Dannemora Escape: In Defense of the Prison Guards

Print More
Dannemora escape

Clinton Correctional Facility. Dannemora, N.Y. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

On June 6, 2015, two convicted killers escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., through a tunnel they had painstakingly built. For the next three weeks, the manhunt became national news as hundreds of police tracked them through the rugged Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York.

The hunt ended when one of the escapees, Richard Matt, was fatally gunned down by U.S.Border Patrol agents near the Canadian border. The second, David Sweat, was taken into custody two days later after another shootout.

But the made-for-Hollywood story was only just beginning. Revelations that an affair with one of the Clinton correctional officers had facilitated their escape led to an investigation by embarrassed state officials, the conviction of two guards (Joyce Mitchell and Gene Palmer), two television movies, several books, and a seven-part TV miniseries.

Charles Gardner

Charles A. Gardner

Now, a former senior correctional officer who watched the drama unfold in his “backyard” has weighed in with his own version of the story. In the just-published, Dannemora: Two Escaped Killers, And The Largest Manhunt Ever In New York State, Charles A. Gardner offers not only a bitter condemnation of how state officials and the media handled the story, but a wider critique of New York State’s correctional system.

In a conversation with The Crime Report, Gardner, who is also a former municipal judge, discusses how budget cutbacks created security flaws in the prison, why sensational reporting by the media complicated the search, and how correctional guards have been the victim of unfair stereotypes.

The transcript below has been condensed and edited. The full conversation can be viewed here on YouTube.

The Crime Report: What drew you to write this book?

Charles Gardner: It was a combination of my experience with the New York State Department of Corrections, of being a local and having this escape unfold in my backyard. [Also] as a local municipal judge, I was getting information coming in from law enforcement as the escape unfolded. I was seeing that the media was getting it wrong. There was a tremendous amount of misinformation out there a tremendous amount of speculation, and it troubled me.

As the escape progressed, the misinformation intensified. I got to the point where, “My God, they’re not telling the story, they’re not telling what’s happening, they’re not telling what happened,” and it evolved into the book.

TCR: You write about a number of institutional factors and policy decisions that eased the way for this escape to occur. Please elaborate.

Gardner: There were a tremendous amount of policy changes, and changes in the law, that contributed to this escape. Just to touch on a few: subterranean tunnel inspection had stopped happening in the mid 1990s at Clinton Correctional after a staff audit. Albany felt that it was a waste of resources so they eliminated (inspections from the head office). They were added to staff duties. There were 12, 13 towers scattered around Clinton Correctional Facility, New York State’s largest maximum security prison, but [after inspections in the 1990s], Albany [decided] manning half of them would suffice. I could name more. All those contributing factors snowballed into [the escape].

 TCR: What role did budget cuts play?

Gardner: The premise was do more with less. It got to the point where your correctional staff, your uniformed staff, would work for eight-hour-and-fifteen minute shifts with no breaks in the course of their day, no assigned lunch hours. They were expected to eat their lunches on the fly, there was no such thing as a break in their normal work day. So they’re expected to be on point, on post, solid, from the time that they start their day to the time that they walk out the door.

TCR: You write that the leadership in Albany didn’t necessarily make it their highest priority to catch the escapees. 

Gardner: Well again, how did we get there? You couple [all the issues I just mentioned] with the interference with the crime scene. Understand, we had an active crime scene, physical evidence hadn’t even been collected yet, and a parade of politicians and bureaucrats were walking through, to the total disbelief of investigators. It was very frustrating for law enforcement officials that this thing was just a political s—t show…with the contaminated crime scenes, with the interference with the investigation, with that political thumb on them at all times. It was hard for them to do their jobs.

TCR: I would imagine the media must in many cases report in ways that don’t make guys like you in corrections and law enforcement happy.

Gardner: Well first of all, I’m not trying to bash our governor, but when law enforcement is confronted with a crime scene, the last thing they need is some political figure to roll in with their staffers for photo ops. It takes away from the job at hand. The media entertains the local politicians, or the high-profile individual, and it detracts from what’s trying to be done, and it pulls resources. Bit of a problem.

dannemora escapees

David Sweat (left), Richard Matt. Courtesy New York State Police

The media also were quick to judge. Basically, a little better than two weeks had passed, with no confirmed sightings of either of these two escapees. An off-duty prison guard goes up to check a hunting camp a mile-and-a-half off a backwoods road and he encounters an intruder, and possibly two intruders. He calls them out, they flee from the scene, he notifies authorities, and a day later, the media is standing in this man’s camp, without an invite and (pursuing) conspiracy theories, such as “Isn’t it odd that these two escaped convicted killers were hiding out in a prison guard’s hunting camp?”

That started speculation. “Did this off duty prison guard know that they were there? Was he harboring them?” And you can’t pull the story back. The media has to take a breath. I understand everyone’s fighting for that first glimpse, first picture, first headline. That was the stuff that drove me nuts.

