Share this article

print logo

Cut out the rot Escape exposes dangerous complacency in the culture of state’s prison system

Perhaps this will be easier than expected. Answer No. 1 to preventing dramatic escapes from high-security prisons by dangerous criminals: Make sure the overnight guards aren’t sleeping.

There is more, of course, but without the help – both witting and unintentional – of prison employees, the escape by Richard Matt and David Sweat from Clinton Correctional Facility would have been made far more difficult, to the point of impossible.

The details of the prisoners’ escape from the prison in Dannemora were published in The Buffalo News last week in a story by The New York Times. It was based on reports given to authorities by Sweat after the cop-killer was recaptured in late June, 22 days after escaping.

It reads like a movie script, and, indeed, many people, including Sweat, have likened the escape to “The Shawshank Redemption.” The difference, of course, is that the central character in the movie was actually innocent of the murder for which he was convicted. Matt and Sweat were actually guilty of heinous crimes for which their punishments were just. Their escape created a risk to the lives of any people who might have come in contact with them, including the law enforcement officers searching for them.

That’s why it is crucial to understand the entire arc of the escape, from conception to conclusion. It is already clear that the culture of the prison in Dannemora created the circumstances that allowed the escape to succeed, but what about other prisons in New York or even other states? It is difficult – and, in fact, dangerous – to believe that only in Clinton County do misguided prison workers help inmates plan their escape and guards sleep on the job.

Closer to home, it has already been shown that problems exist within Attica prison, where guards were recently convicted of beating an inmate within an inch of his life. While that kind of misconduct doesn’t specifically create an escape risk, it’s representative of a dysfunctional culture that cannot help but have unwanted repercussions.

And what about county jails, such as the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden? It has seen its own escapes, including that of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, who killed one state trooper while he was on the loose and wounded two others.

Some changes have already been made at Dannemora. A civilian prison worker, Joyce E. Mitchell, had been tempted into helping the prisoners escape and was supposed to pick them up in her car. She backed out at that point, too late to save her job or avoid criminal charges. A corrections officer, Gene Palmer, was also charged with helping in the escape plot. And the prison superintendent, two senior staff members and nine corrections officers were placed on administrative leave.

That’s a start, but it affects only that prison and does nothing specific to change the administrative culture, a difficult task in any large organization. And it doesn’t deal with similar issues that almost certainly infect some, or maybe all, of the state’s other prisons.

That’s the test going forward. It is only by good fortune that Matt and Sweat didn’t harm anyone while they were free. Another escape may never happen, but we now know it can and we know at least some of the things that need to change to prevent a future escape. Let’s not take any chances.