Sidebar: The Dannemora Escape

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Dannemora is a little town.  In most of it, you wouldn’t know there was a penitentiary around at all.  The town doesn’t look dirty enough, or mean enough.  But the penitentiary’s there, a high long wall next to the sidewalk along the street.  The sidewalk’s cracked and frost-heaved over there.  On the other side, it’s cleaner and there’s half a dozen bars with neon signs that say Budweiser and Genesee.  National and local beers on tap.  Bill had Budweiser and I had Genesee.  It tasted like beer.

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake

I’m now quite sure I’m not going to finish my next review before I start jury duty this week–possibly next week, but that will depend on some unknown variables.  And there is something else we could talk about in the meantime.

I have thus far been privileged to receive visitors from 97 countries and territories, according to my WordPress stats.  I suspect news of the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora NY (which has long been popularly known as Dannemora) has reached each and every one of them by now. Some are more interested than others, but it has become a story of interest, far outside the region it happened in.

Really, it’s not that big of a deal, is it?   Two minor crooks with violent records broke out of jail nine days ago.  Nobody knows where they are.  There’s been a massive manhunt, costing the taxpayer (according to one account) one million dollars a day, and it’s come up with bupkus.  Fingers pointing in every possible direction as to whose fault this is.  It is very unusual for prisoners who break jail in America to avoid the authorities for more than a day or two.  Many are caught hours later.  Not this time.  You could come up with almost any scenario, and have as good a chance of being right as anyone else.

All I keep hearing is how it’s just like The Shawshank Redemption.  I don’t know how the hell anybody makes that analogy.  I suppose the confusion could stem from the fact that Shawshank heavily copied a much better film that does resemble this escape quite a bit.


Don Siegel crapped better movies than Shawshank.  (I do love to blaspheme against internet top ten lists.)

One person I have no doubt would be following this story with rapt fascination were he still around is Donald E. Westlake.  Not least because one of his earliest novels, 361, has a scene set right outside that prison–Eddie Kapp, former mob boss, gets released from Dannemora after a long stretch there, and is about to get whacked by men working for his former associates, when Ray Kelly and his brother intervene.   Dannemora might as well be called Monequois–upstate New York, edge of the Adirondack Park, near the Canadian border–Westlake country.  Hell, for all we know the name Monequois is partly derived from Dannemora (which is Swedish, not native American, but there ain’t no such tribe as the Monequois, and there never was).

Westlake didn’t write a lot about prison life, but when he did, it was memorable.  He got a lot of letters from guys in prison who read his books (particularly the ones written as Richard Stark), and one of them he clearly found inspirational, to say the least.  As he told a NY Times interviewer in 1980–

Another guy–this one was doing time in a penitentiary in Walla Walla–wrote me a letter saying that the prison was honeycombed with tunnels because it was built on sandy soil.  One day the gym caught fire.  The firetruck headed across the exercise yard, but then the middle section broke through into a tunnel; the cab angled up in the air one direction and the rear of the truck angled up the other way, in a giant V, and the gym burned down.

So if all these tunnels were still there, and the authorities didn’t even know about them until that happened (you can hear him thinking), suppose inmates were just going out to do stuff, and returning before anybody noticed they were gone?   He presumably heard other stories like this from incarcerated readers (though of course there’d be only so much they could tell him while they were actually in prison, private correspondence being a privilege you generally have to do without while you are a guest of the state).   And he would have been doing some research of his own along these lines.

This train of thought such letters put him on led him to have an untrustworthy character in Lemons Never Lie make up a story about inmates going out to pull small jobs at night, then returning to their cells–building up a nice chunk of change in the process, which they intended to leave for their families.   He developed this concept much further for Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  The idea clearly delighted him.   These were decent civilized well-behaved comic caper type crooks, of course–not murderers.

Very late in his career, there was Breakout–the one where Parker goes to prison, and he feels it eating away at his sense of self–he has to get out of there.   It’s not a long-term set-up like Dannemora–he’s just being  held for trial there, so escapes aren’t so common–because of the constantly rotating population, prisoners rarely get to spend enough time together to come up with a plan, so Parker has to move fast.  We’re a long way from that book, but interesting that while there’s no tunneling involved in his escape with two confederates he’s met in there, they do end up doing some tunneling afterwards, while pulling a job together.  Anyway, it’ll keep.

