Escape from Dannemora and the Cinematic Mind

On Sunday, the manhunt ended in upstate New York, only now is the story unfolding. About two miles from Canada, the survivor of the two fleeing prisoners, David Sweat was shot in the torso as he ran through a field, headed once again for the woods. A state trooper, seeing that Sweat was nearing the forest, the likes of which have been providing coverage for him and fellow fugitive, Richard Matt, for 23 days, shot him before he could disappear again. And with that, the search for the murderers who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility, which occupied headlines for weeks, was over. As more details emerge from the investigation, the two men are no longer ghostly counterparts to news articles, nor looming large in the unknown wilds of upstate New York, our imaginations can rest.

Sort of. Mine is still scrambling. I am trying to imagine the life of Joyce Mitchell, the woman who worked at the tailor shop in the prison and who’s been accused of aiding the escape. She provided the men with supplies and was supposed to drive the get-away car. But when Sweat and Matt emerged from a manhole outside of the prison, she failed to show up. The men improvised and headed into the woods towards the Canadian border.

The plan, as New York State Governor Coumo shared with the public and has been quoted in publications across the country, was for Mitchell to retrieve the fugitives, have her husband killed, and then they would drive to Mexico. Knowing now that she was having sex with one (or both) of the men, was she under the impression she would accompany them on a joyride to freedom? Did she fantasize about a new adventure, feeling imprisoned herself at home and at work? Why the plan to kill her husband? Was she deranged, or had she become so by catching some manic hopeful fever, like a mental-STD from Sweat or Matt?

The New York State Police issued these 'progression' photos of Richard Matt and David Sweat on June 17, 2015.
The New York State Police issued these ‘progression’ photos of Richard Matt and David Sweat on June 17, 2015.

For those not caught up on the timeline of events or the unraveling of the characters involved, Sweat and Matt escaped from the Dannemora prison and roamed the remote woods for 23 days. On June 5th, they staged their plan like any good organization would. Sweat ran the escape route that he and Matt had mapped out over the last six months, with tools and knowledge provided to them presumably by Joyce Mitchell (and possibly other prison employees). By this time, they had rehearsed every aspect of the plan. On June 6th, they escaped. Through a series of holes they cut over time with handsaws and tools at the back of their cells, through a steam pipe and a brick wall, they managed to wiggle their way through the prison system’s five flights of air and steam piping, travel through a  tunnel to more piping which led them to the manhole. At the end of this maze, a post-it note was found. On it, a racist caricature and play on an old icon was drawn: Have a nice day!

Note left by Sweat and Matt
Note left by Sweat and Matt

By means of bribery, resourcefulness, maybe the reaches of desperation and boredom, ingenuity, a keen sense of how to manipulate others, luck and perseverance, they landed onto free soil and managed to then traverse 30 miles of Northern New York terrain in bad weather (which may have worked to their benefit), remaining at large under the forest’s cover, breaking into cabins and scoring food, booze and other supplies on the way. Both are convicted murderers, but no reports of violence in connection to them has emerged.

Besides the involvement of Joyce, the curiosity as to what the men did in those three weeks spreads with each story I read. What did they talk about in the cabins? Did they brush their teeth? They must have been exhausted in every possible way a human can be, but did the adrenaline ever cease enough to let them sleep? The police found candy wrappers with Matt’s DNA on them. Did Matt go into a store unnoticed to purchase the candy? It is reported that Sweat and Matt separated for the last five days, the reason being that Sweat, the younger of the two, felt that Matt was slowing him down. Matt was killed a few days before Sweat and was covered in bug bites, probably becoming ill, as a cough alerted the trailing officers to his whereabouts just before his death.

I wonder what the separation was like and if there was an argument. The thought of this phantom argument triggers a sympathy for the men and it is present throughout the rest of the story. Not only does a saga like this stir the imagination but it pulls somewhat uncomfortably at something that lies below our formed senses of right and wrong, our moral fortitude and stabs at some visceral longing.

Part of us cheers them on, and it has very little or nothing to do with the specific freedom of two murderers.

Present alongside the daily reports in newspapers have been predictable entertaining accompaniments to the current headlining story, ranging from lighthearted, web bait articles to personal and enlightening essays on prison breaks. Whether discussing the history of famous prison escapes or the undeniable allure of the ensuing adventures, the consensus is that we are drawn and often consumed by these stories out of a “living vicariously” thing.

