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How dangerous are the New York prison escapees?

Lisa S. via Shutterstock

The two men who dug their way out of a maximum-security prison in New York aren't noble rascals out of The Shawshank Redemption.

One shot a deputy sheriff 22 times. The other was convicted for beating a man to death and dismembering his corpse. And right now, they're at large — and, officials argue, a threat to public safety.

"They're vicious animals," says Lenny DePaul, the former director of a US marshals task force in New York and New Jersey. "Nothing's going to get in their way." New York Governor Andrew Cuomo calls it a crisis situation: "These are dangerous men. They are capable of committing grave crimes once again."

The research on people who escape prison shows that most aren't violent during their time at large. But there's some reason to believe David Sweat and Richard Matt could be the exceptions.

Violence has never been that common among escapees

The public and law enforcement assume that people who committed violent crimes are simply violent people — so they'll take advantage of their freedom to commit more violence. It might even help them get caught, since the public will keep an eye out for threatening fugitives.

For years, that assumption was enshrined in the law, too. When fugitives were caught and charged with escape, courts considered it an inherently violent crime — even when the "escape" was nothing more than walking off a work site.

Data undercuts that assumption. One study of 35 convicted murderers who escaped from Oklahoma prisons from 1990 to 1995 (an escape rate that would be unheard of today) found that only four of the 31 murderer-escapees studied had committed violent crimes after their escapes.

In 2005, criminologist R. F. Culp conducted a broader review of escapes through the late 1990s. Culp only looked at cases where prisoners had actually broken out of prisons — leaving out much more common kinds of escape, like slipping out during transit or simply walking away from a work site. Even then, though, he found that violence was rare. Only 8 percent of the cases he looked at involved any violence whatsoever, and only 7 of the 135 escapees he analyzed committed a violent crime while out in the community (as opposed to violence during the escape, or during apprehension by law enforcement).

Culp's paper got a lot of attention — not least from the courts. The law no longer considers escape an inherently violent crime. Courts maintain that there's always a risk of violent behavior. But mostly, they look at the circumstances of the escape.

What makes an escape most likely to be violent?

Bryce Peterson of the Urban Institute wrote his dissertation on how often prison escapees engaged in violence — during their escapes, on the run, or trying to fight back against apprehension. His conclusion: violence still isn't common. But when it happens, it happens in cases like this.

About 20 percent of the escapes he studied involved some sort of violence (although that includes something as minor as shoving a guard). But the most common scenario was violence during the escape — not committing violent crimes against civilians while on the lam. On the run, fewer than 9 percent of escapees committed violent crimes. Furthermore, inmates who'd committed violent crimes before being put in prison — like Sweat and Matt — weren't significantly more likely than other escapees to commit violent crimes after they escaped.

But the New York escapees' elaborate escape plan? That might be something to worry about.

What does matter in predicting whether a fugitive will be violent, Peterson found, is how hard they'd tried to get out of prison and how badly they want to stay out. Prisoners were less likely to break out of "secure custody" (relatively high-security prisons), but when they did they were four times more likely to engage in violence than prisoners who hadn't been in secure custody when they'd escaped. Prisoners who'd already made at least one escape were more likely to be violent during or after subsequent escapes. And when there was evidence that a prisoner had planned his escape in advance, it was more likely that he'd committed an act of violence during or after carrying that plan out.

Those factors hardly made it inevitable that an escapee would use violence. But they were the things that made it significantly more likely.

Richard Matt and David Sweat show every indication of having planned their escape in advance, unless having power tools in your cell and knowing the sewer system are standard procedure. They broke out of secure custody. And Matt has a past escape on his record.

What all those traits have in common, says Peterson, is that they show escapees are "motivated to stay out of prison — not only to escape, but to stay out. So they're more likely, then, to use violence to make sure they don't get recaptured."

Put that way, violence sounds like a careful strategic decision — not something escapees are inherently drawn to because they're bad people. But violent escapees are also more likely to draw the full force of the US marshals and company to apprehend them — so the calculation can backfire.

In 2000, a group of seven inmates escaped from a high-security prison in Texas. They killed a police officer during a subsequent store robbery, and when they were recaptured they were sentenced to death for the officer's murder. But one of the inmates, interviewed by ABC just after his capture, protested: "We just wanted to start a new life."