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Escaping the prison, surviving the wild

DANNEMORA - A set of manholes, just a few steps apart, sits at the intersection of Bouck and Barker streets in this village. They lie silently in the shadows of a strip of single-family homes, many with crumbling paint jobs and sagging porches, and the ominous walls of Clinton Correctional Facility just one block away. Those manholes seem insignificant - nothing more than metallic discs both heavy and thick - until you look closely. When you do, you see that asphalt and rust caking one of the manholes spills over onto the road.

The thing hasn't been moved in years.

The other manhole? There's a gap at the edge.

The rust, the stones, the remnants of pavement are cleared away. The manhole moved. You can clearly see where the road ends and the tunnel to the underworld begins.

This, too, is where the story of Richard Matt and David Sweat's escape begins. It's a tale with all too many gaps.

In fact, the only certain part is three weeks ago, as the evening of Friday, June 5, turned into the early morning of Saturday, the two convicted killers emerged from this manhole, escaping their life sentences at Clinton, and disappeared into the Adirondack Mountains.

The basic mechanics of how they did it are well-documented: Matt, who was shot and killed Friday by law enforcement, and Sweat, who remains on the loose, cut through the steel walls of the back of their adjacent cells, followed a catwalk to utility tunnels and pipes, and cut another set of holes into a 24-inch steam pipe that led them outside the prison and to the manhole on the nearby neighborhood street.

We know some people helped them. Joyce Mitchell, a 51-year-old civilian worker who became close to both inmates, and Gene Palmer, a 57-year-old corrections officer, have been arrested and accused of aiding in Matt and Sweat's elaborate escape plan. Mitchell apparently had a knowing role. Reports say she hid hacksaw blades in frozen hamburger meat and asked Palmer, whose role may have been unwitting, to pass it along to the eventual escapees. Inmates in Clinton's "honor block," where Matt and Sweat were housed, are allowed to cook in their cells.

But there is much we don't know: What prompted Matt, 49, and Sweat, 35, to plan such an elaborate escape? With inmates and corrections officers presumably nearby, how did they manage to execute it? And once on the outside, how did they manage to elude authorities for three weeks in one of the roughest terrains in the eastern United States?

The answers to those questions are found in the depths of prison psychology - an often frightening ecosystem - and in the tiny village where the Clinton prison looms large.

'Where did they get out?'

If you're a fan of "Back to the Future" and you want to experience a retro town, drive to the Village of Dannemora in the northeastern corner of New York. Everything feels straight out of the '70s, from the bolted-on letter signage of Nuway Car Wash, Auggy's Pizza and Dannemora Ford, to the drab, chippy paint jobs.

The main drag, Cook Street, that cuts through town is bordered by businesses - a pharmacy, a Chinese food joint - on one side and the gray, 30-foot walls of Clinton on the other. For 50 years, Bob Breyette has run a one-man, one-seat barber shop in the shadows of the prison. The majority of his customers who sit in that black leather chair either work at the prison, or know someone who does.

Breyette, 70, bald with a trim gray mustache and a Howard Cosell-like radio voice, has spun prison stories for years. Those include tales of attempted escapes - a pair of men running from a work crew; an inmate who spent a year digging his way out of the back of the yard, not realizing Clinton is built into a mountain and he was bound to hit rock; a prisoner who scaled the top of the wall only to get shot in the stomach by an Irish-American corrections officer wielding a "Tommy gun." (That's a Thompson submachine gun.)

Those stories are old. Most, if not all, predate Breyette.

But even for a man who has lived his life in a prison town, this escape story is puzzling. On the night of Matt and Sweat's flight, Breyette and his wife were at a motorcycle rally in Lake George. His daughter, Floee, contacted him the next morning to say two prisoners escaped from a manhole.

"Where did they get out?" Breyette asked.

"Right in the intersection in front of the house," Floee said.

Indeed, the Breyettes live across the street from that manhole. As Breyette learned the details of the escape - a car, presumably arranged or driven by Mitchell, was supposed to pick them up but didn't show - he began to picture where Matt and Sweat may have gone.

A couple of blocks from his home is an old rail house and a snowmobile path that, until a few decades ago, used to be a railroad track. In the 1800s, inmates from Clinton helped clear the land for the track, which led from Plattsburgh in the east to an iron ore mine at Lyon Mountain off to the west. Both the mine and the railroad are gone. But the path remains,  and it would have been the perfect escape route to the Owls Head and Malone area where the escapees fled.

For anyone who knows the area, identifying that possible escape route is easy. But how could Matt and Sweat, who were locked up, know where to go?

In the middle of the night, Dannemora is especially dark. The streetlights cast a pall yellow glow, and once you get outside the small neighborhood, your surroundings are pitch dark.