Long before that book, in 1961, Westlake contributed an article of the same name (with an added hyphen) to Ed McBain’s Mystery Book.  It’s collected in The Getaway Car, and if you haven’t read it, you really should.

The main point of the essay was that telling prisoners they can’t escape is the same thing as daring them to try.   Westlake described several famous break-outs, from Alcatraz, Leavenworth, Newgate (in London), and Walla Walla State Penitentiary, which you see mentioned in the quote above–what he finds fascinating is that the escaped prisoners nearly always got caught not long afterwards, and they must have known that was the likely result, and yet they wanted to do it anyway.  The tougher the prison was to escape, the more exciting the challenge.

Whereas, Westlake notes, a model prison in Chino, California that was comically easy to escape from, and restrictions on the prisoners were very slight (they spent a lot of time outside), there were virtually no escapes.  Nobody felt like they’d been dared to give it a try.

A sage observation, I think–but these guys they’re looking for now are murderers–one of them a cop-killer–they were never getting out, and they knew it.  So much so that they pretended to be model prisoners in a not-so-model prison–for years–just to get the privileges that would make their escape possible.

And in fact, nobody had escaped from Dannemora in a long time–though there was one notably successful escape in 1974.  Unlike most escapees, those two men had a plan not just for getting out, but staying out, and were not recaptured for some time.  Matt and Sweat (sheesh, who writes this stuff?) will have a hard time equaling their record.

Some recent articles have pointed out that there was recent unrest at Dannemora, and that the habitual prison-wide cell search was not performed afterwards–which might have uncovered the work the two men were doing, and thwarted them.   Westlake talks about this as well–

The prisoner who is carefully working out the details of an escape, in fact, dreads the idea of a riot as much as do the prison officials themselves.

The result of a riot is inevitably a complete search and shakedown of the entire prison.  And this means the discovery of the potential escapee’s tunnel or hacksaw or dummy pistol or specially constructed packing case or rope ladder or forged credentials.  And the escapee has to think of some other plan.

What you realize, when reading this piece (without any great sense of shock if you’ve been reading his books), is that Westlake is very much on the side of the escape artists.  He had only spent a few days of his life imprisoned, after being arrested for stealing a microscope, and it wasn’t a penitentiary–it was just the Plattsburgh city jail.  And this is how it felt for him–

I spent four nights and five days in that jail, and hated it, even more than you might expect.  Every instant was intolerable.  I hate being here now; I hate being here now; I hate being here now.

Years later, when I was writing novels about criminals, and when at least some of the criminals were still literate, I’d occasionally get a fan letter from somebody doing time, and in a few instances, when I replied, I gave an edited version of my own jail time so I could ask the question; How can you live in an intolerable state for years?  I couldn’t stand one single second of it for a mere five days; how do you do it year after year?

The answer I got was always the same, with minor variations.  Yes, what I described was what they, too, had gone through, the absolute unbearable horror, but I’d quit the experience too early.  Some time in the second week, they told me, your brain flips over and this becomes the reality.  This becomes where you live now.  And how, I wonder, do you come back from that damage?

In the case of guys like Matt and Sweat–who have spent most of their adult lives in various prisons–you probably don’t.

So on a pure wish-fulfillment level, armchair criminals that we are, we can contemplate the minor philosophical question of whether, in spite of their awful crimes, some part of us wants them to get away, to beat the system, just to prove it can be done–that man’s ingenuity can overcome any obstacle to his freedom.

But we might better spend our time asking how  many more monsters we want to create, just like these two, via a penal system that has proven exceptionally good at doing that–when forced to confront the reality that no matter how high and thick we build the walls, they can still find a way over, under, or through them.

Or we can just wait for the thinly disguised ‘true crime’ novels (none of them, sadly, by Westlake), and the inevitable big Hollywood film.

You thinking Sean Penn or Edward Norton for Sweat?  George Clooney for Matt, I’d think.   They cast Matt Damon, I’m not showing.

