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2015 in Review: How the Sweat/Matt escape shaped the national conversation about corrections

There are three things that I think ring true for the Sweat and Matt escape that can be held constant across any state, institution or custody level

Probably the most notable incident for corrections in 2015 was the prison escape of David Sweat and Richard Matt in upstate New York. While prisons escapes are more the exception than the rule, this incident focused media attention on our profession that outlasted the incident itself. For that time our profession was under the same microscope as law enforcement.

There are three things that I think ring true for the Sweat and Matt escape that can be held constant across any state, institution or custody level. These three things are:

1. Staff are open to manipulation
2. Escapes and violence are always threats
3. We are in the media spotlight just like our police peers

Correctional employees at the Clinton Correctional Center in New York were clearly targeted by Sweat and Matt. Specifically, Joyce Mitchell was a target, for reasons only known to Sweat and Matt. But in looking at the situation in hindsight there was clear red flags that were missed by coworkers, administrators, and even her husband.

Offenders have nothing but time on their hands and they are master manipulators. During the investigation it was learned that Joyce Mitchell had had relationships with the offenders while working in the prison. Sweat and Matt created, fostered, and developed a personal relationship with Mitchell.

I feel confident that Sweat and Matt would have located and manipulated another employee sooner or later. But I am reminded that there were numerous red flags that should have been seen by other co-workers. The offenders will target anyone that they think they can get over on, and align themselves with to improve whatever quality of life they have or had. We as security professionals need to stress to coworkers that we maintain operational security of the institution, and we bring in the information needed for the inmates.

In looking at the escape in upstate New York, violence was an apparent theme. First there was the sexual violence committed by Sweat and Matt against an apparently willing Joyce Mitchell. Further, they showed a willingness to fight law enforcement once they got out, and were on the run.

These two inmates were going to stop at nothing from getting their freedom. Prison escape attempts always involve the possibility of (or the presence of) violence, either at the institution attempting to escape, or the willingness to fight once cornered on the streets. We as correctional professionals need to remind ourselves that these folks are in prions, it is not adult day camp. Many are stone-cold killers, murders, child molesters and everything in between. They have had their freedom taken away, and are willing to do whatever it takes to have freedom once again.

In the information age that we are currently in, a quick Google search of corrections and corruption, most of the top pages are from public news sources detailing criminal acts and other graft that has occurred within our profession. This is underscored by the Sweat and Matt escape in New York, where the escape was one of the main media stories until they were caught, and even for a few days after.

This put corrections on par with Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis and any place where a law enforcement incident has occurred in the past 18 months. We as a profession need to understand that the media can (and will) be calling us out in the future for mistakes and transgressions. This media coverage will create more of an intense review by politicians, policy makers, and general public to ensure that we are doing our jobs correctly.

A prison escape is a relatively uncommon occurrence in the United States — most escapes involve low level offenders who “walk” away from their institutions. There are very rarely any high security inmates who escape. In looking at these three themes I believe that we can limit our exposure, protect our agencies, and help provide a service to the offenders and society.

Who knows what the future will hold, and what is going to happen around the next turn? Keeping up on professional development in areas of staff manipulation will help our employees remain vigilant. As a prison correctional officer, I am reminded on a daily basis the potential for violence within the institution, and we must be vigilant as officers. Finally we cannot reside in the shadows anymore as a profession — because of recent events we have been brought out into the media spotlight. We need to have a paradigm shift much like Vollmer caused in law enforcement.

Dr. Matthew J. Stiehm has received an Educational Doctorate from Argosy University, where the focus of his research was campus safety and security. He has a Master’s Degree of Criminal Justice from Central Missouri State University, with his final paper which focused on the investigation of child abuse and finally a Bachelors of Science from Wayne State College, Nebraska. He has served as a police officer in three states (CA, MN and NE), he keeps current on law enforcement trends most recently he conducted an 8 month study with Columbia Heights Police Department (MN) on Community Policing. He currently is a member of ILEETA, an Associate Member of the IACP, Support, and Police Executive Research Forum Subscribing Member. Dr. Stiehm is transitioning into a career with the correctional world, working as a corrections officer.