Two murderers escaped Clinton Correctional Facility this weekend, willing to risk death by AR-15 and seven extra years for their attempt. That's drawn a lot of attention to the facility, which many outlets have referred to by the nickname of "Little Siberia" because of the cold upstate climate. But it's not really called Little Siberia, or at least not by anyone I met over my ten years and three months in the Correctional Department of New York State.
Whether by cop or by con, I've only heard Clinton called "Dannemora," and that's enough. Because Dannemora is the most notorious prison in the state, a place even the most hardened criminals try to avoid.
Dannemora has the nation's attention right now, but it had mine for a years. Attica is more famous thanks to the 1971 riot, and Sing Sing still has the chair (though it's getting dusty, the last electrocution having come in 1963), but to properly put the fear of God into prisoners, cops threatened us with a 400-mile trip upstate.
Convicts cherish the northernmost "max"—maximum security prison—when they bullshit, frequently bragging about surviving Clinton. All four of Dannemora's syllables were meticulously enunciated every time it was used to scare me. The five letters of my simple last name were routinely misread, but Dannemora was never stuttered nor contracted by the cops and cons who said it nice and slow to convey the horror.
"Keep fucking around, Genius." (Always the extra U rather than a dreaded P up in front—that was college.) "You ain't built for up north. You won't last in Dah-nneh-morrrr-ah."
The southern wall of Clinton's 30-foot-high perimeter composes two blocks of the village of Dannemora's main drag, Route 374. From 1900 to 1972, this was the home of the Dannemora Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which kept the "level-one bugs" (as they'd say inside) safely locked away.
Seven of my years incarcerated were spent in maximum security, although the robberies that earned me the monicker of "Sorry Bandit" left no one hurt and scared me as much as my victims. Nevertheless, the category of armed felony was unavoidable, and I visited four maxes. I started hearing about Clinton back on Rikers Island in New York City, when a well-intentioned prisoner called "Doc Martin" told me to make sure I saw "Pirate" as soon as I hit the Clinton yard, and to bring my papers with me. I had to demonstrate that I wasn't a sex offender.
Like many others, Doc was quite sure I was going to Clinton.
"Your first bid, they start you off in Dannemora—let you know how bad it can get," he said.
Doc was a kind man and had witnessed the third of the four times I had to fight on Rikers. My stubborn struggle against a Somali closer to seven feet tall than six won his respect. The outcome, however, did not inspire Doc's confidence. (My only victory was won from a middle-aged barber ashamed to have stolen from me in the first place; he also slipped mid-fight.) Before my arrest, I hadn't fought since the Reagan presidency, and Doc could tell.
"Maybe they won't send you all the way up like that. They might not even send you to a max. But if they do, see Pirate right away. He'll square you away if you tell him we're friends."
Doc was a skinhead, and not the kind in the scene for the music. It was almost charming to hear him rationalize his Chilean girlfriend ("Aryan-Chilean") and Jewish friend (me). He spared me the stories I would soon hear about Clinton's notorious specialty of "spearing." The compound was apparently built in the days when the purpose of confinement was punishment, not "rehabilitation," so the cells are very small—so small that there is no defense against a determined hunter with a sharpened broomstick.
Pirate's umbrella would have kept a newjack like me unspeared, but in the end I survived a stay at Dannemora without him. I'd just spent a winter in Upstate CF, an entirely disciplinary prison in Clinton's hub, satisfying a six-month solitary sentence. My visit to Dannemora occurred on the day of my release. Everybody on the bus was cheerful despite the 4 AM chaining and dozen hours ahead of us; the day marked our emergence into relative liberty.
After half a year confined to a room, even a prison yard feels free.
We chattered through the unpleasantness of having a leg shackled to a stranger's. However, one fellow with few teeth and less sense was not as pleased; the prospect of returning to the regular population troubled him. He started his uprising with an asthma pump, though it never went further.
"I wants my asthma pump!" screamed the man, piercing the frozen tundra we were rolling through at seven in the morning. "I wants it, Sergeant Cracker!"
