There’s a man standing in the exercise yard of a maximum security facility in the heart of the UK. There are not many others standing around him. He begins strolling slowly around the courtyard, evaluating the environment, considering the premises, calculating.
He’s about to attempt to make a break for his freedom.
15 seconds later and the man is standing in the public car park on the other side of the building, with no walls or barriers in the way of escape and no possible way that anyone could have stopped him.
Apparently breaking out of a maximum security facility isn’t all that difficult when you’re an expert in parkour.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the man in question wasn't an inmate but a professional security consultant. He works for an organisation called Parkour Generations and he was providing a service known as ‘a penetration test’.
As a matter of fact, the text above was a description of the first ever penetration test that Parkour Generations performed. They’ve done numerous since, but this was the first time a maximum security facility – a practice that could be a penitentiary, a mental hospital, a bank, a business tower or anything of the like – had employed them to look at their containment measures, work out whether an inmate or thief could get in or out of the building, and in effect, evaluate whether their maximum security facility was worthy of the title.
These are the expert parkour practitioners and security consultants who get paid to escape from prisons for a living. We met up with Dan Edwardes, Managing Director of the company, to have a chat through the process.
“Parkour Generations is the first professional organisation for Parkour in terms of teaching, displaying and educating people about the benefits of the discipline," he explained.
“We always liked to consider the practical applications of the discipline, so we had been thinking about [penetration testing] for the past five or six year. A lot of our team have backgrounds in the military or in security."
A few years ago, the company was then contacted out of the blue by a secure facility in the UK, asking if they would come along and see if they could find any weaknesses in their set up that could be exploited from a physical point of view.
“We went along and trialled it and it went really well," continued Edwardes, who himself used to work in security and has practiced parkour for 13 years. “They weren’t worried about the inside of the facility, but they wanted to know how easy it was to get from an exercise yard to the top of the building or the public car park.
“Our team managed to get from the exercise yard, where the inmates would be allowed to wonder, to the public car park within 15 seconds, and onto the roof in less than a minute as well. That was eye-opening for them. It was a brand new facility they had just finished building... so they probably should’ve got us to look at it before they finished it.
“They were really happy with the results of that initial test though and it revealed to us that the knowledge and the skills we had were really useful when applied that way. We worked on the concept and the methods and then rolled it out."
The service has been a success story for Parkour Generations ever since, who now have branches in four continents and also work in the stunt industry and design parkour training facilities.
Their penetration testing is what grabs the attention of most people though, despite the fact that when you consider it, the only surprise is that someone else hadn't thought of it first.
Parkour practitioners see the world in an entirely different way to the rest of the world. Where most see a wall, they see a foothole. Where most see a dead end, they see an opportunity. The practice lends itself perfectly to the process of identifying urban weaknesses.
“There are a lot of different ways to look at architecture and utilise it," Dan added. “There are a lot of things that aren’t considered and that architects wouldn’t consider or have any control over when building somewhere, and that’s where that different perspective is key.
“Most the time it’s just a question of our client's vision being changed. Normally by the end of the process they’ll start to realise there are things they’ve overlooked.
“They might have a fairly secure perimeter, but they have no control over the area around them – maybe a lamppost is going to be put in somewhere or another building is going to be built nearby which will allow people to get from one wall to another. Little things like that can be very easily overlooked."
Of course, the briefing is rarely as simple as planting a parkour expert in a max-security prison and asking them to try and break out.
Dan explains that they’ll often be briefed to try and find their way from one point inside a penitentiary to another, be asked to find out if there is a weakness in a certain spot around the perimeter of the building or if there are indeed any gaping errors overall.
He also notes that it’s worth remembering the majority of inmates and potential problem-makers inside these buildings would not be trained in parkour.
“It’s not so much a case of seeing what people with amazing physical skills can do, because it’s not going to be parkour practitioners that they’re worried about.
70 percent of the time we will find something that could be improved upon or needs to be improved...
“They’re not looking at people throwing themselves off buildings to get in or out, they’re looking at what’s reasonable for a normal human being who won’t take huge risks most of the time because that would only damage them.
“When we do pen testing we’re not looking at the technical side of it either, or anything tools or technology based like getting in somewhere through computer operated doors or using tools to pick locks. We’re looking purely at what people could physically achieve – where could they get to, and then from there could then use a tool to access somewhere else.
“It’s really just a case of using our experience to discover areas that may be accessible to anyone who is motivated and fairly fit and capable. A ten-foot wall may be pretty high, but if there’s a foot hold to spring yourself up to the top of the wall, suddenly it’s not effective at all."
How often are Dan and his team actually successful in discovering a weakness then? Slightly alarmingly for the facilities of Britain, they have a track record that is pretty damn good.
There are a lot of different ways to look at architecture and utilise it. There are a lot of things that aren’t considered.
“If you look back at what we’ve been asked to do, around 70 percent of the time we will find something that could be improved upon or needs to be improved, and so that will be considered a successful operation."
It’s an impressive statistic indeed, and one that proves parkour is tailor-made for the job. It certainly makes you hope the Parkour Generations team don't turn to a life of crime in the future.
The business plan is one of ingenious innovation from Dan and his team. It’s the perfect service for the parkour practitioner, and it seems that as long as maximum security facilities continue to turn to Parkour Generations, the British public will be that little bit safer indeed.
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