The Long Shadow of the Prison Wall

The Showtime mini-series Escape at Dannemora is a brutal portrait of the quintessential American prison town — where dehumanization reigns, no matter which side of the wall you're on.

Patricia Arquette as Tilly in Escape at Dannemora. Showtime

In a telling scene from the finale of Escape at Dannemora, the Showtime mini-series, Lyle and Joyce Mitchell step into their kitchen to discuss the unfolding escape of David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility. Lyle, who knows nothing of his wife’s role in the prisoners’ flight, suggests that they help the police find Sweat and Matt in the nearby woods. Joyce deflects, telling her husband that Sweat and Matt are “probably on a beach in Mexico by now.”

“What would they be doing in Mexico?” asks Lyle. “I don’t know,” Joyce rejoins, “maybe because it doesn’t suck ass to live in Mexico.” Wounded, Lyle responds: “Do you think it sucks ass to live here?” Ben Stiller’s television miniseries Escape at Dannemora is an extended and well-researched exploration of this question. The series suggests that it does, in fact, suck to live in a prison town, on whatever side of the wall.

Working in Dannemora and living just outside Malone, about ten miles from the Canadian border, the Mitchells’ lives consist largely of ferrying back and forth between two such prison towns. Prior to working at Clinton, Joyce Miller was employed at Tru-Stitch in Malone, a textile shop where she made moccasins. Malone is emblematic of political-economic shifts in upstate New York that have accompanied the rise of mass incarceration.

New York built thirty-nine prisons upstate between 1982 and 2000, many of which are in northern New York, and three of which are in Malone. These were decades of deindustrialization and mounting unemployment for northern New York, and communities across the state sought to find ways for their children to be able to remain. Prisons were what was on offer.

Rather than allowing communities in rural New York to thrive, however, the prison boom of the 1980s in New York created a veritable carceral archipelago. Contrary to the promises of developers and politicians eager to break ground on new prisons, prison construction does not save rural places from capitalist crisis, rather, it transforms these places into prison towns.

Escape at Dannemora depicts some of the results of this transformation in their most elemental form, as ordinary people attempt to lead ordinary lives in the upstate carceral landscape. While enjoying limited creative license, Stiller’s series is scrupulously researched, and largely follows the New York State inspector general’s 2016 report, itself based on hundreds of interviews and extensive physical investigation. Rachel Kushner described this report as one of the best books of 2016, hailing it as “a story of Americans living in America.” More specifically, it is a story of upstate New Yorkers living in upstate New York, in the quintessential prison town in a landscape that has been transformed, over the past forty years, into a region abandoned to the long shadow of the prison wall.

Beyond the high-octane drama and salacious sexual escapades that provide the story with sensational appeal, Stiller’s miniseries and the investigators’ report is striking for how remarkably little anyone involved with Clinton Correctional Facility wants to do with the place. While this is obvious enough for those locked up in the prison, it is no less true of employees throughout the prison, who rely on it for jobs they do not identify with and couldn’t care less about doing properly.

From start to finish, Matt and Sweat’s escape is abetted by civilian staff and uniformed guards who ignore official protocol and run the jail as they see fit, doing as little work as possible. Instead, and against the crushing pressure of bureaucracy, prisoners and staff alike attempt to wrest a little bit of dignity and human connection out of soul-crushing jobs and dehumanizing relationships rooted in brutality, racism, and fear.

In the months and years leading up to the escape, guards at Clinton neglected daily drudge work that almost certainly seemed a pointless waste of time. Mitchell and her colleagues passed through the front gate without being searched, as policy requires, enabling regular smuggling of contraband in — and of prisoner art out. Mandated tests for “cell integrity” — checking the security of the steel boxes prisoners are locked in — could have foiled the escape, but were done perfunctorily or not at all. Night rounds, when guards are required to spend the jail’s quiet hours engaged in hourly reporting on the presence of prisoners in their locked cells, were disregarded as a matter of institutional practice.

Instead of spending their whole shift following protocol mandating the hourly sighting of prisoners’ skin and signs of breathing, which would keep guards continuously busy and necessitate unpleasant encounters with prisoners trying to sleep, guards filled these reports out at the beginning of the night shift, conducted scant patrols, and spent their quiet shifts in the control rooms reading, socializing, and sleeping. These pre-written reports were even collected and delivered to the ranking Watch Commander before some of the inspections they documented could have possibly taken place, demonstrating how normalized this de facto protocol had become.

In planning their escape, Sweat and Matt knew that many guards didn’t bother to make the rounds at all. Sweat learned a tell-tale sign: “If they’re walking by,” after lights out, he told investigators, and “the guy ain’t got a flashlight, he’s not coming back.” In the course of carving his escape route, Sweat, who left a dummy under his sheets when leaving his cell each night, dodged over four hundred required inspections, including multiple rounds after the duo escaped.

When Sweat and Matt were reported missing at 5 AM, the 5:30 AM count sheet confirming their presence in their cells was hastily amended by Watch Commander Terry Brunet, who had verified its outcome before the count happened. Investigators recount the “far-fetched” explanation Brunet offered when caught red-handed: “he claimed he had ‘signed by accident’ and then ‘erased it right away’ because ‘the count wasn’t certified.’ Asked how he could have ‘inadvertently’ signed the master count, Brunet responded that although ‘I understand how ridiculous it sounds,’ he might have thought he was signing ‘another piece of paper that was already on top of [the master count].’” By contrast, Brunet’s subordinates merely shrugged and told investigators that’s just how it is done.