Anybody else have any thoughts?  Because seriously, I don’t know when I”m going to get to finish that next review.  Nobody escapes from jury duty.  I’m not complaining, though–as long as they give me a decent lunch break.  In the Manhattan courthouse district.  Right over by Baxter Street and Canal.  Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.


Filed under Dannemora prison escape, Donald Westlake

44 responses to “Sidebar: The Dannemora Escape

  1. Ray Garraty

    I think I’ve read it somewhere that they both had sex with a female guard while still being in prison. I guess they have more much aces up their sleeves.
    Morale of the story: to have sex with a prison guard is always helpful.

    • She wasn’t a guard–she worked as a seamstress. A prison seamstress. Who knew such positions still existed in the 21st century, and that even in a maximum security prison, it would be possible for her to have what must have been fairly extensive private communications with two convicted felons?

      Whether they had sex or not is unclear, and possibly beside the point, since if that was all she wanted, her best bet would have been to make sure they stayed locked up. There are rumors she wanted them to kill her husband, who also works at the prison. Whatever her motivations, she did offer them material assistance, it seems clear–but it’s still far from clear how they were able to work with power tools at night without being detected.

      I find it hard to believe they didn’t make for Canada. The border is right there. To be sure, Canadian authorities would hold them for extradition, if caught there. But they’d be a lot less likely to be caught there, and they’d have a better chance of getting somewhere they couldn’t be extradited so easily.

      Unlike the escapees Westlake wrote about in his essay, they weren’t merely trying to prove a point. They didn’t just have a get out of jail plan, but also a stay out of jail plan. We’ll see how long it holds up.

      It is, of course, entirely possible one of them has murdered the other by now. Staying together long-term would be stupid.

      • spoonman100

        Just curious – why do you say they would a lot less likely to be caught in Canada?

        • Because there’s a lot less cops there–lots fewer people to police, and somewhat less crime (it depends on the region, obviously). Nothing against the RCMP, and local police forces, and etc, but there simply isn’t the same density of law enforcement available, and of course they have their own homegrown problems to deal with.

          Just crossing a state line can make it harder for the police to nab you, because information is not shared so efficiently across state lines–all the more true over national boundaries, I’d assume.

          I still think they’d ultimately want to get out of North America entirely.

  2. As the days pass with absolutely no new information about the two escapees, some rather more important stories are coming to light. Not very happy ones, I’m afraid. Authorities have gotten rid of the ‘honor block’ Matt and Sweat got themselves on, which certainly did make it easier for them to escape.

    Now I guess you could justify this by saying some other prisoners on that block must have known what was going on, but that hasn’t been proven, and it’s not as if the guards ever noticed anything. And nobody else seems to have even attempted escape. That, Westlake would probably say, is a big hasty step in the wrong direction. But hardly the first in this prison’s history. It’s one of the worst in the country, and that’s saying something.

  3. Ray Garraty

    I’m really rooting to them. Their best bet is to stay the hell away from any crime, sit a while in Canada, and then get to Europe (the far East, the better). I doubt that CIA’d kidnap them from Europe, they’re hardly any risk to US security.
    I wish them best in their new post-prison life.
    I bet somewhere on the forums already a few conspiracy theories have appeared. It was a stage escape, heh? To make prisons even more tough and inhumane, heh?

    • The CIA? So not their department, man. They’d be more likely to get recruited by the spooks than grabbed by them. Matt, anyway–he’d have had some relevant training in the Marines.

      It’s not unknown for escaped felons–like Whitey Bulger (though of course he didn’t break prison, even though he killed a lot more people than both these guys combined)–to live quietly right here in the U.S. until they are old and grey. You just have to find a niche where you can blend in quietly.

      Trouble with Europe is they probably don’t speak any of the languages–American, remember? Eastern Europe is probably not high on their list of places they’d like to retire to, and there’s lots of other guys with the same basic skill set already there. Latin America might work better–Matt, judging by that ‘Mexico Forever’ tattoo, might have at least some knowledge of Spanish, and a liking for the general milieu. Long long way down to the southern border, though. Ship out of Canada, maybe. Getting out of Canada by ship is presumably easier than getting in.

      The problem with conspiracy theories is that they tend to bank rather too heavily on the incredible competence and far-sightedness of The Powers That Be–your neck of the woods or mine, Ray–does this strike you as a world where The Powers That Be know what the fuck they’re doing even half of the time? There was no conspiracy. People just screwed up. And now they’re belatedly covering their asses by cracking down.