We’re drawn to the audacity of the escapees, to the unknown outcomes, to the slight chance of victory even against the ever-slimming odds. We are moved by the thoughts of the unknowable aspects of a life on the run, a life so far from the ones most of us lead now. And ultimately we see these people as human beings facing an insurmountable challenge. Part of us cheers them on, and it has very little or nothing to do with the specific freedom of two murderers.

The other day I was speaking with a friend about the story and something I said made him look at me with a worried expression, and compelled him to say (or his tone was one of obligated reminding),“you know these two are murderers right?” Maybe he sensed some compassion for the men in my voice or that I didn’t want the story to end. Nervously maybe, I quickly replied yeah, suppressing a desperate “don’t worry!” But it made me think about my own dubious emotions.

Over the last few weeks, each morning I looked forward to reading the next article tracing the manhunt with an angst similar to that of awaiting the next episode of an AMC crime drama. This feeling has been echoed in articles I’ve read. We indulge for the same reasons that make us watch the anti-hero of Breaking Bad, the survivalism of Walking Dead, and sometimes in the death of the villain in the movie, we suddenly care about them. We are curious about other people’s extraordinary lives, how we would do in other contexts and the lurking evil, cunning charm and maneuvers of the bad guys. Saturated as our minds can become following real epics like this from the flood of articles, updates, dialogue and photographs provided by the press, it becomes cinematic in our heads. We envision the movie.

For me, the backdrop is easy to conjure. I grew up in a small town in New York state, not far from the city but considered upstate by anyone south of Westchester, or in the city. Although far from Dannemora, I know the terrain of Upstate New York. I know the vast stretches of farmland and hills, the concrete islands, the strip malls, the long country roads which hem barren fields. Then there is so much I don’t know of it, the forests of that distant corner of the state, the Adirondacks. That’s part of the wonder. The environments we’ve experienced and remember, however familiar to us, becoming the rugged wilderness that people can get lost in 2015, can hide in and can evade a thousand trained personnel for 23 days.

David Sweat now lies in Albany Medical Center disclosing plenty of information to the authorities. Coming to us in clean-cut revised text, I imagine him like a removed narrator with an even but wistful tone, recalling the story as if it’s years later. There is no doubt of the Hollywood allure here: prison escape, alleged romantic entanglement, the secretive nature of all the dealings which occurred before the escape, the exchange of art for tools. All the elements of man vs. himself, man and nature are there.

The manhunt brings authorities to a barn
The manhunt brings authorities to a barn. Photo courtesy of New York Times.

Would the first scene of the movie put us in Mexico for the confrontation of two men in a bar fight, sweat polishing the foreheads of the haggard outlaws, the sun entering the dark room from the slits cracking the dive’s exterior. Matt was wanted for murder here in the U.S. so he fled to Mexico. He killed a U.S. citizen there and was brought to Dannemora. He and Sweat wanted to eventually return. Matt had a tattoo on his back that read, “Mexico Forever. The movie would begin here, as if to steer from a hopeless and fatalistic place, foreshadowing the futility of the story; the delusion of freedom and anonymity in Mexico, the misperceived paradise that could never be reached.

If the film opened up in Upstate New York with Sweat, it would be iconic, the first fourth of July after 9/11 (2002) and Sweat was stealing fireworks. He was imprisoned for killing a police officer that confronted him while in the middle of a robbery. And beginning here, throughout the film we’d stay in New York, and cut away to Mexico in dream sequence, inspired by the recollections of Matt, where his story would be revealed.

Told from Joyce Mitchell’s perspective would bring a slow-mounting thrill and offer a fresh voice removed from a history of crime. The life of a woman seeking escape from freedom — a normal American woman whose desperation outweighed the supposed freedom she enjoyed. Or the story could unfold told through the people of Dannemora, the shop-keeps and diner owners who saw business soar in the 23 days, accommodating various agencies’ men and the press rather than the usual intermittent.

There was something about the possibility of these men making it that drew national attention. Maybe some, or small parts of us all, were hoping that they would forever dodge the overseers once and for all just because we wanted to see that it was possible to do this. But the men are caught and life can go back to normal in Dannemora, people can feel safe opening their windows again and seeing to their crops, not worrying about the safety of their farm hands. The movies and T.V. shows, here’s where we grant ourselves the space and possibilities of fiction, to explore with a secure distance the existence and temptations of the corrupt, wanton and destructive nature within us all. I suppose when reality and imagined drama bleed into one another, is when the fictional drama is at it’s best and the reality so dangerous.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

One reply on “Escape from Dannemora and the Cinematic Mind”

Bravo Katie…another great read. I followed this break out as close as you too. I kept thinking that it was a parallel to the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” Like you said, Hollywood will be all over this one. Nice job Katie.


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