Power

The making of ‘Escape at Dannemora’

How a former inmate and Ben Stiller brought the too-bizarre-to-be-fake prison drama to life.
Power

The making of ‘Escape at Dannemora’

How a former inmate and Ben Stiller brought the too-bizarre-to-be-fake prison drama to life.

At 4 p.m. on Friday, June 5, 2015, Clinton Correctional inmate Richard Matt stood from his sewing machine, looked one last time at Joyce Mitchell, his supervisor, and exited Tailor Shop 1 with a raised fist.

The bigger, more charismatic, more psychotic of two soon-to-be-famous fugitives to break out of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., Matt, 49, was escorted from the shop most days by Officer Gene Palmer, bypassing a metal detector on the way back to his six-by-eight foot cell on the honor block. There lingered the smell of fried chicken. After the door clanged shut, Matt sat down on his bunk next to the metal wall. According to forged count slips, block logs, and contraband receipts later seized by the state of New York, his cell had been searched nine times in the months since he had cut a big hole in it.

Next door, in cell 23, cooking at his hot plate, was David Sweat, then 34, the plan’s mastermind. Today he is the escapee still alive, residing in Attica Correctional Facility’s Special Housing Unit (better known as solitary confinement).

Both men had been convicted of murder and deemed escape risks before entering Clinton, the largest maximum-security prison in New York, where Mitchell, 51, had been a civilian supervisor since 2008 and Palmer, 57, had worked since 1988.

David Sweat, left, and Richard Matt.

David Sweat, left, and Richard Matt.

Matt and Sweat ate dinner with another inmate to whom Matt had gifted his color TV. After lights out and the 11 p.m. count, they slid through their walls and out onto the catwalk behind their tier of cells, then climbed into the narrow space between the walls and walkway, and descended three tiers to the prison’s subterranean level underneath the honor block.

At least an inch of water stood on the floor of this level of the prison, which was littered with cigarette butts and Styrofoam cups. High above, corrections officers (COs) occasionally moved along the catwalks, their lights shining down through the tiers, though not on that night. After a series of 90-degree turns, Matt and Sweat moved below the laundry building and into the basement of another block, B-Block, where they squeezed into a cluster of pipes along the ceiling and passed through a wall, into the basement of C-Block.

There, an 18-inch cast-iron pipe embossed with the letters LPS, for low-pressure system, ran into a wall. Matt and Sweat removed bricks around the pipe that Sweat had knocked out with a sledgehammer in the weeks before, then stepped down into a tunnel beneath the industry buildings. Thirty yards ahead, the tunnel ended in seven feet of concrete poured atop solid rock. The perimeter wall.

The pipe passed through the wall and continued for a quarter mile to the plant that powered Clinton with steam that was shut off every May. On their side of the wall, they stood next to a square hole that had taken Sweat a week to cut by hand, with hacksaw blades carried in by Palmer and bought at Walmart by Mitchell (she paid cash).

Next to the hole, Sweat left a tool bag he’d made in Tailor 1 and a Post-It note with a racist Asian caricature and a note that said HAVE A NICE DAY. Then he climbed into the pipe and slithered 10 feet to the exit hole that let him out in yet another tunnel; Matt followed close behind. Thirty feet down, in the ceiling, affixed by a severed chain, was the manhole at the intersection of Bouck and Barker Streets in downtown Dannemora, where Sweat had peeked his head out the night before in a practice run.

The escape hole.

The escape hole.

Never without a watch, Sweat frequently checked the time.

Ten minutes to midnight.

It had been a long day. Disorder nearly foiled the plan.


The next morning in Poughkeepsie, 300 miles south, a construction worker and former Clinton inmate named Erik Jensen woke up and turned on the TV. Matt and Sweat were on almost every channel.

“Holy shit,” he said. “It’s Hacksaw and Dave. I know them!”

He’d been out the night before, celebrating both his 34th birthday and his two-year anniversary of “maxing out” at Attica, where after 12 years he’d ceased to be property of the state. Over those years, Jensen served time at six maximum-security facilities including Clinton, where he worked with the two fugitives in the tailor shop.

He followed the story closely, watching news reports in which the prison’s lawyers denied any foul play, and was watching the next week when the first footage aired of Mitchell in custody (see footnote 1), a viral clip of her in Crocs, a striped jumpsuit, and a shackles locked into a belt of chain.

Jensen was also aware of Mitchell, who was widely known by her nickname, Tillie, and her reputation around the prison.

“She was an attention whore,” he said. “She’d rub up against you and tell a CO, ‘That guy put his hands on me.’”

Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell.

Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell.

Jensen has never been convicted of a violent crime, but has the penetrating stare of intensive awareness that only comes from doing time in maximum security. He has a workman’s build, oddly straight teeth, and chiseled, tattooed hands — but it’s the way he speaks that stands out most. His speech is clipped and rhythmic, in a strange tense that you kind of have to hear, and which makes him hard to quote. Here’s a verbatim exchange from his appearance on Anderson Cooper 360, when Sweat and Matt were still at large:

Anderson Cooper: “First of all, what do you know about the relationship — er, alleged relationship — between Joyce Mitchell and David Sweat?”

Jensen: “What do I know. I know what I seen. First hand. From my time at Clinton Correctional.”

Anderson Cooper: “What did you see?”

Jensen: “I seen them exchanging gifts. I seen her bringing in things he shouldn’t’ve had. Such as tattoo ink. Art supplies. Food.”

Jensen also has a very peculiar accent, which I once asked Ben Stiller to describe.

“I have no idea,” was his answer. “Peekskill adjacent?”