      I’m not rooting for or against them. They’re not Parker. They’re the kinds of guys Parker would probably have to kill in the course of the story. But nobody’s story is ever fully over until he or she takes that last breath.

      • Ray Garraty

        They broke out the real walls, surely they’ll be able how to break language barrier.
        And you asked the right question: how they wish their new life would look like? They want to start new straight life or they will return to crime? As I understand, though they were violent criminals, they didn’t earn money doing crime. They’re not gangstas. So maybe they will stay off the crime life. I hope they’ll do so.

        • Do they even know what a straight life looks like? I wonder.

          Matt seems to have a certain talent for painting portraits. If he could disguise himself well enough, he could find a place for himself in any number of little enclaves throughout the country. But he’s had a hard time containing his anti-social tendencies.

          Sweat shot a deputy 22 times. That would seem to indicate a certain lack of self-control.

          Both men have committed a lot of crimes. It’s not like they never got any second chances. Or third chances. Or fourth chances. I’d say this is the last chance for both, but if I saw them coming towards me, and I had a gun, I wouldn’t let sympathy get the better of me. More dangerous than any wild animal, because of that complex human brain, that makes you do things that don’t make any sense.

          They’ve been reported seen in upstate New York, 300 miles from the prison. Could be mistaken identity. People up there are seeing them under every bed, sounds like.

          • Ray Garraty

            Prison teaches self-control. Maybe it taught them a lesson.
            I worry that they have no money, that can lead to committing a crime. They better not.

            • They’ve been most of their lives in prison, as I mentioned–this was not the first sentence for either, or the second, I believe, which is why they had little chance of ever getting out. The lessons they’ve learned have been mainly negative.

              I think the only thing that ever teaches people anything is time.

              One of the great human universal constants is that you will someday look back at the person you are now, and think “What an idiot.” And then proceed to make new variations on the same old mistakes. 😉

              • Ray Garraty

                If they are so violent people, they at least can die with honor if caught. By that I mean to kill as many cops as they can before being killed themselves. But that means they need guns. And having guns leads to crime. Bad idea to have guns.

              • If they’re caught, I bet they just give up–and then start planning the next escape once they’re back.

                Though obviously they wouldn’t be allowed to associate–probably wouldn’t even be at the same prison.

                I mean, here’s the thing–they’ve been arrested many many times in their lives. Of course Sweat killed a deputy, but he had the clear advantage there–just one cop who didn’t fully recognize who he was up against (should have called for back-up).

                When guys like this are outgunned, they don’t care about going out like Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. They just give up. Even Parker gave up. I think Westlake would say that the shared mind-set of the people who plan these types of escapes is not a suicidal one, not one looking for some great apotheosis in the grand old Warner Brothers gangster style. They don’t shoot it out. They just stick up their hands and go quietly. And then try to escape again. A decade or so passes, security relaxes, an opportunity presents itself, and out they go.

                They’re not doing it for us.

  4. camb888

    My bet: Indian reservations, fake ID’s, into Canada. In hiding there for awhile. Also think they had other outside help besides Joyce Mitchell, and they whatever they told her was a complete ruse. Someone else probably picked them up and took them further north where they crossed the border illegally. Don’t think they’ll be caught soon either, not unless and until they commit another crime.

    • Which isn’t that unlikely, but maybe they can restrain their ingrained impulses for a while. Indian reservation is possible, but what’s in it for the Indians?

      You’re right, though–evade the cops for a few weeks, and the search dies down. Then it’s a waiting game–waiting to see if they get careless, get settled in somewhere, make a little slip-up that gets them back on the radar. And that can take years–decades, even.

      The interesting question is whether their evident desire to beat the system forces them to reform–simply because continuing to live as criminals would be the best way to get caught.

      It’s not a question I’d want to ask anywhere near the families of the men they killed. :\

  5. Ray Garraty

    Generalization makes it too simple. I recently tikd you about 2 recent cases here where one escaped convict killed two cops before they killed him, and the other one, trapped, killed himself.
    They’re not doing it for us, but some of them rather die than go back to prison.

