Friday, February 23, 2018

BrooklynFans of Books: "Wild Escape," On The 2015 Upstate NY Prison Break

Wild Escape: The Prison Break from Dannemora and the Manhunt that Captured America
By Chelsia Rose Marcius
Diversion Books, on sale: February 27th

Convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt successfully escaped Clinton Correctional Facility on June 6, 2015.

The subsequent three-week long manhunt was one of the costliest and most intense in New York history, and it came to an end when  Sweat was taken into custody and Matt was fatally shot by a border patrol SWAT team member.

Chelsia Rose Marcius, author of Wild Escape, covered this in her role as an investigative news reporter for the New York Daily News. She gets behind the salacious headlines to understand the motives for the elaborate escape.

Marcius writes, "The first time I heard of David Sweat was the day he and Richard Matt escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility. I was immediately taken by what had occurred: two inmates had broken out of the Main (the maximum-security part of the prison), and they were the first to do it in more than a century.

"As a staff reporter for the New York Daily News  I was sent from Manhattan - about 325 miles south of the facility - to cover the escape and the three-week manhunt that followed. I spent ten days in the Adirondack region, searching for information that might advance the story. I traveled between surrounding cities, towns, and hamlets like Dannemora, Plattsburgh, Cadyville, Owls Head, Mountain View, and Malone, talking to locals. I spoke with prison guards on background about goings-on behind the barbed wire. I interviewed newly released inmates at a Mobil gas station off Route 9 in Plattsburgh - a drop-off point where these ex-cons can catch a Greyhound bus - to get a sense of what life was like on the inside both before and after the escape.

"Despite their different perspectives on what had transpired, most found common ground on three major points: Matt and Sweat had outsmarted the system, they had made a mockery of the state's corrections department, and they had exposed a culture of complacency and corruption that had pervaded Clinton for years. While some worried about finding the inmates in their backyards, others were rooting for them to make it to Mexico, to Canada, or wherever they wanted to go."

Sweat and Matt were involved in a love-triangle with Joyce Mitchell, a seamstress at Clinton, who helped plot the escape.

Mitchell smuggled in hacksaw blades, chisel, and drill bits inside containers of raw hamburger meat to allow Sweat and Matt to slice their way through the brick and steel walls of their cells.

Marcius writes of Mitchell the day of the escape, "Fifty-five miles west of Clinton in Dickinson Center, an alarm clock rang. As Joyce Mitchell reached through the drakness to shut it off, she remembered it was Friday, the day of the week she had some to dread. She did not know yet which Friday they would carry out their plan, but she knew one thing: Matt was telling the truth when he said they were making headway on the route.

"For the last six months, the fifty-one-year-old prison seamstress had dreamed of a different life form the one she was living with her husband, Lyle. Since the couple had moved into the two-story house with the rusted metal roof on Palmer Road, an extra layer of heft had settled around her waist, and the corners of her mouth had given way to gravity. Her layered, outdated 'do - its individual strands as kinked as those on the ears of a spaniel - had acquired several variations of yellow over the years, and few cosmetics had ever found a permanent place in her morning routine.

"On this morning, she got dressed, brewed coffee, and packed a lunch, as always. Joyce rarely ate before leaving; it was much more pleasant to have her breakfast - today, meat and potatoes, seared and roasted the night before - while seated at her desk in Clinton's Tailor Shop 1, where she could enjoy half an hour of stillness until 8 a.m. when the inmates arrived.

"In the eight years she had been employed at the facility, Joyce - whom the prisoners knew as 'Tillie,' her longtime nickname dating back to her high school years - had come to welcome their company. She especially liked the company of David Sweat, whom she considered the most talented worker among the men she supervised. Joyce had openly admired his proficiency with patterns and skill with a sewing machine. (He could complete thirty to forty pairs of women's prison pants within two or three days, an impressive display of dexterity.) Watching him handle each skipped stitch, broken needle, or bunched-up bit of thread with his characteristic calm confidence stirred something in her she had long suppressed.

"It had been nine months since Sweat was removed from her shop. His dismissal had brought on uncontrollable tears. A supervisor claimed Sweat made an inappropriate remark to another civilian employee, though Joyce suspected other motives for the decision. She knew of an anonymous note, penned by a prisoner and sent to Clinton's higher-ups, that insinuated she and Sweat were having illicit relations. Flirtations in the way of small gestures (a touch of the arm, a gentle smile) had certainly taken place between the two of them - but, as both Sweat and Joyce would later say, they had not exchanged so much as a kiss...

