Escaping from prison is like committing suicide, and it’s not just because an escaped prisoner will, inevitably, be caught. The wrath of those left behind awaits your return.
There were two unrelated prisoner escapes during my six-plus year tenure at York Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Niantic, Connecticut. Neither was very daring—each woman just walked off the prison grounds, and left the rest to be punished in her place.
Usually, inmates get locked down because something—not someone—dangerous has gone missing: handcuffs, scissors, needles. But when someone goes missing, a lockdown gets worse. Resources are shifted to the search for the missing inmates. Housing units end up short-staffed, so no one is allowed out of her cell to shower, make a phone call or see a doctor, even if the search lasts for days. Because no inmates can enter the kitchen to prepare food, you eat strange meals like potato salad sandwiches. Family and friends who came to visit are turned away at the gate.
Because investigators can’t ask the vanished escapees how they did it, they direct their questions at the rest of us, pulling anyone who was friendly with the escapees out of their cells, and blitzing them with questions. Almost always, no one knows anything about it—the most successful escapes are not announced beforehand. Anyone who is willing to tell on them would have done that already. And there’s no advantage to squealing about the escape once someone skedaddles; anyone who knows anything goes to segregation, which is the new word for solitary confinement or “the hole.”
At Niantic, my cellmate had crocheted a blanket for one of the escapees, using camoflage-colored yarn. When investigators found it, they discovered that my cellmate had crafted it and hauled her in for questioning on the assumption that the blanket was stitched in camouflage colors to play some role in the escape.
That turned out not to be true. It was just a gift, but after that, the prison banned all camouflage-colored yarn for crafts. Limiting a yarn color palette is hardly a stiff punishment, but it is still one borne by people who never took part in the offense.
And it’s not just fellow inmates. As a result of Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two murderers who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility on June 6, 2015, a woman who appears to have been a compassionate public servant is going down.
Police have already charged 51-year-old Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor at the prison, with the crime of smuggling in contraband—hacksaws and eyeglasses with lights—to help the two prisoners escape from their prison in Dannemora, New York. But her downfall started long before that.
In prison, simply making a human connection can be a crime. Under the rule of avoiding “undue familiarity,” modern prisons forbid their employees to know anything about the inmates personally. It may be part of systematic dehumanization, but it’s also a question of occupational security. As the Dannemora escape proves, understanding inmates as people with lives and feelings can be a prelude to the manipulation that may have led Mitchell to help Matt and Sweat escape.
Prior to Mitchell’s arrest on June 12, 2015, Mitchell’s own daughter-in-law alleged that she had made phone calls to help one of the inmates, Matt, who liked art. By prison regulation, Mitchell shouldn’t have known anything about what Matt was into, other than his cell.
It’s telling that Mitchell was a plain-clothes prison work supervisor and not a uniformed guard. Occupational osmosis makes undue familiarity inevitable; when people in any occupation work in close contact with each other, daily details divulge themselves despite state-mandated reserve. I worked for the same supervisors for several years at York. Just like at any job, I got to know their stories now and they mine—nothing inappropriate—and I don’t see how that could have been avoided.
Whether they wear badges or shackles, humans connect when they spend time around each other. And that is all that prison is: people spending time around each other. Professionalism—and rehabilitation—emerge when those connections are handled properly.
I don’t doubt that the Dannemora dragnet will catch Matt and Sweatt. Those two embarrassed the prison staff; the search will never let up. What I also don’t doubt is that both of them will die alone in segregation. The women who escaped from York were dumped in segregation for approximately a year, and unlike the Dannemora escapees, none of them had been convicted of killing someone, used power tools to escape or evaded the police for more than 24 hours. Once Matt and Sweatt are caught, they won’t even walk free on prison grounds again. Like I said, escape is suicide.
And although I never witnessed anyone confront the women who escaped during my time in prison, I know resentment awaited them in general population. While the prison was locked down during their jaunts, other inmates missed all too infrequent visits from their children. After those back-to-back escapes, inmates at York knew that if any of us took off on an unauthorized holiday from prison, two black eyes would be put on layaway for us until we came back.
Ordinary life isn’t easy at a maximum security prison like Clinton Correctional Institution. Since Matt and Sweat left, hard time has undoubtedly gotten harder for everyone.