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Escape from Dannemora
By William Sturgeon
Published: 06/22/2015

Fence tower

I want to make several things perfectly clear:
  • First and foremost this article is not being written to criticize anyone at the Dannemora Correctional Institution.
  • I don’t have any inside information. My information has been gleaned from news reports on TV, radio, and newspaper articles.
  • The entire correctional community can “Learn” from this incident.
What we do know is that the security operations at the Dannemora maximum-security correctional institution “broke-down”. How can I make this statement? There are two very dangerous inmates who have escaped from “inside the walls” of the facility by employing an elaborate plan.

From news reports, it appears that these inmates had been working on their escape for quite some time. Their plans were detailed and comprehensive. What I find amazing is that neither staff nor inmates had any idea of what was going on with these two killers. In my experience, with an incident of this magnitude, someone would have let it slip. Perhaps an inmate informer who is looking to better his lot in prison life, or a staff person may have heard something that was out of the ordinary.

When I was in Texas, we initiated the Critical Incident Review Board (CIRB) to conduct investigations into “serious “ incidents, with the goal of preventing such incidents from reoccurring. The “CIRB” task was to find out what happened and develop policies and procedures to prevent it from happening again. Initially, members of the “Board” would determine with specificity what exactly happened and where did the system fail, e.g. escape, stabbing, assault on staff, other inmate (s), etc. After gathering as much information about the incident as possible, the “Board” would then carefully delve into the following by using this matrix that is composed of four specific areas:

I believe it is important to stress that CIRB investigations were separate and apart from the Internal Affairs investigations. While both investigations could be happening simultaneously, Internal Affairs investigations typically were focused on what happened and would there be new charges against the inmate (s) or staff.

The Four Elements of the Critical Incident Review Board
  1. Policies and Procedures
    1. Were there P&Ps in place, and were they being followed as written, or had staff adapted them?
    2. There were no P&Ps that cover what had happened.
    3. P&Ps were not being followed or not followed as written.
    4. The P&Ps were vague and left too much leeway.
    5. Write in detail recommendations for additional P&Ps or adaptation to the current P&Ps, if any.
  2. Training
    1. Had the staff members involved in the incident been trained on how to deal with such an incident?
    2. Was the staff training up-to-date?
    3. Did this incident incorporate something that the staff members were not trained to manage?
    4. Write in detail recommendations for additional training or adaptation to the current training, if any.
  3. Staffing
    1. Was the correct number of staff on duty during the incident?
    2. Were the staff assigned to the area where the incident took place the proper type of staff, e.g., security, medical, program, education, etc.
    3. Were the staff at their posts when the incident took place?
    4. What actions did staff take, and be very specific.
    5. Review all written reports, videos, and audio recordings of the incident.
    6. Write in detail recommendations for additional staffing or adaptation to the current staffing, if any.
      “Having the correct number of people, with the correct training, do their jobs.!”
  4. Supervision
    1. Was there a supervisor on site when the incident occurred?
    2. Was a supervisor called as the incident unfolded?
    3. What actions did the supervisor take? Be very specific!
    4. Had the supervisor been trained to manage an incident like the one that occurred?
    5. Write in detail recommendations for additional supervision or adaptation to the current supervision.
Getting back to the Dannemora situation, it is apparent that there was a catastrophic break down of the institution’s security operations. Here are just a few things that I have found out through news reports.
  1. Two killers doing life without parole in an “Honor Block”!
    1. One of these inmates, if news reports are accurate, had escaped before. That is a “major red flag”!
    2. The system could have rewarded them in other ways
  2. Security inspections of the pipe chases conducted by security personnel were not being conducted on a regular basis.
    1. I have worked in old prisons where the pipe chases have been a regular worry for security personnel and were checked at least daily.
    2. Movement through many pipe chases can be heard, if not by staff, then certainly by inmates.
  3. Outside contractors were permitted to leave their tools within the security perimeter.
    1. This is a major security violation.
    2. Just as with prison tools and cutting instruments, contractors’ tools must be inventoried and accounted for before anyone goes home.
    3. Some correctional systems require that construction workers go through a CORI check prior to coming in to the prison.
    4. Some correctional systems require that construction workers go through a short training course on contraband, inmate games, security issues.
    5. Some correctional systems require that prison security staff accompany construction workers through the institution. Both correctional security personnel and contractors must be held accountable. Every tool should be accounted form every day before anyone goes home
  4. Cell and other living area “Shakedowns”.
    1. Were not conducted as often as they should have been
    2. Were not conducted as thoroughly as they should have been
  5. Inmate Richard Matt had escaped once before and tried another time to escape.
    1. An inmate with this track record should never have been in an “Honor Block”.
    2. His cell should have been searched often and at various times of the day.
    3. Inmates who have a history of escapes or escape attempt should have their cell assignments changed frequently so that they do not have the opportunity to breach the internal security of the cell.
  6. When the correctional officers do their “Official Counts”, especially night counts and night cell checks, they should have been trained, and their supervisors should have been seeing that the COs were conducting their counts properly.
    1. Count living breathing “flesh”! If the COs had done this, it would have increased the possibility of the dummies being discovered earlier.
I am wondering why the NYDOC has such a large number of their correctional officers searching the woodlands looking for the escapees rather than having them conduct a comprehensive shakedown of the entire prison from top to bottom. It is now known that the institution’s security systems have been breached, e.g., the escape. It is my opinion that it would be wise to assess if there are any other security breaches.

Law enforcement officers are trained and are experts in conducting “free world” searches. Correctional officers are trained and are experts in conducting institutional shakedowns.

I would have brought in security personnel from other institutions to conduct a comprehensive “Security Audit” of the entire prison. As part of this “Security Audit”, I would look at the classification of every inmate in the prison. If warranted, I would see what inmates could be transferred to other prisons. This would help change the culture.

I learned from my dear friend and colleague, L.D. Harvey, former warden of the “Walls” unit in Texas, that correctional security is dynamic, thereby constantly changing. The inmates have 24 hour per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year to study the correctional officers, other staff, and the day-to-day operations, and design then to ways to be the correctional systems.

So many inmates are manipulative, a characteristic they have mastered as a survival mechanism, and they look for the officer or staff member that they can unleash it on. It comes in many forms:
  1. Charm
  2. Threats
  3. Being the officer’s buddy (protecting them)
  4. Finding an officer’s weakness (Booze, Women/Men or Bribes are the main three.)
  5. Want-ta-be gang member
This is where supervisors should be paying attention to the interactions between officers and inmates.

Being in the field of corrections today is one of the most difficult and challenging jobs a person can have because of the ever-changing dynamics, dangers and responsibilities. I have been lucky to have worked in law enforcement and corrections. Each one of these jobs comes with their own set of issues. Yet, being in corrections dealing with the same inmates day in and day out is very difficult.

My heart goes out to the staff at Dannemora, because I know how hard it is to manage a maximum-security prison in today’s world. Best of luck.

In closing, do not criticize what has happened at Dannemora. Rather, take what I have written in this article, expand it further, and make sure that the same things do not happen in your institution. “Stay Alert – Stay Alive”!!

Mt. Sturgeon is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served with the 101st Airborne Division.

Visit the Bill Sturgeon page

Other articles by Sturgeon:


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