Jensen, now 37, still speaks like this, though he’s no longer in construction. Today he’s a writer, activist, producer, actor, and consultant, who launched his new career by building a reputation as the only one to trust in the midst of a law-enforcement story in which no one else was telling the truth. “When it all started, I did those interviews for free because I had this feeling like, ‘This isn’t something that’s going away,’” he said. “You never know what could happen in life, right? So I just put my face out there. You just put yourself out there and work hard.”

Stiller directed the eight-part series Escape at Dannemora, which Jensen helped produce, and which premieres November 19. It stars Patricia Arquette as Mitchell, Benicio Del Toro as Matt, and Paul Dano as an uncanny Sweat (Jensen has a small role as a white supremacist).

This article is about the prison conditions that made the escape possible, all the people who went unpunished, and (since Jensen got me on set) the making of the series. But mostly, it’s about Jensen, a juvenile delinquent-turned Hollywood producer who grew up in New York’s penitentiaries. Clinton Correctional is one of those, a manifestation of the state’s viciously well-designed and maintained business, a business that uses poor people as collateral and takes in billions of state tax dollars every year.

The search for Sweat and Matt cost the state of New York $23 million (some residents were very grateful).

The search for Sweat and Matt cost the state of New York $23 million (some residents were very grateful).

Jensen’s endurance and understanding of this system is one reason he’s been successful since getting out of it. Two weeks after his 360 appearance, Jensen emailed the address in back of the magazine where I worked at the time to ask if anyone would like to interview him, and the next week we met for the first time in the lobby of One World Trade. By then the manhunt — which cost the state more than $23 million in overtime alone — had ended, with Matt dead and Sweat captured. Mitchell was already in custody, and Gene Palmer had just been arrested.

Once we settled in the cafeteria, Jensen waited until I took out my recorder, then took out his own — someone had misquoted him in another story, he later explained. We sat together for more than an hour. He talked about life in maximum security and the different ways to hustle and survive in a place like Clinton, which he said was unique from the other prisons in which he’d done time because it “totally governed itself.”

He explained “jail mail” — moving stuff from cell to cell — and how to carry contraband via one’s ass, AKA “cheeking,” how to bypass a fuse, de-roach a locker (Clinton is notorious for roaches), and move a bowl of “calamaris” of the frozen variety available at the commissary not just laterally down a block from cell to cell, but vertically from the lowest to highest cells, or “flats to top tier.”

He talked about Clinton’s North yard, which he likened to the movie Gladiator, and about working in Tailor 1, the treats Mitchell carried in for inmates, and the apple pie or barbequed chicken she carried in for Sweat. He also described the layout of the tailor shop (he’d later help design that set), including the walk-in supply closet, where Mitchell regularly had sex with Sweat, and later with Matt (footnote 2).

He also explained Sweat’s new solitary level of incarceration, or “box time,” at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, near Ithaca.

“Dave’s gonna get the box time because of the escape,” he said. “That’s Tier 3. One of the highest tiers you can get in the Department of Corrections. In your tier hearings, they send you to a prison in a prison. A world inside a world. Now he’s going to another world that’s inside the world that’s inside another world... His only hope is getting out of a prison inside of a prison,” he concluded. “And what kind of hope is that?”

Our interview never ran, which was probably for the better. Transcribing it was next to impossible due to the aforementioned way he talks: “The” is “da.” “That” is “dat.” “Your” is “yrr.” “Director” is “die-rek-tur.” Words that start with “es,” he starts with “ex,” so that “escape” sounds more like “ex-scape.” His laugh sounds like “heh, heh, heh.”

This is not a purely cultural or regional dialect. There are notes of the blue-collar New York accent that always sounds like taxi driver impression, and others that sound rural, with hard consonants and flat vowels. But his cadence, that rhythm of his speech, this is suggestive of people with careers in military or law-enforcement— a utilitarian and results-oriented way of verbalizing things that takes on its own tense. Some folks outside the suburbs where I’m from in Western New York talk like this, and in fact so does Joyce Mitchell (footnote 3).

I know I mentioned this already. But it’s important because it’s what best illustrates Jensen’s past. And because it’s extremely weird to hear someone speak like this to Ben Stiller.


Growing up, Jensen moved around Queens, the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and Alaska, where his father lives. When he was 14, a family court judge classified him as Person In Need of Supervision, freeing his mother of legal responsibility to take care of him. At 16, he got caught reaching through an open car window to steal loose change and was charged with attempted petty larceny. For the next 15 years, he was state property, either on parole or in prison, almost always for violating parole by doing things like missing curfew or driving without permission (footnote 4). He calls violating parole “getting violated.”

In 1999 he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, which he served at Green Correctional Facility and Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, where most inmates are under 21. He was 18.

“It’s like Lord of the Flies,” he said. “Are you gonna eat or be eaten? Are you gonna survive or give up? You gotta survive. And to do that, you have to adapt to a culture that’s vicious.”

Jensen did three more years at Bear Hill Correctional Facility in Malone (not far from where Matt was killed by U.S. Border Patrol Tactical). In 2011, he drove without his parole officer’s permission and was sent to Downstate Correctional Facility in the Hudson Valley.

A hub that specializes in holding prisoners, Jensen calls Downstate “a beer distributor but with humans.” He was “quarantined” to his cell — separated from the general population —where he waited to be “classified” and learn where he was going. He could leave his cell for meals and “in-house rec,” an hour at the end of the cell block where inmates watched TV. He had no books, music, or extra clothes, and to smoke, he rolled salvaged “butt tobacco” in the paper that comes around a roll of toilet tissue. For a fire source, he twisted up a length of tissue and lit it off a wire from the light overhead. It hung out his cell window, smoldering.

