New York Times op-ed page, June 16, 2015.

The Allure of the Prison Break

(original here)

New York Times op-ed page, June 16, 2015


IN my time as a rookie prison officer at Sing Sing, in Ossining, N.Y., I had to pass through 10 locked gates to reach the housing block where I worked. I would think about how I might escape if I were a prisoner there.

The breakout from another historic New York prison, the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, by two murderers, David Sweat and Richard W. Matt, reminds us that a lot of prisoners are probably thinking about it all the time. On Friday, it was reported that Mr. Matt had been shot dead by federal agents.

As the saga of the 20-day manhunt seems to be nearing a conclusion, details of their improbable escape are still emerging. The manner of their exit during the night of June 5 was a cause of wonder, almost admiration. “Sophisticated,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called it, and “truly extraordinary.” Photos posted on the governor’s Flickr account showed him retracing the escapees’ route through cuts in pipes and holes in walls.

Not every escape is a remarkable feat of planning and daring. While I was at Sing Sing, a prisoner simply walked off a roadside cleanup detail near Co-Op City in the Bronx. A team was sent to his mom’s address in Queens. They knocked on the door, and there he was.

Corrections professionals confirm that many escapes take place outside prison — for example, during transportation to a hospital or courtroom or, as happened this week in Harlem, when a prisoner bolted from officers outside a police precinct house. Most escapes involve someone taking advantage of a dumb mistake, as the serial killer Ted Bundy did when he jumped from a courthouse window in Aspen, Colo.

But prisoners who escape by using their brains are rarer. Faced with a puzzle that had thwarted thousands before them, Mr. Sweat and Mr. Matt found a solution. The skill set that they brought to bear included, at the very least, ingenuity, planning, dexterity and sweet-talking.

The sweet-talking is probably the most significant and least understood of these, perhaps because it tends not to feature much in the prison breakouts we see in movies. Daily life in a maximum-security prison involves frequent interactions between prisoners and staff members. Prisoners depend on staff for so much.

As an officer, it becomes almost a reflex to say “no”: No, you can’t have an extra soap ball to clean your cell; no, you can’t leave your cell to loan your friend something; no, you can’t have extra time in the shower. The prisoners who are successful at scoring favors learn that they catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. They act chummy; they’re funny; they’ll even do you a favor. “Not that key, Conover,” one would say. “The key next to it is the one that works on that lock.”

Real friendship across the aisle is impossible; if they’re being nice, it’s probably to manipulate you. That’s why the training for all who work among prisoners emphasizes awareness of an essential fact of prison life: Inmates will play you.

One morning during my 10 months at Sing Sing, a prisoner from Colombia took me aside and asked if I liked Rolexes. Why, I asked. “Well, if you meet my friend in Queens this weekend and bring me something from him, I could get you one.”

A book discussed during my training in Albany, “Games Criminals Play,” explained how bending the rules for a prisoner can lead to an unexpected result: Instead of being grateful, the prisoner wants more favors or he’ll turn you in for the one you did. Some staff find themselves getting in deeper and deeper, the power relationship essentially reversed.

Rules about contraband are designed to reinforce officers’ resistance to being corrupted or exploited, but they routinely fail. One day at Sing Sing, the state police arrived to arrest an officer from the class just ahead of mine. He was charged with bringing in drugs.

A sexual dynamic stirs the pot. Women who work in a men’s prison get lots of attention. The men who bestow it are often young, handsome, virile and charming. I knew of at least one female officer who was dismissed for having intimate relations with a prisoner.

Joyce E. Mitchell, the prison tailor shop supervisor who admitted to authorities that she brought the Clinton escapees hacksaw blades, chisels and other tools, was romantically involved with at least one of them, according to reports. In addition, a guard named Gene Palmer has been arrested; he is said to have lent the escapees a screwdriver and pliers, reportedly in exchange for artworks by Mr. Matt.

In the movies, prison escapes are often about tunnels, painstakingly built over time. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the tunnel was scratched out by Tim Robbins’s character over not weeks, but over 17 years. Such a feat is fantastical for several reasons. Prisoner cell assignments are routinely shuffled in a well-run system (two or three years would be a long time to be in the same cell). Most facilities also have cell frisks every few months, to sweep out accumulated contraband.

Patience is indispensable to most escape schemes, but it is almost never sufficient. Mr. Matt and Mr. Sweat benefited from clear failures of oversight. Not least was that no one snitched on the pair. Informers are a valuable management tool in correctional facilities. The Clinton escapees not only recruited prison staff, but also succeeded in buying off or intimidating other prisoners who might have betrayed their plot.

I once asked a prisoner in Sing Sing with whom I often talked if he ever thought about escape. The question startled him. “I won’t go there with you, C.O.,” he said firmly. He was right: There was nothing to gain from talking about escape with a correction officer. Still, I wondered.

And perhaps many of us have imagined what it was like to emerge from a manhole cover in Dannemora late at night. We knew these men were convicted of horrible crimes, but like Mr. Cuomo, we’ve also been fascinated by their ingenuity, their ability to thwart the will of the state. After all, each of us is trapped by the system in some way, confined by our circumstances.

Even a prison officer can dream of escape.

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