And how did they manage to get out of that manhole in the first place?

Breyette kept pondering that point, talking to customers and neighbors and his son, Marty, who is a welder. Marty told his father that using a commercial grinder to cut a hole of that size found in the steam pipe would take at least 10 discs. A corrections officer, meanwhile, told Breyette that there is a 10-foot-thick wall at the bottom of the prison through which the steam pipe travels. To cut your way in and out of that pipe, you would have to know where you're going - or take a very good guess.

"They had to have a lot of information," Breyette said last week as he swept hair into a mound of brown, gray and black locks in the corner of his floor.

The speculation abounds, and it's great for barbershop chatter. But dig into the mind of a prisoner, and you'll find the motivations for attempting such a daunting escape run thicker than any prison wall.

Why escape?

As news broke Friday afternoon of Matt's death, 46-year-old Michael Jackson was walking into an office at Peaceprints of Western New York, a residential re-entry program in Buffalo for ex-prisoners.

Jackson, wearing red headphones around his neck, a gold necklace, tiger T-shirt and denim shorts, shook his head.

"I was hoping they continued to stay free," he said.

Why was Jackson rooting for Matt and Sweat?

Because anyone who has ever been imprisoned understands the lure of freedom when you have none. Jackson has been incarcerated many times. His offenses include larceny, petit robbery, possession of paraphernalia, public intoxication, assault, burglary and - he can't quite remember the name for this one - "when you don't pay fare for jumping the train."

Before going further, though, Jackson clarifies his meaning.

"Don't continue to kill or hurt anybody," he said. "Just enjoy the rest of their lives."

It's not that simple. Matt, not surprisingly, lost his life, and even if Sweat manages to elude the 1,200-plus police searching for him, he never will be truly free.

But for someone with a locked-in future - Matt was sentenced for 25 years to life for the murder of his boss, and Sweat to life without parole for killing a sheriff's deputy - freedom isn't necessarily the goal.

"You've got to be to that point of you're ready to give up your life completely," said Mark Breslin, 47, a Peaceprints resident who has been in and out of prison four times and says his legal problems are rooted in  alcohol.

"You're willing to do anything. You're willing to die to touch the streets again," he said. "Even just to get out there and do what you like to do just one more time."

Cindi McEachon, the executive director of Peaceprints, works regularly with prisoners and parolees. She makes it clear: Everyone who has been incarcerated fancies, at least for a moment, the idea of escaping.

"I relate it to a child," she said. "Every child has been punished and thought about getting away or running away," she said. "It's normal. It's human nature."

Most prisoners, of course, never attempt an escape. The reasons are simple: It's nearly impossible to do, and the vast majority of prisoners will be released someday.

But a dark transformation can sweep over the small percentage - the Matts and Sweats of the prison world - who never will get out.

"You lose hope," McEachon said. "Nothing matters."

When that happens - when hope is gone - a prisoner needs to replace it with a focus. Many do, finding solace in reading and writing, working out, creating art. Some prisoners become the elder statesmen of the penitentiary.

"The best kind of people to hang with," Jackson said, "because they know the ropes."

But others start to plot. They focus the only two resources they have in abundance - time and brainpower - on a singular goal: getting out.

"The driving force is to be able to touch reality one more time," Breslin said. "Because once you're in there, it's a whole different world."

High performers

Still, plotting an escape, even an elaborate and brainy one, is vastly easier than pulling it off. This is one instance where Matt and Sweat deserve credit: They used many of the traits of high performers - the same ones you would see in a book on business advice or sport psychology - and applied them to a sinister goal.

To test that theory, a News reporter picked up a copy of "The Ultra Mindset," an advice book written by world-class endurance athlete Travis Macy. The book has eight success principles, and many apply directly to Matt and Sweat's escape-and-survival feat. Some examples:

"Find your carrot:" They had a specific, enticing goal - break out.

"It's all good mental training:" Matt and Sweat presumably spent months or years planning their escape, leveraging relationships with people like Mitchell and Palmer, gathering information and tools, and systematically cutting their way out of the prison.

"Have an ego and use it - until it's time to put your ego aside:" The need for bravado was clear. How else could Matt and Sweat even start such a daunting task? But pulling it off required some dirty work - crawling through a 24-inch steam pipe and later, in the woods, breaking into hunting camps to steal food and weapons, and presumably wading and crawling through some mucky, rough terrain to move undetected.

"When you have no choice, anything is possible:" Once free of the prison, Matt and Sweat had no choice but to run and hide. That they did so, virtually undetected for the better part of three weeks, is impressive in the most haunting sense of the word.