    • I’m not generalizing, really–I have a lot of information about these two, and I can compare it to other cases, and the most important information I have is that they put together a very careful well-thought out plan, and carried it out, and that it’s been over two weeks and nobody knows where they are. These are guys capable of thinking things out–or at least one of them is, probably Matt, given his past record–and the more you think about stuff, the less likely you are to just throw your life away, when you know you’ve escaped before, and you can always do it again. They don’t give you the death penalty for breaking prison.

      All I know about the cases you mentioned is that somebody escaped, but how carefully was the escape planned–how hard was it? How much planning did it take? Some prisons are relatively easy to escape. So somebody runs because he can’t stand it anymore, no plan, no thought but “get out!” and of course somebody like that is going to get caught, and is going to panic when they’re closing in.

      If these guys were like that, they’d have never gotten out of Dannemora in the first place (escapes are incredibly rare), and if by some fluke they had gotten free, they’d have been caught right away.

      So generalization is bad if you just think “All criminals are alike, all escaped cons behave the same way”–but if you know the specific type involved, you can make some fairly well-educated guesses.

      Maybe one reason the authorities haven’t gotten these guys–and now it looks like they won’t get them for a long time, if ever–is that they made some hasty generalizations of their own.

      Editing–Then again…..

      • Ray Garraty

        Dirty pants on cop slang now is DNA. Oh, I wish a pair of them would get to Canada ASAP. They’re lucky it’s summer now, it’s easier to live off the grid.

        The escaped cons I told you about were nowhere near these guys. They broke out by chance and from so called prison farms, not actual prisons (at least one of them, as I remember).

        • That’s what I figured–impulse. Prison farms are not that hard to get out of, but staying out is another matter. I think I mentioned Cool Hand Luke to you once? Book or film, it’s very similar to what you describe.

          Parker never had to worry about DNA testing. Bear in mind, they might have been in that cabin over a week ago–DNA testing takes a minimum of 36 hours, and obviously some time passed between them being there and the police collecting the samples, and getting them to the lab.

          The Adirondacks are tough country, but it’s summer. Still fairly cold at night, but not freezing.

          Only thing I can figure is that once their ride with Joyce Mitchell fell through, they figured they’d wait out the roadblocks, living off what they could steal from cabins and such. Then sneak past the border. But the publicity may have been more than they bargained for–the authorities are so embarrassed, and people are so interested, the heat has stayed on.

          And if they kill anybody–particularly a cop–the heat will stay on indefinitely.

          Let’s just say that tattoos are a really bad idea if you want a life in crime. Why make yourself easier to identify? I can see Parker shaking his head wearily, and Dortmunder is joining him. 😉

          • Ray Garraty

            Many prison gangs wised up now, having vetoed any tatoos and removing the existing ones. At least don’t do any tats on the visible parts of the body.

            • You talking about Russia, or just generally? Russian prison tattoos are kind of legendary. They should have museums where these guys just stand around naked.

              So it was David Sweat who was in that cabin. No DNA evidence of Matt. No confirmed sightings of either so far. They could have gotten quite a ways off from the area around the prison by now. They could also have split up. Or one of them could be dead. At this point, being a team doesn’t get either of them much of anything.

              Matt would seem to be the more experienced of the two–the better escape artist, no question. But he’s pushing 50. He might not have been able to hack the long haul in those woods. All it really takes is one mistake–trip over a tree root, break an ankle. If one of them was incapacitated, would the other just leave him? Or think about what he might tell the authorities if he was still alive when found?

              We can tell all the stories we want, until we know the real story–and did we ever learn the real story about D.B. Cooper? Until Mad Men ended, there were people saying he was a disgruntled ad agency creative. 🙂

              • Ray Garraty

                Generally: AB vetoed tats and Russian gangs, too. Tatoos tell too much about your past and your identity.

                What about bears? You think they’re not scared of wild animals?

              • Black bears can be dangerous to people, but attacks are extremely rare (when they do happen, they’re often quite serious). Most problems with bears are related to campers who brought a lot of food with them, which a bear can smell from miles away. The fugitives should be so lucky as to have that much food with them. They could scare off a black bear pretty easily–though an injured man alone might well end up as bear food, or even coyote food.

