Don't call us 'guards': How the Dannemora prison escape happened

Why civilians work in prisons and how inmates manipulate them


The prison break from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, consumed my life. Most of my friends aren’t familiar with prison operations – and they shouldn’t be – so I was inundated with questions like:

Here are the answers I shared with those who aren’t familiar with the running of prisons and correctional facilities.

An employee leaves the Clinton Correctional Facility, Wednesday, June 17, 2015 in Dannemora, N.Y.
An employee leaves the Clinton Correctional Facility, Wednesday, June 17, 2015 in Dannemora, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Why do civilians work in prisons?

From teachers to counselors to nurses and food service workers, it takes a plethora of civilian or non-security staff to run a prison. Think of a prison as a small town with a library, school, hospital, laundry, kitchen, bank and store. Civilian staff are needed to run these areas.

Many start off "new" to the profession and require extensive security training. In some instances – like nursing and teaching – prison life may, in fact, contradict what their professions teach. For example, nurses are taught to be caring and compassionate. They may even put a hand on a patient's shoulder to comfort them – but care and compassion, if taken too far, can get a prison nurse in trouble.

And forget the touch on the shoulder to show empathy – any inmate would jump on that in a second and misread it as a sign of sexual affection. When I teach new employees, I tell them, "Always remember, they are felons first." 

How do inmates manipulate?

Civilian staff are often manipulated by inmates. Inmates watch and take in everything we do. They listen to side conversations, watch our body language, check our wedding rings and take notes so when the time is right they can pounce in. The vocational instructor at Clinton Correctional Facility, Joyce Mitchell, who assisted in the Dannemora escape, was just one of thousands of staff members who "fall in love" and think they are the exception to the rule. More than likely, Mitchell took a class or two on inmate manipulation before working directly with inmates. My theory has been, as I've seen similar cases like this way too often, she began to think she was the exception to the rule.

The inmates know how to make staff feel special: "Oh, Ms. Mitchell, I've never had a better teacher than you," "Ms. Mitchell, you're looking especially nice today," and "Ms. Mitchell, you're the only person in my life who has really helped me." It goes on and on. If you don’t nip it in the bud the first time, the inmate will take a second shot, then a third and you're doomed. Staff must confront those comments immediately and then report them before the inmate gets the hook in too deep.

If you see something, say something

There are plenty of excellent professional correctional staff in the world. They too need to report. I tell my staff if it quacks, it's probably a duck, and if they see a duck, they need to tell someone. During my career, I've walked out far too many good people who fell prey to the manipulation of inmates.

Each time, during the after-action review, others were able to identify signs that we might have recognized in order to prevent the issue from going too far. So, here's what to look for:

  • Staff spending unreasonable time with a particular group or an individual inmate;
  • Staff calling inmates by their first name (a prohibited act) or referring to them as "my inmates" or "my students";
  • Inmates knowing too much about the institution’s gossip;
  • Unknowingly alienating staff from each other – for example, if an inmate works on the maintenance crew, the employee must be constantly reminded the inmate worker is not a peer but a felon first;
  • Staff who are adamant about not rotating inmate job assignments or moving a particular inmate out of their dorm;
  • Staff who suddenly change their appearance – females wearing more makeup or male staff suddenly wearing cologne;
  • Staff who request to work on their days off or stay late or come in early – this is usually done to sneak a few private minutes with the inmate;
  • Putting staff in positions where they over-identify with the inmate population and not fellow staff members; this is particularly common with new staff members who might not feel welcomed by their peers. The inmates notice this and reach out to "assist" them in becoming acclimated with prison life. If staff are asking inmates how to do their job, you've got serious problems.
  • Staff having family problems. If staff are dealing with issues outside in their personal lives, it shows and inmates read it. It opens a door for them to offer the staff member a listening ear. Know your staff and be there before the inmates pounce in.

Unfortunately, among the majority of true professionals who do a tough job every day, there are those who are easily manipulated, those who lack the confidence to stand up to the inmates and those who can't resist the inmate manipulation.

But we have a responsibility to help new employees, to get seasoned staff to stay on track and to report, report, report any ducks we might see on the compound. 

This article, originally published 07/10/2015, has been updated. 

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