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NY Prison Break 'Amazing, Scary,' Says Former Employee

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo peers into the cell that inmates escaped from at a maximum-security prison near the Canadian border in Dannemora, N.Y., June 6, 2015.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo peers into the cell that inmates escaped from at a maximum-security prison near the Canadian border in Dannemora, N.Y., June 6, 2015.

“We’re stunned. Having worked there all those years....”

To hear him tell it by phone from upstate New York, you can sense Phil shaking his head.

Having worked 35 years as a registered nurse at Dannemora's Clinton Correctional Facility, the Northern Adirondack prison two convicted killers broke out of last weekend, he never imagined two inmates could penetrate the towering concrete walls surrounding the penitentiary's maximum-security wing.

“Whenever you talk to anybody who has ever worked at this prison, they always make the statement, ‘Nobody’s ever escaped from here,’ ” he says. “So I think a bit of complacency may have occurred.”

As Phil spoke to VOA from Plattsburgh, some 21 kilometers west of the prison, police reports indicated the fugitives may be moving closer. Law enforcement was zeroing in on Cadyville, located between West Plattsburgh and Dannemora, following up on the latest of some 500 leads in the search for Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34.

But how did they do it? Phil, who asked that his last name be withheld, still can’t get his mind around it.

“I was stunned. Everyone who worked there was stunned. It is the largest maximum-security prison in New York state, and it has a big 40-foot wall around it. Nobody has really escaped from behind the wall, ever.”

Aspects of the escape are baffling — especially to those who know the facility well. How was it no one heard the inmates cutting through the reinforced steel walls of their adjoining cells with power tools? Phil says he thinks other inmates must have heard and is surprised not one of them alerted the prison officers.

And even before that, how did the pair obtain the power tools? While inmates at the prison do use power tools to perform various jobs, authorities strictly account for the devices.

“They have a bunch of shops, industrial areas," he says. "When the inmates work there, they do use these tools, but at night they have a board where they hang all these tools and they make sure that every tool is back where it is supposed to be.”

Commingling of inmates, staff

Like many New York state residents, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, Phil is convinced the escapees had help, but not just with the power tools. The layout of the prison — the complex web of catwalks behind the cellblocks and the tunnel system that runs beneath — would have required access to guarded information. Those kinds of blueprints, he says, would not have been readily available to prisoners.

Authorities say they believe an industrial supervisor from the tailor shop, Joyce Mitchell, had agreed to be the getaway driver for the pair after they escaped. But Mitchell reportedly changed her mind and checked into a local hospital with anxiety-related symptoms. Her possible involvement in the escape is being investigated.

“We don’t know how involved this industrial supervisor was,” Phil says, adding that relationships between inmates and prison workers have happened “more than once.”

“Each year you have to go to classes, and they explain this. You have to be very careful. [Inmates] ask you to maybe make a phone call for them or to bring something in. You just can’t do it. Even the smallest little thing. Once they get you hooked, they could threaten to blackmail you.”

Good place to work

The Clinton Correctional Facility is one of the biggest employers in Clinton County. Many of its 82,000 residents either worked at the prison or are currently employed there. Phil remembers it as a good work environment. He recalls the famous prisoners he encountered, including David Berkowitz, the so-called "Son of Sam," a serial killer convicted of a series of shootings in New York City, and Robert Chambers, dubbed the "Preppie Killer" by media outlets after he was convicted of strangling a young woman in Manhattan's Central Park.

Despite the high-profile convicts, Phil never felt threatened at Dannemora, and he empathizes with the people who work there now in the wake of the unprecedented prison break.

“I just happened to meet up with a lot of the retirees this morning at breakfast, and of course they are all saying, ‘Glad we aren’t there right now, because it is a difficult situation.’ ”