The sergeant in charge of the trip was unwilling to engage, and the dreadlocked convict who was attached to the lone rioter was on meds heavy enough to temporarily anchor the fierce asthmatic. Nevertheless, the nervous energy in him prevailed; he dragged his dozing partner to the front of the bus to bang on the partition behind the driver.
There is a gunman at the back of every transit bus who could probably have gotten away with at least a leg shot to prevent the demanding bug from "inciting a riot," which is the usual charge issued in such cases. (Sometimes posthumously, as dead convicts' estates can sue, too.) Instead, we pulled over. I watched the sergeant sheath his cell phone and step out to call using a little suitcase. After he finished with the satellite phone, our bus moved again but soon left the highway. The convicts who recognized the town of Dannemora nervously warned the rest of us to be cool.
We were going to Clinton.
The gates swung open with precision; the bus was inside the walls and safely back in the incarcerated world in a maneuver that had likely been practiced many times. There were 20 "turtles" waiting for us in the "trap," or two gates with enough room for a bus between them. Back on Rikers, I had seen a response team in action, so I knew to be afraid. The helmets freed the guards of personal responsibility. I had been showered with my neighbor's teeth on Rikers. It was his first day, and he didn't know to take the screaming about "kissing a wall" seriously. Now they were beating a tattoo on the side of our bus with oak batons.
"Still want your asthma pump?" asked the sergeant.
"Nah, I'm all right. Thank you, we can go. I'm alright." None of us cared to make eye contact with the sacrifice among us. He had blatantly called it on himself, but still... this was Clinton.
"Oh, you're getting your asthma pump now," replied the sergeant. Then the biggest cop I'd ever seen stepped on the bus, straight out of a dystopian future. Experienced in the theater of fear, he expertly held the pause and silence it commanded long enough to make us all queasy. The man shackled to our Spartacus was waking up into this nightmare as his morning dose wore off, looking around for help but afraid to ask for it. The giant turtle politely asked the sergeant whether the dreadlocked man had been an accomplice. The sergeant ordered him unshackled, even though the shock trooper was willing to take him along. As the 20 turtles in motorcycle helmets took away their poor excuse for a revolutionary, who could help feeling relieved it was not them? For the hour we waited, the usual talk of incest birthing the giant guards of Dannemora and the tattoos of hanged black babies they all had on their arms almost atoned for the shame of not backing up the asthmatic. The sergeant returned well exercised, his shirt in disarray.
The asthmatic never made it back to the bus.
Tonight, these very turtles are hunting the escaped men. The runaways' antics in the sewers, the passive-aggressive "Have a nice day!" note they left, a failure of the count procedures—all of it shames the Department of Corrections. The US Marshals have issued warrants, chafing for a man hunt. Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly noted how dangerous these men are, knowing that there might not be a Hollywood ending and omitting that it was Honor Block they had escaped from. To live in one of those, an inmate has to go for years without disciplinary problems. On top of that, the men were living in cells side by side. Cops move pairs of friends next to each other so that they can cook and chat together. That's an infrequent perk, especially in Honor Block, because of the multiyear waiting list. The cops only do it if they really like you.
There will be blood.
Precedent suggests the runaways will be caught, especially since they're deep in enemy territory. Seven additional prisons were built in the area to either address the 1970s crime wave or the synchronous collapse of the region's dairy-farming industry, depending on your level of cynicism. Most everyone around that sparsely populated tip of America at least knows someone benefiting from the industry of prison. The escapees won't find much local help, though NRA members are plentiful. Of course, Canada is close, but this isn't the same Canada that sheltered Vietnam War draft resisters. This is the Canada with a stringently policed border, halting American felons from visiting decades after their crimes unless the Canadians deem they're rehabilitated.
All of the accounts describing the escape from "Little Siberia" note that the absences were only discovered during the 5:30 AM count. The hoodies that concealed the absence of convicts in those bunks are being held against the security staff. How could such a breach be allowed? Hasn't anyone seen Escape from Alcatraz? But why do prisoners sleep in hoodies anyway? Was it that Siberian last week?
This is Dannemora. Security is high. They don't give a fuck about how well you sleep. In my experience, there's only one reason you sleep with a hoodie in New York State prison—the lights never truly go off.
And there's only one way to really escape it.