"Since Matt first told her about the plot to escape, Joyce had satisfied his every request. She had been the one to buy the hacksaw blades, chisel, drill bits, and steel punch, tools they needed to carry out the plan. (She had concealed those in a vat of raw hamburger meat to get them past the 'blue shirts,' as she called Clinton's guards. It had long been custom for employees to bypass bag checks and metal detector screenings. Workers frequently brought in food, which was rarely subjected to search. Hence, most of these items - even two pounds of frozen ground chuck - failed to raise eyebrows.) She had agreed to pick them up outside the prison wall, and even said she would live with them in Mexico, or wherever they ended up. The fantasy had been all-consuming: it had offered a reprieve from monotony, and a mental escape from small-town boredom. For six months the daydream had lived neat and nice in her head, where all of its dire consequences could be ignored. Now, the fear of being found out, of going even farther down this rabbit hole, filled her with unshakable panic. She knew they were almost finished with the route, and the reality of her complacency began to sink in.

"As Lyle hugged the curves of the road, something told her that tonight would be the night."

Wild Escape isn't just about a prison break. Marcius has spent significant time in-person with Sweat, who survived being shot after he was captured twenty-two days into the manhunt, and with Mitchell who is currently serving time for participation in the escape.

Unlike other reporters who wrote about this captivating story at the time and eventually put it down, Marcius couldn't get out of her head the oddities and intricacies of this story. Over the course of twenty visits, she has spent nearly one hundred hours discussing the escape, Sweat's troublesome childhood, his relationship with Matt, and the dark events that led him to prison.

Marcius' writing confirms the worst: the United States correctional system is failing our inmates in more ways than one which just on the surface, begins with the corruption of C.O's and guards being constantly bribed and conditions that are seemingly inhumane.

Here is a sampling of Marcius writing about one of the other inmates at Clinton that she spoke to, "Jeremiah Calkins stood outside the Mobil gas station along Route 9 in the outskirts of Plattsburgh, a complimentary one-way Greyhound ticket in his hand. It was just after daybreak when two corrections officers had plunked him down at this solitary pit stop on the side of the road, a place where newly released inmates were dropped off nearly every morning to catch a bus home, or wherever it was they wanted to go. He was finally happy to be free of Clinton's Annex, the lower security part of the prison that, in recent days, had felt more like a supermax. Conditions there had never been great, particularly compared to the county jails where he had previously been incarcerated. But things had gotten a lot worse in the fortnight since Matt and Sweat had made their getaway.

"'This is my first day out,' he said to an inquiring journalist that morning, looking up toward the summer sun that shone on the endless rows of cow's corn.

"'They've been getting cracked down on by Albany, and they're taking it out on us,' he continued, referring to Clinton's guards. 'Their attitude towards us has changed. They'll write us up for just small stuff. They like to put hands on you, the inmates. Just the other day when we got searched on the block, they took a guy and beat him up over some small thing. He wasn't a young guy; he was an older guy. You could hear the slapping noise. He came back and his side was all banged up. They were screaming at him, calling him real degrading names. They've been doing a lot of stuff like that.'

"Calkins said he would often pass Matt in the North Yard. His reputation preceded him; Calkins had heard rumors about Matt's escape from Erie County Correctional Facility in the mid-1980s while doing a stint for third-degree assault. It was here, Calkins had been told, that Matt had begun to paint, and would sell the works to COs for profit - though neither the breakout nor the art was every discussed at length. Gossip had continued to swirl since he and Sweat had crawled their way out of Clinton, the favorite belief being that Matt and Sweat had gifted paintings in exchange for the tools. That part, at least, had pretty much been true.

"By 7 a.m., the bus had pulled up to one of the pumps. The driver stepped out to summon the three men waiting to board. Calkins, now a free man after serving one year for third-degree rape, tossed his white cloth drawstring bag over his shoulder before turning back to the journalist.

"'(Matt) seemed like an all-right person. But when you're locked up, everybody can be deceiving."

This incredible story has caught the attention of producer and actor Ben Still who is currently directing an eight-hour Showtime limited series called Escape of Dannemoras which will explore how the escape happened, as well as the newspapers and reporters reaction to it. The series will star Benicio Del Toro as Matt, Paul Dano as Sweat, and Patricia Arquette as Mitchell.

Chelsia Rose Marcius appearances:

Monday, March 5 at 7:00 pm - Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side -150 East 86th Street

Thursday, March 8 a Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side - 939 Lexington Avenue


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