                Grizzlies are much more likely to attack people, but they don’t live anywhere near New York State. Could be a stray cougar or two in the Adirondacks, but it’s never been confirmed. The main threats for people moving through those woods are exposure, injury, and starvation.

                No, the two most dangerous animals in that wilderness now are these guys. Assuming that’s where they are. Latest story was they were spotted outside a small upstate NY town called Malone–which believe it or not, was also referenced in a Westlake novel–Parker stayed there in The Green Eagle Score. However, it’s looking like another false alarm now. People are seeing them everywhere. The downside to all that publicity–too many false leads to track down.

  6. Dannemora (which is Swedish

    I thought it was Irish (seriously, I did.)

    How are things, in Dannemora?

  7. Ray Garraty

    When two guys escape from prison, people always start to compare them to The Shawshank Redemption characters. People also start moralizing.

  8. I’m sure many reading this already know, but in the midst of all this coverage of the escape and the seemingly endless attempt to corral these two guys, a plot twist emerged that seems more out of the comic caper side of Westlake–pay no attention to the woman with the microphone–watch the man with the bag.

    Now as I’ve mentioned, and as you can see from the photos up top, Clinton Correctional is surrounded by private houses and businesses. There’s no way people haven’t seen this before. There’s no way the guards–some of them at least–don’t know about it.

    A prison like this is a complicated social organism, and it never functions as planned. NEVER.

    By the way, great coverage there, Fox News–there’s a story happening right under your surgically altered noses, and you just go right on gabbing about stuff you know nothing about. 😀

  9. Been preoccupied with other matters–kind of a big week for news of various types, much of it surprisingly good–this could be seen as good news too, but it’s really just grim. Richard Matt is dead. David Sweat is still on the run, apparently. Matt did not take anybody down with him, and it’s not clear whether he tried to–given what we know about him, it would have been damn stupid for that border patrol officer to wait and find out his intentions, when Matt was carrying a shotgun (and had seemingly fired on a civilian before that). Knock him down first. Pity him afterwards.

    And he died just outside the town of Malone, which was indeed referenced in The Green Eagle Score–Parker stayed in a motel there. I’m guessing Matt was not in any way sensible of the irony, but then again, Richard Stark probably still has his fans in prison. Thing is, whoever was writing this story doesn’t need the royalties from future books about these guys. And even in a Stark novel, guys like this tend to die.

    But if they’d gotten that ride they banked on, who knows?

    Editing this in–think about this–today gay marriage became the law of the land. We’re still analyzing yesterday’s decision that upheld the Obamacare subsidies, and probably ended the long bitter fight over that law for all intents and purposes. President Obama gave a stirring and perhaps immortal eulogy for the victims of the Charleston church shootings, and actually sang a hymn–quite well–on national television.

    And in the midst of all this, it was still big news that some two-bit hood got gunned down in the middle of nowhere, while his partner remained on the loose.

    That’s how fascinated people have been by this story.

  10. Ray, I believe this article would constitute vindication for a point of view you articulated earlier in the discussion–Richard Matt had repeatedly made it clear that the next time he escaped from prison, he would not be taken alive.

    I guess he just felt like he’d had enough. He doesn’t seem to have felt like he had to take anybody with him. Though maybe he just didn’t have any shells left.

    One thing I don’t understand is taking a shot at a camper being towed. Just frustration? Making sure the gun worked?

    David Sweat remains at large (where did that phrase derive from?). Authorities are saying that whether he’s taken alive or dead depends entirely on him, but of course they would say that. I tend to think they’d prefer to take him alive–it’s a more satisfying victory for the system. Honestly, if he hadn’t shot a deputy 22 times (like once isn’t enough?) I’d be more inclined to root for him.

    If he isn’t taken alive, we’ll never really know most of what happened.

  11. Ray Garraty

    I missed out on this important news. Salute to Matt who didn’t comply and didn’t let them take him alive.
    Sweat had no chance when he was caught, he was unarmed. I’m beginning to understand him talking to the investigators. If he shuts up, he’ll spend rest of his life in solitary. He won’t be given a chance to brag about his legendary escape. Still, it’s a shame he was caught.
    And people start talking about how prisons unsafe, how they feared for their lives, it’s all bullshit. People need to demand that the number of prisons should lessen, not whine and demand more supermax prisons. It’s ugly.