“Everything smelled like that there,” he said. “The smell of burning toilet paper.”

After eight days at Downstate he was transferred to Five Points. He remained confined some 22 hours a day, but his new cell had a door that let outside, into a four-by-eight-foot cage. There, other caged inmates practiced “spearfishing” with a network of sheet strips and rolled magazines that let them pass pornography, real cigarettes, and “absolutely any drug.”

It’s like Lord of the Flies. Are you gonna eat or be eaten? Are you gonna survive or give up? You gotta survive. And to do that, you have to adapt to a culture that’s vicious.
Erik Jensen

Three weeks later, Jensen, then 30, was classified to Clinton Correctional. On the bus ride there, Jensen was shackled to a mentally ill homeless man with a weak bladder named Larry. It was a five-hour ride to the facility, where up a long drive stood two tall gates swirling with razor wire. When the prisoners were finally marched off the bus, Jensen noticed a rare absence of cameras for maximum security (footnote 5). Eventually they reached a draft room with a poured concrete floor. This was the basement of a cell block, “where you get your shackles taken off or put on, depending on where you’re going,” Jensen said.

A senior CO walked down the line of new inmates, his Chippewa boots sounding on the floor.

“Touch one of my officers in here,” he said, invitingly. “You will disappear.”

The inmates sat on a wood bench. Another CO moved down the line, unlocking their shackles, then stopped at Larry, who had shit himself. The CO leapt back and pulled his baton. Others came running.

“They took him in the back and started rocking him,” Jensen said, in a rare moment of broken eye contact. “I never seen Larry after that.”


Dumping Jensen’s interview was not a big deal, because by then he’d been on TV. First with CBS2’s Jessica Schneider, a reporter he met at a memorial for a prisoner named Samuel Harrell, who was murdered (footnote 6). After no one contested what he said, Jensen became the new go-to guy for giving color on the prison break, and offers poured in. He appeared on Nightline, Inside Edition, and then CNN’s At This Hour. In each studio, he was wearing the same gleaming suit and tie. On the latter two programs, he sat with the anchors in front of a screen with the headline, “EX-INMATE: PRISON WORKER, ESCAPEE HAD SEX OFTEN.”

Jensen was the first person to bring this up. Prison officials remained steadfastly mum, though 12 were eventually suspended (with pay). This group included Palmer and the prison’s superintendent, Steven Racette, who quickly retired with an $84,000-pension (footnote 7).

Gene Palmer

Gene Palmer

Threats poured in, mostly anonymous direct messages via various social media channels and sometimes included doctored photos of Jensen’s kids. He kept going, though, and on June 24, he did a six-minute segment on Anderson Cooper 360. The next day he got a direct message from Brett Johnson, a writer on Mad Men, who was working on a pilot about the escape and needed a consultant. The two have talked once a week ever since.

“I saw him,” was how Johnson described the connective moment. “I saw him and I knew.

One year later, early in the summer of 2016, Jensen arrived early at the Standard Grill in Manhattan and went to the restroom. When he came out, Ben Stiller was seated in a booth behind a carousel of cheese.

They talked for two hours. Jensen told the story of his first day at Clinton, and how he’d burned toilet paper in his locker to smoke out the roaches.

Stiller and Jensen.

Stiller and Jensen.

“He has a dark side, but that’s what makes him interesting,” Stiller said. “I was a little intimidated. He was a real ‘prison guy.’”

He’d liked the pilot but was still uncommitted. Jensen, however, made an impression.

“He was attached for a year without a contract or payment. He didn’t care. He just kept saying, ‘when you’re ready I am,’ said Stiller. “I knew after I met him that if we did the project, he would be indispensable.”

Stiller committed to the project later in the summer of 2016 and took Jensen on as a producer. Del Toro and Arquette soon signed on, and Showtime eventually won the bid for the series.

Contract issues arose when lawyers discovered Jensen wasn’t in the TV producer’s guild and thus couldn’t be credited on the show as a producer. Stiller pushed for an unheard-of non-guild producer credit, and four final-hurdle-clearing weeks later, everyone agreed to give Jensen multiple consultant credits and a new offer, one Jensen describes as “the offer after Ben called.” It was a very good offer. Jensen flew to Beverly Hills and bought a windbreaker at Tom Ford.

PART II

New York’s largest maximum-security prison is just west of Plattsburgh, a state college town at the very top of New York, where the north and east coasts meet. Canada is 20 miles away. There are a few motels and restaurants and big gas stations that sell groceries, but basically the whole area is wilderness. Downstate prisoners call Clinton “Little Siberia.” Last New Year’s Eve it was 10 below zero.

The drive to Dannemora feels very average at first. Past the Interstate exit, a cluster of inns and chain restaurants quickly gives over to a salty-looking road sparsely set with ranch houses built far back on their lots. There are long driveways, wide lawns, some yards with a lot of stuff in them, a post-and-beam gas station, then an old Dollar General.

It takes a few miles to realize that what’s not mowed or built on is wilderness. The dense pine that stands behind everything like a dark wall has the same presence of the veiny cliffs that creep up around Route 87. They’re always there. So are Confederate flags and signs for Trump, repealing the Safe Act, and the Blue Lives Matter campaign. There are not a lot of them, but there’s also not a lot of people.

Ten miles down the road is Clinton. It looks like Yale or Hogwarts, sitting regally at the back of a long, grassy field under the big upstate sky. The outermost buildings are stacked stone, with green roofs of standing seam metal and big, old-style windows that need pulleys to open, and a long driveway guarded by a gleaming white SUV.

