Category Archives: Dannemora prison escape

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.

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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.

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