    • Well, we agree about that last part. We’re making the problem worse here, with excessive imprisonment, and bankrupting ourselves into the process. It’s a waste, on so many different levels.

      But these weren’t guys caught with a few grams of pot. They were both murderers, and you can’t really say any of their killings were in self-defense. If the law is to mean anything, these guys have to be in jail–if they’d managed to get free somehow, and live straight lives, then good on them for being resourceful, but suppose one or both of them had killed innocent people? We can’t know what was in their hearts, or what would be in the future. The system is the system, and their rebellion against that system is meaningless if the system isn’t doing its job. Parker novels would be pretty damned dull if the cops were like “Eh, it’s Parker. We’ll let him do his thing, what the hell.”

      Matt decided not to go back, and I do respect that.

      Sweat could have probably gotten himself killed if he’d wanted to. Given his record, he could have just run at that guy empty-handed–or with a rock in his hand–and he’d have gotten shot up. I sure as hell would have shot him if he’d run at me. What would I have done if he’d been running away from me, with the border two miles away? I really don’t know. Not likely I’d ever get a chance to find out. In any event, they have cops in Canada too. A lot fewer of them, and a lot fewer prisons, but something tells me David Sweat is not somebody they’d welcome as a new citizen. We need laws, and we need people to enforce them, Ray. And at least some of those people deserve to be called heroes. Matt and Sweat were just–misfits. I can relate, but only up to a point.

      So I guess I’m divided against myself on this one. An identity crisis I may not be able to resolve. Since this is not a Donald Westlake novel I’m living in here. :\

      • Ray Garraty

        I wonder if maybe we need a new law that says: those who escaped from prison should not be searched for.
        I also wonder if the means for their apprehension and the rhetoric of the public would change, had they both been black.
        If Sweat taks, this story won’t be legendary. There should be a secret, some unrevealed facts and motives to make this escape a big thing. It’s already almost not possible now, as a couple of thoer people were in on it.

        • Okay, first of all, what you mean ‘we’, paleface? Sorry, old joke. 🙂

          What you’re suggesting is not possible, and has never been the case anywhere. Obviously some prisoners will be searched for more zealously than others. Murderers can’t be allowed to just walk out of prison and murder again. Maybe some wouldn’t, but some very definitely would. Charles Manson escapes, we should just shrug and say “No big deal”?

          I think if Matt and Sweat had been black, they’d have been caught more quickly, because it’s a very white area of the state. However, interestingly enough, I’ve read that the majority of prison escapees in the U.S. are white. Possibly because so many prisons are located in rural areas, where the population tends to be white, and the odds of making a clean getaway are even worse for a black man.

          They’re going to want Sweat to talk about who helped him and Matt escape–I have no idea if he’ll want to do that or not. But I sure would like to know more about his and Matt’s life on the run. That wouldn’t be ratting on anybody. That would just be an interesting story.

          He’s a young man. He could get out someday. He could write a book, maybe retire on the royalties. If people still care by then.

          • Ray Garraty

            I like an unfinished story. I mean, Gary Ridgway is still alive and even confessed to his crimes, but how much we know about him and his deeds? He certainly fooled the system. And I respect him for that and fascinated by his story. But Gary was alone, and Matt worked with other people and lived in prison, one of the most non-private places.

            If we step on the conspiracy theory territory, I’d say black people don’t escape from prisons because they still won’t be free. Why do something that doesn’t change anything?

            • You think anyone is truly free, Ray? Are you? Am I? I think you’ve got it the wrong way around, perhaps–black men escape less often because they’re still looking for the kind of freedom a man can touch–which they can hope to get through the courts, through the parole boards, through doing their time. They know who their enemy is–any oppressed group of people does, and it’s a grand thing to know–even if it is, at least in part, an illusion created by a more narrow perspective. You get past it, and you realize there are enemies you can never reach, fights you can never win.