All the other prison structures are behind hazy layers of fencing, and it looks hard to even reach the actual facility, though that’s where they were shooting the day after I visited. Shooting inside of Clinton Correctional, that is, with obvious permission from the actual facility. (Stiller sent me a whole graph explaining how they pulled it off and of important prison people to thank).

This was September 5, 2017, and it was absolutely perfect outside.

The road that leads to the prison curves around towards it, with signs for the Village of Dannemora and a truck entrance. Across the main street is a Ford dealership with a chimney sticking up a ways behind it, and then the wall.

The wall is cracked whitewashed concrete and completely filled up both my passenger windows for 50 seconds at 30 mph. It’s three stories and two steps from the sidewalk. Regular things like grass, dog-walkers, and parking meters look totally surreal in front of it. At either end are towers topped with gazebo-looking octagons, where guys on balconies cradle their assault rifles. (“What up,” one of them said when I walked by.) Halfway down, almost directly under Tailor 1, Baker Street bisects Main, and down a hill you can see the plant that powers Clinton and the intersection with the manhole the guys crawled out of (footnote 8).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo toured Sweat and Matt’s escape route.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo toured Sweat and Matt’s escape route.

The wall.

The wall.

It’s dumb that the signs say “Village of Dannemora.” There’s no village. Clinton, with a staff of 1,300, is the town’s nucleus. Three of Main Street’s five blocks abut the south wall, the one open store is across the street, and of the 2,936 residents, 2,815 are inmates, or “inside the wall,” according to the town clerk.

September 6 was a very big day. From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Stiller had permission to shoot in the prison’s North Yard, where Erik Jensen (being an ex-felon) and one reporter (being a reporter) were not allowed. So September 5 was something of a final dress rehearsal, set behind the nearby Dannemora Public Library, a very small-town library-looking building except for the tinted vans and security people out front.

Out back was big-budget movie production. Past trailers, moving trucks, all-terrain carts, endless chairs, and a huge white ply-floored tent were about 200 people. Jensen was in front of half of the crowd. Behind him was what looked like a football field full of people in small groups, and behind the crowd where the grass meets the woods was a hedgy corner where the security guy said to park.

I parked and then everything happened very fast. Up ahead, through the crowd of mostly big-backed guys, Erik was handing out cigarettes from the props department.

Erik saw me and said hi, then was back by the football field, telling little groups of guys to improvise and not to look at the camera when it passed by their lot. One guy asked him what they could and couldn’t say.

“Anything unless you tell me to suck your dick,” was Jensen’s answer.

“OK.”

“Then we’re throwing down.”

“Right.”

“Right then and there.”

“All right.”

Erik turns back to the crowd.

“OK,” he says. “I need some Caucasiaños.”

I didn’t know what was going on here and Jensen was much too busy to explain anything. It took awhile just to see it all. The football field turned out to be a to-scale model of Clinton’s North yard, and each painted box represented a lot where the inmates congregated. Jensen’s job was to both set and fact-check the scene they were scheduled to shoot the next day, in which Sweat and Matt hatch their plan as they cross the bustling yard.

It was all so huge and busy that it took some time to figure out what was going on, which was that Jensen was organizing people by race, since that’s how inmates congregate in the yard. It took another hour to realize that he was basically allowed to tell anyone but Ben Stiller what to do when it came to prison stuff, and even this would change before they wrapped for the day.

Pretty soon though I could divide everyone into three crude groups:

  1. The tiny core team that made decisions, and whose leader was not yet there.

  2. The army of production people who made these decisions happen.

  3. The extras.

(Executive [i.e. money] people came and went, competitive-fatherly type guys no one wanted to talk to but everyone had to put up with.)

All ranks of the production people — from managers carrying rubber-rimmed megaphones with USB drives, to prop or wardrobe people in aprons clipped with full rings of keys, to rich kids with an affected air of projected importance that countered the demeaning shit they had to do — these people all looked like they belonged in or around movies.

The extras did not, because almost all 150 of them were ex-cons. Former convicts. Guys who had done time. Guys who looked and stared like Erik because they’ve been inside. Erik confirmed this later but really didn’t have to. Over these guys hovered a hard, sharp air that made me very self-conscious whenever I was on their side of the lawn. On that field stood a full cut page worth of profiles: every size, misshape, and color of oppressed minority, a few Lynchian wackos, four small blonde dudes, and a dozen very real-looking skinheads.

The cast and crew of Escape at Dannemora.

The cast and crew of Escape at Dannemora.

Jensen was talking to two of them over in the mock yard before Stiller arrived. One had tattoos across his face that shrank down into both eye sockets like a grainy substance moving towards a drain. The other one wore big shorts, a backwards cap, and those Skrillex-style earrings. He had a scar under one eye, and a jagged divot of decolored tissue encircling the socket where his other eye used to be.

At first the socket looked to have no eye in it, but distant inspection revealed that it did, way down in the corner, like a photo slipped from its mat. The brow and lashes had grown back, but at different angles, maybe because whichever glass or bottle that ended up in his face also got twisted around. The eye was grapelike, small and watery, with a blue iris, like the other one. I don’t remember if he had tattoos or not.

“White on,” said a non-white ex-con as they passed them.


