LONDON — It was a flourish worthy of the 1962 escape from Alcatraz.
It wasn’t until guards at Pentonville prison in North London discovered pillows underneath inmates’ bedsheets, arranged to look like sleeping figures, that they realized that two men had escaped from the Victorian-era lockup, British news outlets said on Tuesday.
That ruse, reminiscent of the legendary escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco, helped give the fugitives a 12-hour lead on their pursuers. The men had apparently cut through their cell bars, jumped onto a 25-foot wall and climbed down a makeshift rope to freedom. In the Alcatraz break, three inmates put pillows under the bedclothes in their cells, along with papier-mâché heads with real hair and closed, painted eyes, before vanishing.
The audacious escape from Pentonville by James Anthony Whitlock, 31, who had been charged with burglary, and Matthew Baker, 28, who was found guilty two weeks ago of attempted murder, was reverberating in Britain on Tuesday. Scotland Yard said a search was underway and warned that the men could be dangerous.
“The public are being advised not to approach the men who absconded from HMP Pentonville on Monday, 7 November, and remain at large,” a police statement said. It was not known what the inmates had been wearing when they escaped, though the police said that Mr. Whitlock, described as lithe and slender, had the word “Tracy” tattooed on his torso and that Mr. Baker had reddish hair.
According to the police and news reports, the brazen plot began playing out late Sunday. The two inmates, possibly using diamond-tipped cutting tools, sliced through the windows of their fifth-floor cells in the G wing of the prison.
One theory being considered is that, after escaping from their cells, the men climbed onto the roof of the prison chapel, before jumping onto the prison’s imposing perimeter wall. They may have then used bedsheets to make a rope to reach the ground below.
There was speculation that drones may have been used to drop cutting equipment to the men. A recent report from a prison watchdog group warned that inmates were using drones to smuggle drugs into the prison and were taking advantage of broken and dilapidated windows that made the prison accessible from outside. The prison, which opened its doors in 1842, houses an estimated 1,200 male prisoners, including, at one time, Oscar Wilde.
The men were not discovered missing until 11:44 a.m. on Monday. News reports said that their absence may have gone unnoticed because they were not required to do prison work and that the guards may have been fooled by the bumps underneath the bedsheets when they looked through the cell-door flaps to check on them.
On Tuesday, Scotland Yard said it was searching for the men, while an investigation was underway at the prison into how the men were able to pull off the escape and keep their absence undetected for so long.
Scotland Yard said Mr. Whitlock had been charged with burglary, including 19 offenses regarding thefts at automated teller machines from December 2015 to August 2016.
Mr. Baker was awaiting sentencing after being convicted of attempted murder in the stabbing of a man in Dagenham, in East London, following an argument.
The escape captured the national imagination in Britain, where the need to improve the creaking prison system has been a pressing issue. (On Sunday, more than 200 prisoners went on a six-hour rampage at a prison in Bedford, England, north of London.)
The Pentonville escape is not the first time the facility has come under scrutiny. Two weeks ago, a 21-year-old prisoner was fatally stabbed at the prison.
Last year, Michael Gove, the former British justice minister, pledged to close crumbling Victorian prisons like Pentonville, which he labeled the “most dramatic example of failure within the prison estate.”
In 2012, John Massey, a convicted murderer, escaped from Pentonville and was at large for two days after using a rope to climb the prison’s walls following a workout at its gym. Mr. Massey was discovered hiding in a cottage in Kent.
The Prison Governors Association, which represents prison managers, said the Pentonville escape marked a “a new low in the prison service” and blamed funding cuts. “This is an institutional failure in one of our most core functions — keeping prisoners in custody,” it said.
The organization added that older prisons like Pentonville were squalid and vermin-infested, and said that prison governors did not have the resources to tackle the problems. “Prison cells have been vandalized and prisoners have access to drugs and mobile phones, some delivered by drones,” it said.
The Pentonville escape drew parallels to the famed 1962 escape from Alcatraz. In that Houdini-like breakout, three inmates, Frank Lee Morris and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin, vanished without a trace from America’s most impenetrable maximum security prison, known as “The Rock.”
At the time, federal officials said the men had probably drowned in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, which surrounds the island prison. But the mystery of their fate has never been solved.