One decent snitch could hold key in prison break

Editor’s Note: Ted Conover is the author of “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” and other books. He teaches at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute.

Story highlights

Ted Conover: How did two inmates at Clinton Correctional use power tools -- with noise, vibration -- to cut their way out, undetected?

He says to guard prisoners at night, one needs working eyes, ears, nose -- not rocket science

One decent snitch in cell block could hold answers

CNN  — 

Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn’t help but be a bit admiring of the escape engineered by two prisoners at New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility on Friday.

“Extraordinary,” he called it, and indeed it was, involving, apparently, numerous power tools of significant heft, not to mention (though nobody yet seems to have) long, heavy-duty extension cords and, one imagines, strong flashlights.

If it turns out that the two men were met by a car when they emerged from the manhole a block from the prison, we can assume they had a cellphone, as well.

Ted Conover

How Richard Matt and David Sweat were able to amass all this equipment will no doubt keep a team of “white shirts” (as rank-and-file corrections officers refer to supervisors) occupied for some time.

There was nothing original about the ruse with which they tricked one or more officers in their housing block, however. Stuffing sweatshirts with clothes, toilet paper, etc. to make it look as though you’re asleep in your bunk is a time-honored gambit. Visitors to the former federal prison at Alcatraz may even have seen the actual dummies used by three prisoners to escape in 1962 – they’re part of the exhibit.

That is why, when you train to become a corrections officer (as I did, for my book “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing”), you are taught the right way to check on prisoners at night, as the housing officer is required to do every two hours. You pause outside their cell with a flashlight and, listening and looking, you see if they are breathing.

The main reason for this is not to see whether they’ve escaped (which almost never happens), but to check on whether they’ve injured themselves (which happens fairly often). If they have, if they’re not breathing or they’re “hanging up” or you see blood, you call for help. Do that, and you’ve done your job.

It’s a pretty easy job, as you can imagine, working a cell block at night. The prisoners are all locked in their cells, not mingling around and needing supervision. They don’t talk back when they’re asleep, don’t ignore orders, pass contraband, or get in fights. The hardest part is usually trying to stay awake, a task at which not all officers succeed.

I was told the one way to get fired, when you work the night shift, is if the dead body, when they find it, is cold. Because if it’s cold, it’s been more than two hours since you checked. “If they’re dead and it’s cold, you’re gone,” is how I remember the training officer phrased it.

At Clinton, the dummies apparently went undetected for more than seven hours. Oops.

And now can we talk about the noise? Not noticing that two of the prisoners in your charge have been replaced by sweatshirts is one thing. But not noticing the roar of power tools cutting through the thick steel wall of the back of the cell? Not noticing the din or the smell of an extended cutting operation? The vibrating walls and floors? How is that possible?

The governor said he spoke to an inmate in a neighboring cell about the noise; the man, of course, knew nothing. But in the absence of a corrections officer with working ears, eyes, and nose, a well-run prison has snitches. Snitches tell the white shirts things and receive favors in return.

For example, they might rat out an officer known to have brought in contraband (typically not massive wall-cutting tools, but drugs). That information would be worth something – a better cell, a better work assignment, a word to the parole board, etc. All you would need in a cell block of several hundred men, to uncover an escape plot involving noise, vibration, and heavy machinery – a plot possibly executed over weeks or months – is one decent snitch.

Ah well.

I’m always a bit torn when I read about an escape. On the one hand, like the governor, I’m admiring: The escape is evidence of exceptional logistical and interpersonal skill, of a daring and creative mind. Also, a normal person can’t help but look at a great historical slag heap like Clinton prison, or Sing Sing, and feel a little bit sorry for those trapped inside for life. Even as a corrections officer at Sing Sing, I spent time thinking how I might escape if my uniform were a different color.

On the other hand, we the taxpayers pay a tidy sum of money to keep the rural employment projects called prisons working properly. It’s not rocket science. You just need to stay awake.

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