              Matt and Sweat were looking, I fondly imagine, for the kind of freedom that only exists in books, poems, or maybe in paintings (you remember what that guy told Grofield in Lemons Never Lie, about how the criminal and the artist are the same personality type?). They must have known how poor their chances of permanent escape were–if they could have changed themselves into wild animals–coyotes, say–then the woods all around them would have been a sanctuary–instead of a sort of green hell. They had to keep sneaking back into civilization to sustain themselves, and it finally recaptured them both, as it was always going to do.

              They wanted to be free from all restrictions, all rules, all constraints. They were looking for something that isn’t really available–to human beings, anyway. Maybe to the rich, but the rich end up being slaves to money and property. Real freedom? It’s for our wild brethren. We gave it up when we created civilization.

              I’m reminded of a short story by Frank O’Connor, fittingly entitled Freedom, and believe it or not it’s available online. So at least some things of value are still free.


              I could feel the wide fields of Ireland all around me, but even the wide fields of Ireland were not enough. Choice was an illusion. Seeing that a man can never really get out of jail, the great thing is to ensure that he gets into the biggest possible one, with the largest possible range of amenities.

              Happy Independence Day, everybody. That’ll teach you to give an Irishman the chance to philosophize. :\

              • Well, that was the romantic, perhaps even Starkian view of the escape, courtesy of yours truly. For the decidedly unromantic view, here’s David Sweat, courtesy of CNN.


                I figured there was probably some tension between them–I’m not sure I buy that Sweat was the mastermind, given Matt’s greater experience, but I totally buy that Matt couldn’t keep up, and clearly he was drinking.

                What really has the Westlake reader in me geeking out here is that they actually did a practice run–they got entirely out of the prison, decided there were too many houses around the manhole, and went back to their cells to try again later.

                They were in street clothes. Matt’s paintings are reportedly quite valuable, and they could have easily arranged to get a bit of walking around money via a corrupt guard, of which there seem to be many there. If you can get drugs, you can get cash.

                They didn’t have to escape. They could have spent at least several happy months going out at night, hitting the bars right outside the prison (avoiding the ones frequented by guards, though would the guards even have noticed?), maybe getting lucky with the local talent, and they just had to get back before morning.

                With a bit of work, they might even have been able to fix things so that a typical cell search wouldn’t turn up their, urm, renovations.

                Free bed and board, and the chance go to out at night and live it up. And if any of the girls got pregnant, good luck with that paternity suit, kiddo.

                That’s the WESTLAKE way.

                You want to do it the Stark way, you got to be made of sterner stuff than this.


  12. Ray Garraty

    The most romantic way would be if they escaped, with Mitchell, down south where they set up a small farm and married Mitchell, and started to work on the land and had their own small Eden.
    Not happened, just like with the first Eden.
    And once again we see that alcohol (and drugs) ruin people’s lives and plans and hopes. And even though this pair didn’t cheat the system completely, they at least showed the system their bare asses.

    • That’s Hollywood romance, not Starkian romance. I assume Mitchell would be played by Melissa McCarthy in the movie. So it would be a romantic comedy.

      The plan was flawed from the start–they couldn’t escape old patterns–whether killing Mitchell’s husband was her idea or theirs, it was stupid. She obviously got cold feet. So they lost the crucial ride that could have gotten them out of the search area. They did not have time to waste to go murder somebody. Who also worked in the prison, so maybe it was a personal beef. No question, one or both would have killed again, at some point. I’ll say it again–these are the kinds of guys Parker has to kill at some point in the book. Because they lack self-control.

      And seriously–neither of them knows how to hotwire a car? It’s harder to do these days, but there must have been tons of them parked on the street–there’d be some older models.

      So easy to nit-pick after the fact, but it’s not actually one of the more successful prison breaks in American penal history. They seemed a lot smarter than they were–the fact is, they got lucky several times. Prison security was pretty lax. That sledgehammer was just sitting around waiting for them. And after all those lucky breaks, they flubbed the most crucial thing–the post-escape plan. Which to be sure, is what nearly all prison escapees get wrong, because most of them don’t know how to live on the outside. That’s why they keep going back inside.

      And now that honor block, that most prisoners did honor, has been eliminated. Contraband that used to get into the prison easily will be much harder to obtain now. For the time being, it’s all going to be a much tighter ship. I don’t think their fellow prisoners are going to be that enthused about their defiance of the system.

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