TCR: It drove you to write this book!

Gardner: It did! There was so much misinformation. The guy (who owned the camp) brought this search back from nationwide, to 25 miles from Clinton Correctional where it originated from, was a hero one day, and then a zero the next. I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with this man, and he’s a standup guy. He never even worked in the facility that either one of these guys had ever been in. So he had no contact. He didn’t know the two inmates. Just like all the other prison guards up in northern New York, he owned a hunting camp. But that wasn’t the way the story was written.

TCR: I assume you’ve seen the mini-series that Showtime put out, Escape at Dannemora, which was directed by Ben Stiller. What did you think of it?

Gardner: It was disappointing, the photography of the area was breathtakingly beautiful, but then again the Adirondacks and the Adirondack mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, so that goes without a lot of banging of the drum. Giving him his artistic leeway, it was a nice fiction, based on a true story, I guess would be the best way to describe it. It won a lot of awards. The lady (Patricia) Arquette, who played Joyce Mitchell, did a hell of a job, but as you watch the show, again, they didn’t give you the true story.

They portrayed the prison guards as a bunch of miserable, foul-mouthed individuals. Please understand, on any given day, you have a few hundred [corrections officers] wodannemorarking in these facilities that contain approximately 3,000 convicted felons. On any given shift you have a few hundred watching a few thousand. Those few hundred I can guarantee you are not walking up and down those galleries bad mouthing and swearing and cursing and threatening, and all but spitting on these inmates. That will never happen, because it won’t last long, because people will get hurt quickly. The corrections officers in New York are very well trained, they’re very professional at what they do, and they do not conduct themselves as Mr. Stiller portrayed them.

It was shameful, and it was maddening, to watch him portray these corrections officers as racists, miserable, cursing, unprofessional. That is not what these men and women do on a daily basis. They are better than that, and they deserved better than that, from this [film].

Here’s another thing. Ben Stiller and the film crews approached New York State, and said, “Hey, we would like to go inside Clinton correctional and do some filming inside the Clinton Correctional facility. And New York State governor [Andrew Cuomo] gave it the green light, and the New York Department of Corrections allowed multiple days for the state’s largest maximum security prison to be shut down, so that they could film a movie. Understand that just months prior, when superintendent Steve Racette, Deputy Superintendent (Stephen) Brown, Deputy Superintendent (Don) Quinn had asked Albany leadership to shut down that same facility for security concerns, they were denied. Just chew on that for a while.

Editor’s Note: A New York State Inspector General’s report in 2016 found that widespread “complacency” about prisoner security contributed to the breakout. Read the report here.

TCR: Have the culture, practices or policies changed in any drastic way since you were a corrections officer?

Gardner: It’s gotten worse. It has absolutely gotten worse. And I sarcastically talk about it in the book, you know, the walls are not there to keep the inmates in there in; it’s to keep the public out, if they only knew what was going on inside those facilities. The health care facilities inside the prisons are second to none. If any man has a toothache, any kind of an ache or a pain, they’re seen by medical staff within literally minutes. Go to your local hospital, let me know how long it takes you to be seen by anybody, but these guys are on the scene within literally minutes inside every single facility I’ve ever worked in.

You know the honor blocks, the basketball courts, the football field, the baseball diamond, the handball courts, the weightlifting facilities, the law libraries, the general libraries. The opportunities, the recreational facilities, the meals, the medical facilities are second to none in these facilities. [Inmates] go without nothing. Different facilities that I’ve worked in, they have HBO, Cinemax, I mean, a lot of these people are living better than a lot of people on the streets that are working two jobs.

TCR: I just want to parse that parse that a little bit, I think not necessarily you’re saying that, you know these inmates aren’t entitled to decent living conditions, but you would like to see at least equal if not more attention given to staff and… (the general population).

Gardner: Absolutely, I don’t begrudge the inmate population a thing. I absolutely do not… Treat these men and women who are incarcerated firmly, fairly and consistently, and I’m a firm believer in that. They have what’s known as the commissary in the correctional facilities, it’s an in-house grocery store, where they buy their food items for less than you or I could ever dream of. Again I don’t begrudge these men and women any of that. But it should be made a little bit more fair for the people who are working every day and doing the right thing every day. You’re almost encouraging people to go to jail to for a break, I mean it’s kind of crazy.

There are some things that are just overdone, and it’s ridiculous. I love the fact that we do the educational programs that we do, I love the fact that we do the vocational programs that we do, and it gives these folks who are going to re-enter our society a skill set. Those are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful aspects.  But the policy makers, the politicians, need to sit back a little bit, take a look at some of this stuff that’s also in there and just say, “This is ridiculous.” It’s absolutely ridiculous some of the fluff that’s in there now. Absolutely ridiculous.

Additional Reading: The Strangest Details from that Report on Dannemora Prison Escape

Sweat tells guards how he would escape from another prison

Dane Stallone is a TCR contributing writer. Readers’ comments welcome.