It was the perfect story: the Great Escape. On June 6, 2015, Richard Matt, a torture killer, and David Sweat, a cop killer, worst-of-the-worst prisoners in the Clinton Correctional Facility—the maximum security prison in Dannemora N.Y.—climbed, crawled, and slithered through a twenty-minute claustrophobic labyrinth of corridors and tunnels until they emerged into freedom through a manhole a block and a half outside the forbidding CCF wall. Now they were killers on the loose. Dangerous understated the matter. They were deadly and desperate. And that was just the beginning. The story that unfolded had adventure, psychology, sex, depravity and brutality. It was the biggest story of 2015.
As you probably have heard, the pair were helped in their escape by a woman named Joyce Mitchell, a married civilian employee of the prison enjoying an inappropriate relationship with both prisoners, and a corrections officer, who owed the prisoners a few favors and inadvertently helped them escape.
The escapees were expecting Mitchell to show up with a getaway car but she was a no-show so they ducked into the woods, where they led up to 1,200 law enforcement officers on a three-week manhunt, the most expensive in New York State history. The hunt didn’t end well for either of the escapees, but you probably knew that as well.
Here’s something you might not know: It is doubtful that any two other prisoners could have pulled this off. It is unlikely that any other pair could have come up with a workable plan to get out of CCF, much less execute that plan.
When it was decided that, sure, what the heck, Matt and Sweat could live in adjacent cells in CCF’s ill-conceived “Honor Block”, the powers that be at the institution forgot a rule learned the hard way by Adolf Hitler during World War II.
Hitler’s bright idea, like many of his ideas, served not just to alleviate a problem but to prove a point, that point usually involving Aryan superiority. He decided to gather together all allied officers who were prisoners of war and had been caught planning or attempting escape, and put them in one “inescapable prison”, the formidable fortress known as Colditz.
Colditz was a castle prison atop a cliff overlooking the Rive Mulde and the town of Colditz, near Leipzig, Germany. What Hitler did accomplish by putting the escape-savvy officers all in one place, was create a think tank, an escape super-team, and before the war was over sixteen officers did successfully make it out.
One successful effort was led by Lieutenant Commander William Stephens. With socks covering their shoes, Stephens and three others crawled through windows, slithered over roofs, scaled down a wall using knotted sheets and fled to Switzerland disguised as French workmen, getting past checkpoints with forged documents including a leave pass with swastika stamp in the name of an actual French electrician employed by the Germans, and a service pass with photo and stamps.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stephens’ escape plan was the involvement of the prison band, which would deviate from the score they played to signal the escapees regarding the sentries location. One musical variation meant the sentries were both at the center of the grounds, another signaled they were at opposite ends of the courtyard.
It was the ability of those allied officers to put their heads together that enabled Stephens and others to find freedom. In a smaller sense, that was what happened when Matt and Sweat were allowed to live in adjacent cells. As it turned out, the pair had complimentary skills and were able to pull off a feat that may have been beyond each of them working alone.
Richard Matt was a ladies man and a schmoozer. He could get women to do his bidding with his sex appeal and simultaneously get chummy with other men using his good-ol’-boy, one-of-the-fellas manner.
David Sweat was a three-dimensional thinker, a solver of puzzles, a planner who could read a blueprint upside-down from across the rooms. It would be his job to figure out how to get out. Matt would recruit any help they might need to pull off their plan.
Together they created a two-headed escape machine.
Couple this with the time-honored culture of arrogance and complacency among the corrections officers and civilian employees at CCF, none of whom complied with the rules for the simple reason that they believed escape to be impossible, and a practically impossible escape was suddenly not just possible, but real.
During the wee hours of that Spring morning, Matt and Sweat were able to exit their cells through back doors they had cut for themselves, descend a ladder to the sub-sub basement, chisel through a wall, enter a heating pipe and crawl through it under the prison’s main wall, exit the pipe, and ascend stairs to their manhole exit. It was an astounding accomplishment, one that could have been thwarted in a myriad of ways, but more certainly if CCF had taken a lesson from Hitler’s mistake, and kept the two bright boys as far apart as possible.
Michael Benson is the author of Escape From Dannemora: Richard Matt, David Sweat, and the Great Adirondack Manhunt (ForeEdge, 2017), and Why the Grateful Dead Matter (ForeEdge, 2016).