Ben Stiller seemed to simply appear. I remember it quickly got quiet enough to hear this one banker-looking lady talking on her radio with a big space around her, and then all of a sudden Stiller was in that space. He looked just like Ben Stiller. His shirt, sneakers, trucker hat, can of Coke Zero, and aviator sunglasses were all black. He was Jensen’s size, short and muscled, but in way that’s less intimidating and more trainerish and “salad-y,” if that makes sense. He stood next to Benicio del Toro, who towered over him, and was roughly twice the size of Paul Dano, who also seemed to just appear, standing there silently panning out over the sea of ex-cons.

Stiller’s arrival put things into stark, moving order. For the next three hours, he and the four people allowed to talk to him walked the mock yard, prepping for what looked to be one long, very cool shot of Dano and Del Toro crossing the real yard, hatching their plan.

So it was Erik, Dano, Stiller, Del Toro, and a coachlike woman in a bucket hat who turned out to be Lisa Rowe. Rowe was the fearful first assistant director (or AD), the second-in-command and the top managerial person responsible for making sure sure the director got everything done within the allotted time to shoot. It’s a job so unhappily demanding that the AD is sometimes listed first or second in the credits.

Ben Stiller seemed to simply appear. He looked just like Ben Stiller.

As the five moved across the yard, a categorical aura of employees followed at close distance. I was allowed on the outer periphery and took notes on my phone. When Stiller or Lisa had questions about angles or lighting or how they would get something they needed, the highest-ranking production person surfaced for a short talk. One such exchange took place as they planned the end of the shot, when the guys finally cross the yard and step into a corner lot, where a lookout stands at an outdoor stove.

It all went something like this (and this is a reconstructed dialogue, with certain details changed for copyright reasons):

Stiller: So there’s a stove here?

Erik: Yeah.

Stiller: Someone’s cooking something?

Erik: Yeah.

Stiller: What are they cooking?

Erik: Stuff you get at commissary. Fish. Chicken. Empanadas.

Stiller: Ooh, empanadas. Can we have empanadas?

You could almost hear Lisa click the three degrees over Stiller’s trainerly shoulder into the crowd, out of which stepped a production person in a jingling apron.

Lisa: Can we have empanadas.

PA: Uuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Lisa: We can’t have empanadas.

PA: Uhhmmm.

Lisa: We can’t have empanadas.

PA: We may . . . not have empanadas.

Lisa: So we can’t have empanadas.

PA: We have fish.

Lisa: Fish.

Stiller: Fish?

Erik: People fry fish.

Stiller: We can’t have empanadas?

Lisa: Why can’t we have empanadas, Suzannah.

Suzannah longly exhaled and looked down into the lawn.

There was a moment when no one spoke that also seemed incredibly loud.

Then another one.

Suzannah: I don’t see why we can’t have empanadas.

Lisa: So we can have empanadas.

Suzannah: We’ll get empanadas.

Lisa: We’ll get empanadas.

Stiller: Great!


They rehearsed the scene 10 times. It’s a good scene: There were rap circles, workouts, cooking, people sleeping and nodding off, fair and unfair games of dice, poker, dominoes, and Uno. (No sex. Guys masturbate and have sex in the bathrooms.) And great amounts of sound: barks, shouts, jokes, cat-calls, criticism, ambiguous and unambiguous threats, and any other noise living things make when they’re locked up.

Del Toro had questions about everything onset, especially how much he could improvise with the extras. “Can I play with that?” he asked over and over again.

Dano had questions about nothing. Outside of his lines, he didn’t speak for three hours. (Or if he did, I didn’t hear it, and I was right there.) And while Del Toro’s slyly handsome resemblance to Matt in the film is convincing, Dano’s resemblance to Sweat is uncanny. It is mysterious in such a way as to frighten, and this was before he went to makeup or wardrobe (footnote 9). He was quiet in an intense way that got more alarming as the scene came alive, which was how Jensen said Sweat was like in real life. (I’ve tried twice to get Jensen to elaborate on this, and all he would say is “You can tell a lot from someone’s eyes.”)

For some reason, Dog the Bounty Hunter was in Dannemora after Sweat was captured.

For some reason, Dog the Bounty Hunter was in Dannemora after Sweat was captured.

As they walked, Del Toro practiced different looks and postures and gestures and pauses and physical interactions like shaking hands or feigning shaking hands — all the way up until they reached the end lot, which was where they ran into an inmate named Kilo.

In the scene, Kilo stood out because he was small, groomed, and wearing sunglasses. He walked front and center of a wide-pointed pack of NFL-sized men wearing long gold chains. The pack itself moved down the yard’s main circuit, so that passersby either had to move or make physical contact with a predator. They passed Del Toro the way a swarm of eels might pass a shark. Both sides looked.

“Somebody’s a snitch,” says Kilo. “So somebody’s gonna die.”

Kilo was played by Calvin Dutton, a young talent on Orange is the New Black, and who hung out in the bar that night at the local Uno Pizzeria while we waited for the world’s worst server to bring us the world’s worst food.

Word around set was that characterwise, Kilo was a new gang leader, inexperienced and thus overcompensating for that. Dutton said that was just one possibility and that his character will resonate with inmates. Kilo’s role was to put out every kind of energy and be receptive to every responding and corresponding energy, and then act accordingly.

“He’s taking it all in and he’s maintaining his identity,” Dutton said. “Kilo has to maintain his identity as a predator, because out of that identity comes protection. I have to know that I am the boss. Not an employee. The boss. And whatever that means, that’s the role I have to play in order to survive later.”

Benico Del Toro, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, and Ben Stiller at the Escape At Dannemora premiere on November 14.

Benico Del Toro, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, and Ben Stiller at the Escape At Dannemora premiere on November 14.

