New York's escaped murderers point to how much time inmates have to think about escape

The Takeaway
Clinton Correctional Facility

Two convicted murderers who managed to escape from Clinton Correctional Facility over the weekend, remain on the loose after cutting through a steel wall, slicing into a pipe, smashing through a brick wall — all while somehow avoiding discovery.

The inmates, David Sweat and Richard Matt, had been held at the upstate New York prison nicknamed "Little Siberia."

“A lot of people are speculating that they’re far afield now — that they’ve run far and fast,” says Brian Mann, Adirondack reporter for North Country Public Radio. “But a lot of the local law enforcement investigators that we’ve been talking to here say there is still a good chance that they’re in the deep woods here or in one of the abandoned houses or cabins. It’s a very remote, empty area so anything’s possible.”

The facility that Sweat and Matt escaped from is in Dannemora, New York, a small town home to fewer than 5,000 people. The community is about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, and the two fugitives may have already crossed over.

“If they had documents ready, it’s not a tough thing to do,” says Mann. “One of the men, Richard Matt, had connections there — he had a girlfriend in Ontario back when his trial was underway. He also had connections in Mexico. There are two airports located pretty conveniently up there in Ottawa and in Montreal. If this getaway was planned that thoroughly, then they could have used Canada as a conduit to get to just about anywhere in the world.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo believes the convicts must have had help from the inside.

"We're going through the civilian employees and the private contractors first,” he told the Today Show. “I'd be shocked if a correction guard was involved in this, but they definitely had help — otherwise they couldn't have done this on their own."

Mann echoes Gov. Cuomo’s comments, saying that investigators are focusing a great deal of their attention on prison staff and contractors, many of whom are locals in the community.

“This is an old prison that was originally built in the 1840s,” Mann says. “They’re constantly doing repair work to keep this thing going. It’s sort of a big white fortress that looks like a 19th century, old school prison. There are guys in and out of there, men and women on the civilian side, everyday. They’re keeping steam pipes going and keeping all of the infrastructure going.”

Matt and Sweat, who had adjoining cells at Clinton Correctional Facility, likely had a great deal of time to plot this elaborate escape — and the facility itself could have helped them do it.

“One of the things that’s unique about Clinton-Dannemora is that there is a very strange kind of public yard where all of the inmates are allowed to circulate in an area that the prison guards have a very little role in,” says Mann. “There’s a lot of independent inmate activity in this facility. So there would’ve been an enormous window of opportunity for them to coordinate, to plan, perhaps to work with other inmates, and even to talk to staff and contractors at the facility.”

Mann adds that there’s a great deal of “loose activity” internally at the facility, though he says it is very secure when it comes to entering and exiting.

“In Clinton-Dannemora there’s a huge section of the prison yard that, long ago by tradition, the staff essentially handed over to the inmates,” he says. “They have their own plots of land — these tiny chunks of property upon which they can build things and have little gardens. They have their own culture that’s built into that section of the yard. Within that area there’s gang activity, there’s racial activity and criminal activity.”

Guards have said that these areas are essentially governed by the inmates, Mann adds.

“It’s an old-school, 19th century kind of prison yard,” he says.

Is it time to rethink prison design, given this recent escape from Little Siberia?

“The best security is really a marriage between the operational protocols and the physical design,” says Mike Brenchley, senior vice president and director of the justice program at HDR Architecture. “We focus very keenly on operational philosophy, inmate movement policies, how programs are delivered and establishment of secure perimeters.”

As British colonies, the United States inherited most of its justice system from the United Kingdom. In the 18th century, Jeremy Benthem, an English philosopher and social theorist, designed the Panopticon, a prison built as a circle, with a guard at the center and cells all around. The idea for the prison was that the guard would be enabled to see everything at the facility all at once.

“Today we have evolved into many more observational concepts, and many more classifications of security levels, which allows us to tailor the design to a specific facility's needs and requirements,” says Brenchley.

Though prison architects are always thinking about security, inmates are always thinking too, often about ways to escape.

“Almost any inmate at any security level has a lot of time on their hands to think about ways to breach whatever security perimeter they’re faced with,” adds Brenchley.

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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