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The true story of Billy Hayes' escape from Turkish prison

Billy Hayes’ escape from prison was popularised in his 1977 memoir 'The Midnight Express'. This is the true story behind the famous escape.


Speaking with his unique first-hand experience, Billy Hayes takes viewers inside some of the greatest prison escapes of all time. Through re-enactments and interviews with the people who were there, each episode will bring to life audacious jail and prison breaks in dramatic form.

Greatest Prison Escapes With Billy Hayes starts Monday, 8th July at 10pm on Sky HISTORY.

Throughout history there have been many daring prison escapes – but few are more notorious than Billy Hayes’ escape from a prison in Turkey. Popularised by the now-famous novel The Midnight Express and the subsequent 1978 movie adaptation of the same name – Billy Hayes’ story has become known worldwide.

But what is the real story of Billy’s daring escape? His real life was stranger than fiction, from his early years to arrest, sentencing, escape and eventual return to the United States.

Early life

Billy Hayes was born in New York City in 1947. He grew up as part of a middle-class family, and for the most part, lived a normal life. He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and quickly developed a passion for travel and adventure.

This wanderlust led him to travel to Turkey, a decision that would create a series of events that dramatically changed his life.

Arrest in 1970

Billy was 23 years old when he was arrested at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He was caught with two kilograms of hashish strapped to his body, as he attempted to board a plane home. In October 1970, the Turkish authorities were on high alert, searching for bombs because of recent terror attacks on passenger flights.

Billy’s arrest began a five-year stint in various Turkish prisons that would send his life out of control. He became one of many US citizens serving sentences in foreign jails for drug charges.


The penalty in Turkey for drug smuggling was harsh. Billy Hayes was initially sentenced to four years and two months. He served this time at Sağmalcılar prison in Istanbul, before being transferred to Bakırköy Psychiatric Hospital.

This term was then extended to life in prison, just as his sentence was coming to an end. He was transferred to İmralı prison on an island in the middle of the Sea of Marmara. There he suffered a mental breakdown, after having already endured years of terrible prison conditions. While the future looked bleak for Billy, this turn of events sparked a new sense of resilience in him, and he began to plot his escape.

During his time in prison, there were many attempts from the US embassy to get him removed, but to him, it seemed that there was little hope of returning home through the official channels.

İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara with an overcast sky
Image: Billy Hayes escaped from İmralı prison on an island in the middle of the Sea of Marmara |


After five years of beatings, psychological torment and isolation – Billy Hayes made a daring escape. In the movie adaptation, he simply walked out of the prison's front door, but in reality, he crept out under the cover of darkness and rowed a boat to safety. He blended in with the locals at Bandirma, a port town in northwest Turkey, before heading west across the border into Greece.

He was then detained in Greece and subjected to two weeks of interrogation. The purpose of this interrogation was to see if he had any information about the military of Turkey.

Return home

After his interrogation in Greece, he was deported to Frankfurt. Here he was once again interrogated by US authorities, before being sent to Amsterdam. After this, he was allowed to return to the United States, landing at JFK Airport.

The date was 24th October 1975. After five years of imprisonment, Billy Hayes had made it home.

Later life and book adaptation

Billy Hayes returned home as a notorious escaped convict. His time of over five years of imprisonment changed him, but he soon put his experiences into a memoir. In 1977, he published Midnight Express, co-written by William Hoffer. The book detailed his experiences in Turkey's prison system and explained how he was able to escape.

This book launched to much success, eventually being adapted into a film in 1978. The film is where his story really became well known at a global level – as it won multiple Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay.

Hayes did eventually address numerous inaccuracies in the movie. For example, his escape was much different in real life and many of the courtroom scenes were apparently sensationalised.

In the years following his release, Hayes has become a fervent advocate of prison reform and drug legalisation. Drawing from his own experiences, he has spoken out about the terrors of bad prison conditions.

Now in his late 70s, Billy Hayes is living safely in the United States. His story serves as a powerful reminder of the consequences of a person’s actions and the possibility of survival even in the darkest of times.