This is important because it was all Erik’s idea; he was in charge of making the scene realistic. He, not Stiller, directed Kilo and the gang. He told them how to walk (tense, silent, with crossed arms) to give Kilo the platform to project this multifaceted energy of relaxed regal danger.

“That tone is so important,” Dutton said. “Erik helped me find that tone.”

The next morning, Jensen was on set at 6 a.m., talking to Stiller and watching everything with a small tech team on a grainy monitor set up by a truck parked outside of Clinton’s west wall. Over the next 12 hours, he navigated a small universe of problems, including a call from an executive, who’d just got a call from DOCCS in Albany, who got a call from someone at Clinton, who said a reporter was trying to sneak into the prison.

He handled this too.


It was Joyce Mitchell who nearly foiled the escape. Like a serial killer or late-stage addict, she’d stopped being careful, and on June 5, 2015 she was confronted by a corrections officer.

Even within Clinton’s famed realm of dysfunction, Mitchell had a reputation all her own. Her direct supervisor, a man named Bradley Streeter, noted that in one instance “Seven inmates [were] out of their work areas, not working and drinking coffee. Shop very loud. [Mitchell] ignoring all this.” Another noted: “Matt is running the shop.”

Mitchell was spending more and more time with Matt, and by then looked different: she’d lost weight and started wearing makeup and abandoned the dress code, wearing low-cut tops that showed her cleavage, according to testimony from prison employees. Weeks before, Sweat was transferred due to a reported affair with her (the DOCCS’s Office of Special Investigations found the rumors “baseless”). Sweat’s ouster upset Mitchell. “Hurry up and get Dave back here,” she reportedly told Matt. “I’m horny as fuck.”

The day of the escape, Mitchell sat with Matt “all day long” just “chit-chatting.” Finally, a new officer told inmates in the shop to get back to work.

“Hurry up and get Dave back here,” Mitchell reportedly told Matt. “I’m horny as fuck.”

Mitchell stood up.

“Leave my fucking inmates alone!” she screamed. “If they don’t have any fucking work, they can’t do no work now, can they?”

She called the shop superintendent, who sent up Streeter.

“You can’t yell at your officer,” Streeter reportedly said.

“Fuck I can’t,” was her response.

Matt left the shop that day at 4 p.m. Seven hours and 50 minutes later, he stood with Sweat under the manhole one block from the prison wall. If all went to plan, Mitchell would be parked above with her engine running. She’d instead gone to the hospital, claiming a panic attack.

Matt and Sweat climbed up into the street, looked back at the empty tailor shop and observation towers, circled for 20 minutes, then fled into the woods.

After their jailbreak was discovered, at 5:17 a.m., the prison’s alarm wasn’t sounded.


Six weeks after Jensen arrived at Clinton, a CO kicked out his teeth during a riot. He laid in place for five hours. Eventually, his hands were zip-tied behind him, and tobacco juice was spit in his hair.

“That was the first time I really thought ‘I’m gonna die in one of these places,’” he said. “I was raised in the penitentiaries, and in a sick sense, it was something I just became used to. This is what I know. My whole life. Getting in trouble. Going to these places.”

While he was learning to eat with false teeth, Jensen grew close with Donny Musmacher, an elderly inmate with emphysema who still had decades left to serve.

“A lot of people in here who would kill to be in your position,” he told Jensen. “You’re getting an opportunity to go back out. I’m not. Don’t squander this opportunity.”

A kind man who lived on the honor block with Matt and Sweat, Donny had a small library in his cell. He started passing Erik books by ex-cons and self-help authors. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich became a bible to Erik, and he still has the copy from Donny’s library.

“I was still fighting my demons,” said Jensen. “But Donny was a constant reminder: The energy you put out is the energy you’re gonna get back. I’m a big believer in that now.”

When he left Clinton in 2012, Jensen was assigned to homeless shelter instead of a halfway house, where after his third night almost everything he owned was stolen, including his shoes. He left, violating parole, and was sent to Attica, where Sweat resides today (footnote 10).

“Attica was Attica,” he said. “It’s Us-versus-Them. I kept to myself.”

In 2013, Jensen “maxed out” of his sentence and, and 32, was totally free for the first time in 16 years. He moved in with a friend in Poughkeepsie and started doing construction.

Three years later he was having lunch with Ben Stiller. That summer, he and Stiller visited Donny Musmacher at Mohawk Correctional Facility in central New York. Stiller had never been inside of a prison. After the Clinton escape, Donny and other honor block inmates were put in solitary and waterboarded with plastic bags. Now on oxygen, today Donny resides in a hospital inside of a prison.

“There’s a bond that can only come out of being incarcerated with someone,” Stiller said. “I saw that bond there.”

Since the project wrapped, Jensen has worked as a consultant on NBC’s Blacklist, and after Escape at Dannemora’s traffic peaks, he plans to launch his own consulting agency — a network of experts on criminal justice and beyond. His partner is “a big name, somebody I’m working with now.” He wouldn’t say who.

“When I was at Clinton, I was hopeless. I didn’t even know if I was gonna make it out,” he said. “Now I’m using what I’ve been through to create this niche,” he said. Not only to support myself but to bring a sense of realism to Hollywood.”

“I’m proud to be a part of something like this, something that’s not just gonna entertain people but hopefully show people what’s really going on inside our criminal justice system. To show people what’s going on inside those walls. Stories don’t get told from inside those walls. Ever. That was the first time they were ever allowed to have a film crew in there, ever.

“I remember when you first asked me, ‘Are you surprised?’ No. I’m not surprised. This has been going on since creation. I’m surprised that it took this long.”

