Entertainment

A Former Dannemora Prison Guard Penned a Wild Account of the Famous Escape

After feeling news reports got the story wrong, Charles A. Gardner wanted to tell his insider's tale.

by Seth Ferranti
Mar 8 2019, 10:44pm

Police search for two escaped prison inmates in New York. Photo via Getty.

Built in 1844, Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora is New York state's largest maximum security prison. The institution has been home to the likes of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and serial killer Carl Panzram. The prisoners housed at Clinton are considered the toughest of the tough in regards to career criminals—high security risks and dangerous. In other words: not the kind you’d want wandering the streets. But that’s exactly want happened on June 6, 2015 when two men, David Sweat and Richard Matt, who were serving long sentences for murder, escaped from the prison.

Brought to the big screen by Ben Stiller in Escape at Dannemora, the story has captivated the public, but in Dannemora: Two Escaped Killers, Three Weeks of Terror, and the Largest Manhunt Ever in New York State, a new book out now, former correctional officer Charles A. Gardner, a local who started his career at Clinton, sets the record straight on the escape that led authorities on a three week manhunt. VICE talked to Gardner to find out why he decided give an insiders look at the situation, how unprecedented this escape was, what he thought of the Stiller’s Showtime series, and why it was all Joyce Mitchell’s fault. Here’s what he had to say.

VICE: When and why did you decide to write about this well-publicized event and how long was the process?
Charles A. Gardner: I'm a local. I'm a guy that worked in the industry for 25 years. I lived in the North Country for 59 years now. I was watching the newscasts [about the escape] and I had cardinal knowledge as to what was going on and the newscasts weren't getting it accurate. It was just driving me nuts because I knew the difference. There was a lot of conspiracy theories. There was just a lot of just making colorful TV, is the only way to say it. They were making up stories as they went. I'm going, 'My God, what are you guys talking about?' That's not what happened. I decided to start documenting and taking notes and talk to people. I'm going to get the story out there accurately.

So how unprecedented would you say this escape was?
There are escapes or attempted escapes from correctional facilities across the country. As we're doing this interview, there's somebody somewhere working their way out of a correctional facility, plotting, planning, and going through the steps that they need to make that happen. The likelihood of escaping from a maximum security is a lot more difficult. In Clinton there hadn’t been an escape in basically a hundred years. The policies and procedures set in place for that facility were [one] of the shortcomings.

Two decades prior to this escape the state had stopped doing their tunnel inspection.The officer that was actually assigned that particular position was no longer doing them.

It was just another duty that was added to another officer that already had a laundry list of duties to do in the course of the day. The job was eliminated through budget cuts. They stopped manning all the wall towers too. By the time of the escape, half those wall towers weren't even manned. They were mothballed by the state as being nonessential. When you start doing those types of things, you start creating holes in your armor that surrounds those facilities. It results in what we ended up with: Two convicted killers wandering aimlessly for three plus weeks through the North Country.

Being as though you are local and worked in the industry, what did you think when you first heard about the escape at first or how did you feel?
It's absolutely wrenching. There's been escapes in the North Country from North Country prisons before, but they were always a different caliber of an inmate. It was an inmate that was in a medium facility setting or even lesser security settings. Those guys, they walked away from camps, from those work details. [That] type of a scenario. But to have the caliber of individual that had walked away from Clinton Correctional?

David Sweat, he'd killed a police officer. His moral compass without a doubt was definitely off course. Richard Matt had killed a businessman and then gone back a few days later and cut up the body. He threw the body parts in the Niagara River. Then he ran to Mexico and shortly after arriving he kills a US businessman for a few hundred dollars. When you start talking about your maximum security prison, you're talking about a completely different caliber of inmates that's incarcerated in those facilities and it's gut wrenching knowing those guys are running around.

"There was just a lot of just making colorful TV. I'm going, 'My God, what are you guys talking about?'"

What was it like in Dannemora for those three weeks when Matt and Sweat were loose?
Dannemora was ground zero. You couldn’t move around that end of Clinton County without having to go through a number of roadblocks and having your vehicle inspected at each and every single one of those. Moving ten miles in that area would take you 40 minutes to an hour. Travel was extremely difficult. There was a hell of a concern in the air with the local population because, for nearly the first two weeks, there was absolutely no idea where these guys were.