With "The Ultra Mindset" connection clear, that same News reporter got the author on the phone. At first, Macy was understandably surprised by the application of his material to the work of cold-blooded killers. His book is intended for athletes, parents and businesspeople.

But as he thought about it, Macy acknowledged that the same principles a person can use to achieve good can be applied to evil.

"They definitely pushed the limits of what they were capable of in a situation, that's for sure," Macy said.

Another world-class athlete, ultra marathon runner Charlie Engle, agreed.

"I would absolutely call these guys high performers, if we were able to step away from this," Engle said when contacted by The News. "In any other circumstance, we would probably admire what they were able to pull off."

Engle's view on the tale of Matt and Sweat is also personal: He, too, has been in prison, albeit for a lesser crime (mortgage fraud - a conviction he still contests) and shorter time (16 months in a minimum security facility).

Prison has the effect of sharpening a person's abilities, according to Engle and other people interviewed for this story who have either been incarcerated or are familiar with the system. Because you have so much time, you are able to think, fantasize, plan and create.

Engle spent six hours a day writing.

"I went into prison as a decent writer, probably even a good writer, and I came out of there a very good writer," he said.

Breslin, the Peaceprints resident, dove into artwork - a talent he used to survive within the prison ecosystem. He would "sell" his artwork to prison guards who paid him in stamps or cigarettes - both are currency behind bars - or would trade art for extra cheese or eggs in the mess hall, which he could then eat himself or sell to other inmates.

McEachon, Peaceprints' executive director, knows a former inmate who dissected a radio to build a fully functioning tattoo gun.

"It's amazing when you sort out all the messiness of your day-to-day and you simplify yourself, how much brainpower you're able to utilize to create absolutely ingenious items," she said.

So there is a lot of highly focused brainpower locked up in prison. But does it work on the outside?

As Matt and Sweat proved by slithering relatively safely through the Adirondacks for three weeks, it can.

Taking it outside

Justin Levine is sitting outside a coffee shop in the quaint, tourist-friendly town of Saranac Lake. This isn't the natural habitat of the slender, bearded 35-year-old.

"I've spent most of my life in the woods," said Levine, a writer and environmental worker who is an Adirondacks native and, for three years in his early 30s, lived in a cabin that had no running water, heat or electricity. Levine did this by choice.

"I wanted a challenge," he said.

And that's what he got. Living in the woods and dealing with the harsh Adirondack weather, the swarms of mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, gnats and a small biting fly called "no-see-ums," and having a lack of contact with the outside world challenged him to the core.

"After a couple of days out there being by myself, I had to come into town to go grab a beer, just so I could interact with somebody," Levine said.

Though his woods-survival experience is hardly the same - "I didn't have anybody chasing me," Levine said with a small smile - he is in a position to illustrate the challenges Matt and Sweat faced.

Food, Levine explained, is tough to come by. Only wild strawberries are starting to ripen. Water is plentiful, but there's a good chance you will get dysentery after a couple of weeks. (Indeed, police found soiled underwear, indicating Matt was ill when he was shot.)

You can trap or hunt wild game, but doing either of those will slow you down, and the gunshots or smoke from cooking will alert people to your presence. And while you can eat raw meat, "lots of animals have ticks and parasites that'll cause a problem," Levine said.

As for attacks?

Bears and moose will generally leave humans alone, Levine said.

But "the smallest things are the biggest hassle," he added.

Those are the bugs, which are especially plentiful after weeks of rain in the mountains.

"The bugs are bad enough they'll literally drive you crazy," Levine said. "I know people who have lost it. They take off running down the trail. They just can't deal with it anymore."

But here is something different about inmates, a quality neither Levine nor anyone else who has avoided incarceration couldn't possibly know. The experience of living in prison makes you hardened, almost immune, to many physical discomforts.

"Prisoners spend days without eating, control their bodily functions, and generally develop a heightened situational awareness," said Brooklyn-based writer Daniel Genis, a former Clinton inmate, in an email to The News. "Cold and heat matter less, pickiness in food disappears, and hearing and intuition double in power after a few years."

If a prisoner has been to "the box," a windowless cell used for punishment that has nothing but a bed, toilet, shower, and slot for food and mail, his ability to withstand mental challenges may be especially high. It's likely that both Matt and Sweat spent time in the box.

Breslin, who has been in the box and once had the role of cleaning it, says that prisoners in there will bang their heads against the wall, paint the wall with feces, and go "literally insane."

Translation: If you can handle prison, especially a tough place like Clinton, you can handle the wilderness - even with armed agents hunting you down.

"I highly doubt they're having issues mentally that they're alone deep in the woods, because they've already broke," McEachon said. "It's already happened. That's the least of their worries."

But it's the most of ours.

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