Jensen still speaks with the Peekskill-adjacent accent he had in 2015 when, within two weeks of the escape, he had a national platform by building a reputation as the only one who could be trusted in the midst of a law-enforcement story.


The Inspector General’s report on the Clinton Correctional Facility escape was released in June 2016. It found all levels of security at the prison were “so superficial as to be virtually without value.”

The report confirmed the claims Jensen made when he was still a roofer, appearing on TV for free, wearing the same suit over and over again.

It cited additional “inappropriate relationships” between COs and inmates (just last week, another Clinton employee having another affair with another inmate was sentenced to two years for misconduct and promoting contraband). Investigators monitored front gate security for days, and “on no occasion did investigators observe a thorough physical search” of anyone. Almost no COs had completed the required 40 hours of state training, and one testified “you do two or three days of touring the facility… then you’re thrown the keys.” COs require additional training to achieve the rank of sergeant, yet six who were promoted between 2012 and 2015 “had not received the training.” Sergeants require further training to achieve the rank of captain, yet 14 of Clinton’s 22 captains had not undergone any.

All executive management at Clinton denied having any knowledge of this. Steven Racette served 37 years in the corrections department, five as Clinton’s superintendent (he has since retired). When he was questioned by investigators about forged count slips, Racette said, “I haven’t heard of that.”

But willful incompetence flourished at an even higher level than Racette. DOCCS Assistant Commissioner Patricia LeConey evaluated the prison in a 2015 site visit and found everything to be in “full compliance.” This included the accuracy of logbooks and contraband control.

On slips for hourly night rounds and master counts (summations of that night’s rounds and the 5:30 a.m. standing count), COs signed their names below the words “I certify this to be correct.” More than 400 hourly counts should have taken place during the three months that Sweat left his cell each night to engineer the escape. Apparently, according to the report, zero occurred: “Just one properly performed night round during this months-long period would have foiled the escape.”

Investigators found Sweat’s testimony credible and those of COs, the DOCCS, Mitchell, and Clinton management not credible. Clinton employees received immunity for their testimonies and lied throughout, conveniently forgetting things like the names of their co-workers.

A master count exists for the night of June 5, signed in pencil, then erased, by Lieutenant Terry Brunet, who said he thought he was signing something else.

“I understand how ridiculous it sounds,” he told investigators. But he thought what he was signing was “another piece of paper that was already on top of [the master count].”

“The Inspector General finds these misstatements and purported lapses of memory reprehensible,” the report concludes. “These actions may also violate state ethics laws, and in the case of uniformed officers, a sworn duty to uphold the law.”

FOOTNOTES

1

As of this writing, three people have been convicted for their involvement in the prison’s first breakout since 1912: There’s Sweat, who we’ll talk about later. There’s Palmer, who provided the guys with tools in frozen hamburger meat that he testified didn’t have anything inside of, was convicted of official misconduct and promoting prison contraband, fined $5,000, and served four months in a private cell at the Clinton County Jail. And then there’s Mitchell, who provided the guys with additional tools, among other things. She was convicted of promoting prison contraband and misdemeanor criminal facilitation, fined $79,841, and sentenced to 2.3 to seven years in Westchester County’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

2

Mitchell denies this. In the one interview she granted, she told disgraced news anchor Matt Lauer that there was “flirtation” but never any “sexual contact” with Sweat, and “there was never anything consensual” with Matt. Tearfully, she said Matt forcefully kissed her and once tried to push her head down onto his reportedly huge penis.

That’s crude, I know, but it’s nothing compared to her assessment by the Inspector General (referred to as IG throughout), Catherine Leahy Scott, whose 154-page “Investigation of the June 5, 2015 Escape of Inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility” is the source for most of the corruption intel in this article. The IG and her team spent a year investigating Clinton, interviewed 175 people, and reviewed “tens of thousands” of documents, including audit reports, disciplinary files, facility procedures, Department of Corrections inspection records, and a lot of other forged stuff. The end result is a page-turning piece of really well-written reporting, and it is, in fact, what made Stiller want to not just produce but direct a whole episodic series instead of a single movie. “The moment,” he says, came while reading the report, “because the facts were more interesting than anything that could be made up.”

Anyway, the report concluded that since at least 2014 Mitchell had “engaged in numerous sexual encounters” with both Sweat and Matt, provided them with sexy selfies, called Matt’s daughter for him, and sent Sweat daily notes, professing her both her love for him and her hatred of her husband Lyle. One note regarding Lyle read: “You guys gotta rid of the glitch.” The IG interviewed Mitchell twice and reviewed 40 additional hours of interrogation tape, throughout which Mitchell lied consistently and moronically (re: the love notes to Sweat, she said, “I was thinking of my husband”).

3

Mitchell’s lawyer, Stephen Johnston, didn’t respond to requests for an interview, probably because he doesn’t want anyone else to hear his client speak — the weird, rural, affected, institutionalisms Mitchell uses probably won’t elicit sympathy from the public. It’s there though, in the one interview: When Lauer asks what she carried in for Sweat and Matt, she says: “I give ‘em the star bit. Four full-size hacks blades. And I give ‘em chisel and punch. That’s all I give them.”

(She was lying. She also smuggled in work gloves, cargo pants, a compass, an LED light, Allen wrenches, two pairs of light-equipped glasses, work gloves, cargo pants, a compass, and a bottle of Wild Turkey. She also asked Sweat if he wanted a gun.)