The widespread and systematic rejection of Clinton’s rules emerges most powerfully in the blossoming of human connections across the stultifying strictures stratifying prison life. Eugene Palmer, the guard charged with unwittingly smuggling escape tools to Matt, is a motorcycle-riding rock-and-roller who was bored by his job and the place in which he lives. In the show, Matt coyly asks Palmer if he ever thinks about getting away. “Oh come on,” Palmer replies, “you see me hanging around Little Siberia once I get the fuck out of here and get my pension?”

The real Palmer was awed by Matt’s artistic talent and appears to have considered him a really cool dude. Matt paints portraits for Palmer and his loved ones, and Palmer smuggles in painting supplies and source photographs. He escorts Matt and other prisoners around metal detectors, likely as a sign of respect. Through his friendship with Matt, Palmer is able to appreciate the creative process up front, commissioning works while serving as patron for a favorite artist.

Joyce Mitchell, bored out of her mind, forges the most noteworthy connection across the bars. “I will visit with the guys” in the tailor shop, she told investigators. “It’s like you get a rapport with them because you are in that same room with them every day of the week.” The sexual aspect of her story is now famous, in part because it plays into a common pejorative — “inmate lover” — with which any prison employee deemed sympathetic to prisoners’ humanity is branded.

Mitchell earned this label long before her more intimate moments became widely known, as she responded to the less prurient but no less implacable desire to relate to her sewing shop colleagues as fellow human beings. Similar to his friendship with Palmer, Matt produces art for Mitchell in exchange for reading lights, Cafe Bustelo, and candy. Mitchell keeps Matt on the clock when he leaves early. She even calls his daugher in Mexico, serving as a vital link in Matt’s proscribed relationship with his family, while attending to her own loneliness.

Inspectors note bitterly how in Mitchell’s workshop “a permissive environment existed in which rules governing staff-inmate interaction were not enforced,” as civilian supervisors and uniformed guards made note of Mitchell flaunting her relationships with Matt and Sweat, and did nothing. As the television version of guard Dennis Lambert tells Mitchell when Sweat is finally transferred out of the shop: “You had your fun.”

Mitchell will be forever known for the sex, although outside the context of the prison, her story would be quite ordinary. Bored, unhappily married, and unfulfilled by her job, Mitchell seeks an escape. She brings homemade baked goods to her work crushes, changes her appearance to catch their eye, passes racy notes to spice up the days, and sneaks off into the supply closet for rendezvous — likely a high point of a dreary shift in an oppressive environment.

As an employee of Tru-Stitch, Mitchell could flirt on the line, cultivate escapist shop romances, and abscond to the railroad trucks for forbidden trysts with coworkers, risking only her marriage and reputation at the sewing shop. With prison left as one of the only employers in the region, such indiscretions end up costing her very freedom. People the world over fool around. The problem is the prison.

Mitchell sought escape through fantasy and dangerous play, Sweat and Matt sought it quite literally. “Shawshank ain’t got shit on me,” Sweat later told investigators. Intelligent and meticulous, Sweat had worked for over a decade in the sewing shop to become the instructor as well as the go-to worker for unsanctioned personal jobs for civilian and uniformed staff. “I would just do it to do it,” Sweat reasoned, “because then people would leave me alone.” Sweat’s only disciplinary problems came from insulting a civilian worker for perceived incompetence.

Sweat’s escape plans begin when Palmer lets him into the restricted staff catwalk to surreptitiously perform electrical modifications to other prisoners’ cells at the behest of Matt, who arranged for modifications enabling higher wattage electricity. Sweat fashions tools from hacksaw blades, and in the slow work of cutting out of their cells, deploys a pilfered magnet to collect the metal shavings while applying tape painted to match his cell interior to mask the portion of the wall he had removed. Matt follows suit, but Sweat is never satisfied with his work.

Sweat spends weeks tirelessly exploring and modifying the labyrinthine world beneath the prison, mapping it by memory and time using his wristwatch, and improvises tools from spare parts and scrap metal. He repurposes a mop handle to measure the length of a pipe through which he breaches the prison’s outer wall, correctly placing his exit hole between the wall and the support pipes. “Acting like a ninja,” as he later recalls, Sweat camouflages his work through nightly rituals that afford him mere minutes of sleep before beginning his day. In this nightly work, Sweat’s ingenuity, labor, and his own freedom, present and future, fell into dramatic unity.

Likely finding a task adequate to his intellect for the first time in his entire life, Sweat recalls that once outside the cell, he “kind of felt free.” “You know,” he reflects, “you weren’t caged up in the cell no more. Nobody knew where you were . . . It was something new, it was doing something that I could actually use my mind for, that I could apply myself to.” When Matt tours Sweat’s work and beholds the numerous obstacles Sweat had overcome, including breaking through multiple walls that first seemed impassable, Matt remarks casually: “Oh, man, I would have gave up a long time ago.”

In the end there was no real escape from Clinton Correctional Facility. Matt was killed, Sweat was shot in the back and then put in a solitary cell. Palmer lost his job and was briefly jailed. Mitchell was made into a villain, ridiculed by the press, and pilloried in the town where she has lived and worked her entire life. The public obsession with shaming Mitchell for her sexual activity perhaps explains why she disputes this vociferously, while otherwise not disputing the state’s account of her role in the prison break.

Mitchell’s first attempt at parole was denied, amid widespread contempt in the court of local public opinion. But no matter how outcast, Mitchell is of her time and place; a textile worker in a town abandoned by capital, where the only way she could stay and do what she knew how to do was to go to prison.