There'd be an assortment of sightings, that would send a small army of corrections officers and law enforcement response to a particular area. The perimeter would continue to expand on a daily basis. Those areas would be shut down and searched until those areas were cleared. If you were a local resident, you couldn't get back to your own residence. It was pretty intense. A tremendous amount of firepower was being displayed from law enforcement. It was an eyeopener for the locals for sure.

How did lax ethics in the Department of Corrections lead to you Joyce Mitchell having sexual relations with the two cons and aiding in their escape?
Joyce Mitchell and her behaviors were noted and documented shortly after her career started. In 2008, she started working for an entity known as Core Craft. And during that time, within the first couple of years, her mannerisms or the way that she was conducting herself with the inmate population was quickly observed and she was verbally counseled by her supervisors. Within a year or so she would be put on paper and she would be given formal counseling.

At that point in time Mitchell would actually counter her administrators that were trying to reel her back in and would file her own, personal complaint saying that she was being harassed. What you had was the Department of Corrections and Core Craft trying to figure out what the hell to do. New York state was under a hiring freeze and it put one state entity against the other. Basically it came down to the theory that a half ass employee was better than no employee at all. Mitchell's behaviors were allowed to continue. She felt empowered and her behaviors basically escalated and the inmates could see that and they continued to ask for more.

What type of stuff was she doing when it started?
She was bringing in snacks, donuts and pastries and baked goods and that silly crap. And that soon escalated to other pieces of contraband and then all of a sudden she's making phone calls on behalf of the inmates. She's smuggling in assorted tools. This behavior took basically a three year window for her to escalate from the baked goods to escape tools. But it was a failure on Department of Corrections to quit trying to negotiate with Core Craft. The supervisors in her immediate area were frustrated with the fact that there was no resolution. They were saying, Hey, we've got an employee that's not doing what she's supposed to be doing and acting inappropriately.

The officers working in the area were watching Mitchell and thinking, Jesus, I've got 25 years in this mess and nothing's being done about her. How far do I want to stick my neck out? Because you can't ratchet her down. It created an atmosphere. And unfortunately that’s why we got into the mess that we've gotten into. There's been another incident at Clinton where a lady was doing the same thing, but the atmosphere has changed a little bit and that was quickly quelled. That lady's doing county time right now for her interactions with the inmate population.

Dannemora book cover

Have you watched Ben Stiller’s series and if so what do you think?
The first couple of episodes start out showing the correctional staff as a bunch of buffoons, a bunch of idiots, a bunch of racist bastards. I worked corrections for 25 years. They're not idiots. The brave men and women that go inside those walls every single day and do that job are not racist. They're not knuckleheads. They're not disrespectful to the inmate population. They go in there, they do what they're supposed to be doing, and they go home. Ben Stiller had these guys and gals looking as if they were just racist and constantly looking for trouble.

I think he was trying to parallel the Shawshank Redemption movie because that has been such a classic for years. If you kind of take a step back and look at what Ben Stiller did and how he did it, the first four-five episodes of his series, he doesn’t tell you what Matt and Sweat were in jail for. He leads you to believe that they're really probably not half bad guys. They got a little artistic talent, they seem like pretty nice boys, and they seem to hit it off with this little blonde haired girl. I saw a lot of similarities to Shawshank, and I think that's what Ben Stiller was trying to do.

What's ultimately to blame for the escape? And do you think that something like this can happen again?
The entire responsibility of this goes right back to Joyce Mitchell. She was the catalyst of this entire escape. Take Joyce Mitchell out of this formula and those two guys would still be incarcerated. It was the perfect storm. She was able to smuggle in that contraband. Those wall towers were vacant for two decades, but they've been manned ever since. It's amazing how that all of a sudden happened. The subterranean tunnel inspections that hadn't been done in two decades are now being done. There's an assigned staff member that does that.

We’ve gone back to re-implementing and putting people back into positions that never should have been closed in the first place. The unfortunate thing is that the policy makers that made the bad decisions years ago were never held accountable. And that hasn't changed. Unfortunately the only people held accountable were the locals. The local administrators, and they were simply playing by the rules that they were told to play by. That's the sad part of this whole thing.

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