Lauer also interviewed Lyle Mitchell, who carried in food for inmates, and who talks like Jensen and Mitchell but also has some other pretty obvious issues (I couldn’t interview him either). When Lauer asked Lyle when he first heard about the escape, here’s what this current Industrial Training Supervisor at a state-funded maximum security prison had to say:

“We gettin’ ready to leave and we turn a cell phone on and all of a sudden we hed all kinda beep-beep-beep-beep all from my kids and family state troopers lookin’ for us. So my wife when she turned’a cell phone on she said, ‘Oh my God Matt and Sweat ex-scaped.’ Whaaaaaaat!? It must be why troopers wantin’ us.”

4

For 15 years, Erik Jensen bounced back and forth between New York’s Department of Corrective Services and the New York State Division of Parole. Today they are one in the same. The two power centers merged in 2011 to form the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS. (During the manhunt, you might have seen DOCCS patches on the Kevlar vests of guys riding around on night camo ATVs. These were DOCCS forces, working with local and state forces, then the FBI, Customs & Border, and the Canadian mounties.)

Today, New York’s DOCCS supervises almost 36,000 parolees while operating 54 prisons that house almost 48,000 inmates. Headquartered in Albany, the DOCCS at the time of the escape had a staff of almost 29,000 and a budget of $2.94 billion.

5

The IG noticed this too, specifically that “no housing block at Clinton is equipped with cameras,” except the Special Housing Unit. Cameras are absent around corridors, metal detectors, officer stations, and the eight tailor shops. Jensen said the corridors are “where they fuck you up” at Clinton, sometimes lining up eight per side, waiting for inmates around corners.

6

Samuel Harrell, a black bipolar inmate at Fishkill Correctional in the Hudson Valley, was killed by some 20 COs in 2015. A dozen witnesses say that they handcuffed him, dragged him down stairs, screamed racial slurs and jumped on him “like he was a trampoline.” COs told an ambulance crew Harrell had overdosed on synthetic marijuana, but his autopsy didn’t find the drug in his system and concluded that he died “following physical altercation with corrections officers.” All charges against the group of men who came to be known as the “Beat Up Squad,” including Sergeant Joseph Guarino, were dropped due to lack of evidence.

7

It seems like no one ever even bothered to say this, but in any kind of facility, let alone a maximum security one, guards are absolutely forbidden from bringing inmates anything. DOCCS employees aren’t supposed to talk to prisoners unless they have to, their work manual prohibiting “any conversation, communication... which is not necessary or proper for the discharge of the employees duties [sic].” Policy also prohibits “extending to any inmate any favor or privilege of diet, clothing... or of any other nature not common to all.” Legally, bringing inmates pies, venison, or home-printer porno falls under Promoting Prison Contraband, the felony of which Palmer then Mitchell were convicted.

Palmer, Mitchell, Lyle, and others carried in contraband through the prison’s front gate, another place the IG cited with “flagrant violations” for basically never searching anything workers carried in or out. When questioned about this, COs told the IG that “they believed they were not permitted to physically search employees’ bags.”

8

The night before I got up there, Stiller shot the big Shawshank-poster-stand-up-into-freedom scene, with Dano and Del Toro down in the actual manhole. The actual manhole cover is still there, albeit soldered in four places.

9

Rumor around set was that the extras’ costumes are authentic “state greens” made by Clinton inmates (and thus possibly by Matt, Sweat, or even Jensen). While at Clinton, the three worked for a company the DOCCS created called Corcraft, which uses inmate labor to make and sell soap, signs, license plates, crowd-control barricades, and prison apparel. Corcraft, according to a 2014 DOCCS report, uses 14 different prisons in New York and 2,100 inmates, whose labor starts at 16 cents an hour. The year before the escape, the company made almost $48 million.

Fun fact: When it opened in 1845, Clinton’s first inmates worked in nearby ore mines.

Much less fun fact: Prison labor has deep roots in slavery. The historian Heather Thompson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2016 book Blood in the Water about the 1971 uprising at Attica Prison in western New York, describes systems like DOCCS and Corcraft as an “institutional descendent of slavery” (Gothamist reporter J.B. Nicholas wrote a thorough piece on Corcraft last year that is worth reading) . Thompson traces prison labor back to the just-post-Civil-War south, when something called the “convict lease system” let plantation owners rent their former slaves from nearby prisons. She also cites an 1871 case, Ruffin v. Commonwealth, in which the Supreme Court of Virginia referred to prisoners as “slaves of the State.”

10

Sweat was already serving a life-without-parole sentence (he shot and then ran over a police officer in 2002) when he escaped; after his capture, he was found guilty of escape and promoting prison contraband and, like Mitchell, ordered to pay $79,841 in restitution. But in a separate disciplinary hearing that no one will explain to me, the DOCCS found him guilty of additional escape charges and sentenced him to six years solitary confinement. He has no phone, package, or commissary privileges, and for 23 hours a day is locked in a cell, with one hour to day to exercise in what’s a basically a kennel. Sweat spent the last two years at Five Points Correctional, and after another escape attempt in November 2017, was transferred to Attica. Within a month he was on a hunger strike, claiming guards said his food was poisoned.

Stiller and I both sent this news to Jensen, who was unsurprised:

“Attica is the worst,” he said. “Back in ’71 they had that riot. And those people who were there then — these are their sons, nephews, brothers. And they’re grandfathered in with that mentality. You can feel the tension. You can feel it. In the yard. It’s hovering over. Like a nimbus. So it’s violent there. It’s very violent.”

Cole Hawes Louison is the author of The Impossible: Rodney Mullen, Ryan Sheckler, And The Fantastic History Of Skateboarding. He last wrote for The Outline about a the infuriating case of a brownstone that nobody owned.