts the mop on the floor, she hears the sound, and she immediately thinks of the emptiness below her. 

Roman Mars [00:29:29] Okay. She notices that the floor underneath her is hollow. So, there’s something to go to. 

Tatiana Kim [00:29:36] Right. And so, she explores. She goes and she stomps the mop. She follows this hollow sound which leads here to the kitchen. In the kitchen, she’s looking for the opening, and she eventually finds behind the laundry baskets a hatch which can be opened easily. And there is some kind of a crawl space underneath that’s quite big. But there are all kinds of pipes and valves in there. And she goes inside this crawlspace, but she finds out that it’s enclosed. So, in order to get out, she has to dig a tunnel from that–under the fence and out in the street. 

Roman Mars [00:30:13] So the crawl space affords her a place to secretly dig a tunnel underneath the wall, which is pretty near by the cottage. 

Tatiana Kim [00:30:22] Right. So now she thinks about the tools. And she found the perfect tool for herself–a paint scraper from the workshop. 

Roman Mars [00:30:31] Okay. So even with the paint scraper, how long did it take her to dig a tunnel? 

Tatiana Kim [00:30:37] Oh, it took months. She only could do it in the night while everybody’s asleep. So, Tati keeps digging and digging, and she understands that once she’s out, she will need an escape car. The getaway car? 

Roman Mars [00:30:51] Right. Right, because there has to be someone to meet her. Obviously, like, you can get yourself out of prison, but getting away from the prison is another huge hurdle. 

Tatiana Kim [00:31:00] Right. And she has this friend, and they met. There was a prisoner’s visit where they could talk. And Tati told her about the plan, and they agreed on the code. She said, “Once I’m close, I’m going to call you and tell you, ‘Hey, my cousin had a very big fight with your husband. Can you go to this house and calm her down and be with her? Be there at this hour, that night.'” And that was their code word. And in order for Tati to understand how close she is to getting out, she used the crocheting needle to poke around. 

Roman Mars [00:31:38] Oh, wow. Okay. So, they had access to crochet needles, which are, you know, long metal–

Tatiana Kim [00:31:43] Right. And, you know, in Europe, you have all these cobblestones in the streets–all of these cute, nice rocks in the surface of the streets. Yeah. And she thought if she pokes the needle up above her and she feels something hard, that must be the surface–that must be the cobblestone. 

Roman Mars [00:32:01] That makes sense. And so, she could tell that she was pretty close and could get out maybe that night if she kept digging. So, she’s checked how far she is away from the surface with her needle. She has a getaway car. So, there must be just one night that becomes the night to get out. So, what happens on her final night? 

Tatiana Kim [00:32:21] Yeah. That was the night of adventure. She was ready. She was poking with her needle. And she found out, “Yes. There. The hard rock. I’m really close.” So, she rushes in. She makes a call to her friend. The woman said, “Yes, I’ll be there at 3 a.m., just like you said.” Tati rushes in and digs. And then she made it. She comes out in the middle of the night at 3 a.m., in actually the middle of the city. I have to remind you that the Breda prison is in downtown, right? She gets out, and nothing. There is no getaway car. 

Roman Mars [00:32:59] Oh no. What happens then? 

Tatiana Kim [00:33:01] She gets out, and she figures that if there is no getaway car scheduled, then she needs to find one. And she gets a taxi and asks the taxi to take her to another city. But then she admits to the driver that she doesn’t have any I.D., she doesn’t have any money to pay him, and she’s also just escaped the prison. 

Roman Mars [00:33:28] Well, that’s one way to do it, I suppose. Okay.

Tatiana Kim [00:33:32] Surprisingly, the driver didn’t freak out or get her out of the car right away. He actually, after some convincing, managed to get her to another city–to the safe place. And one of her friends finally gave her shelter in his café. So, she sleeps a few nights in the coffee shop. But she’s bored. She knows that she cannot go out to see people, but she’s bored. She’s finally out, and she wants to talk to people. So, she goes down, she meets a nice man sitting and sipping coffee, and they really hit it off. They start to talk. They really liked each other. And she moved to live with him. 

Roman Mars [00:34:17] Okay. So, she escaped from prison. She hides out in a coffee shop. She meets a man in the coffee shop. What is her life like? I mean, is she really, you know, on the run? Does she manage to enjoy her freedom while she’s out, or is she kind of paranoid and, you know, figures that they’re looking for her all the time? 

Tatiana Kim [00:34:38] She actually enjoys her life and her freedom for three full weeks before the SWAT team of the Dutch police kicks in the door of the apartment of her boyfriend and arrests her as a fugitive. And they put her back in prison–not to Breda, to a different prison–where she served the remaining of her years. In the Netherlands, at least at that time–that happened in 2010–the prisoners who escaped did not have added time to their prison sentence. 

Roman Mars [00:35:11] So she serves out the rest of her sentence for two years. 

Tatiana Kim [00:35:14] Yeah. And then the guy whom she met and whom she lived with–even although he discovers the truth about her–he doesn’t abandon her. He continues to visit her in prison, brings her little cakes and things that are not really allowed to be brought. She’s telling him how to bring it to her and how to hide it. 

Roman Mars [00:35:41] You gotta let Tati be Tati. 

Tatiana Kim [00:35:43] I guess. That continues. And after she’s released in January 2012, she’s officially a free person. And once she’s a free person, she is living life to her full potential. She’s back with this man, she’s having a kid, and she’s trying to reach out to Hollywood now to try to get a movie done about her. 

Roman Mars [00:36:14] Well, this is so great–a little addendum to the story. Thank you so much, Tatiana. It’s been so much fun. 

Tatiana Kim [00:36:19] Thank you, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:36:28] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Tatiana Kim and Christopher Johnson. Mixed by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real.  Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina Joe Rosenberg, Kelly Prime, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 



This episode was produced by reporter Tatiana Kim and edited by Christopher Johnson.

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