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Guards allegedly responded to the New York prison escape by beating other inmates

David Sweat and Richard Matt broke through this tunnel to escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility — and left a racist caricature on a Post-It for anyone trying to follow their trail.
David Sweat and Richard Matt broke through this tunnel to escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility — and left a racist caricature on a Post-It for anyone trying to follow their trail.

During the three weeks in June that prison escapees David Sweat and Richard Matt were on the run in upstate New York, they don't appear to have hurt anyone but themselves: Matt was shot and killed by an officer on June 26, and Sweat was shot before his capture on June 28.

Apparently the same can't be said for the guards at Clinton Correctional Facility, who allegedly interrogated, threatened, and beat inmates in the days after Sweat and Matt escaped.

According to an investigation by Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip for the New York Times, dozens of inmates at Clinton allege that they were abused by guards trying to get information about Sweat and Matt. "Inmates described a strikingly similar catalog of abuses," the Times writes, "including being beaten while handcuffed, choked and slammed against cell bars and walls."

This is what the Times says happened to an inmate who lived in the cell next to Sweat and Matt's:

As the three guards, who wore no name badges, punched him and slammed his head against the wall, he said they shouted questions: "Where are they going? What did you hear? How much are they paying you to keep your mouth shut?" One of the guards put a plastic bag over his head, Mr. Alexander said, and threatened to waterboard him.

Another inmate said he was hanged with a plastic bag until he passed out during an interrogation. He identified the guard responsible: The guard was "known in the prison as Captain America" because of his American flag tattoo.

The crackdown went beyond physical abuse. Several inmates reported they were placed in solitary confinement (which a UN report has called torture) in retaliation for Sweat and Matt's escape. Some prisoners had worked for years to earn better treatment for good behavior, only to have it taken away from them because guards were upset with the escapees:

Some of the former honor block residents have lost privileges that had taken years to earn at Clinton. Mr. Edwards, who had supervised 50 inmates at the prison tailor shop, had been able to earn as much as $45 a week. Since being moved to Sing Sing, he has been working as a porter making $3 a week. "They took everything from me," he said. "They did everything they could to blame the ones who stayed."

The accomplices to the escape weren't inmates, they were prison employees

The tragic irony is that no inmates have been implicated in helping Matt and Sweat escape. But several prison employees have.

Prison seamstress Joyce Mitchell has pleaded guilty to a felony for smuggling tools into the prison for Sweat and Matt to use in their escape; allegedly, she also planned to drive their getaway vehicle but didn't follow through. Corrections officer Gene Palmer has been charged with helping smuggle in tools, and with showing Sweat and Matt passages in the prison that they used to sneak out early in the morning of June 6. And the prison's superintendent and two other members of its executive team have been suspended from duty while the state investigates the escape.

Of course, not everyone who's been suspended was necessarily in on the plot — the superintendent, for example, is probably being disciplined for tolerating a prison environment where planning an escape was possible. But that's the same environment that allowed other guards to respond by interrogating and abusing inmates. The Times speculates that guards were "frantically [pressing] for information that could lead to the capture of the two prisoners, and perhaps exonerate themselves for the security lapses that contributed to the breakout." Because some guards really were responsible for the escape, other guards needed all the more desperately to clear their names. And while they couldn't easily take out their anger on other guards, they could take it out on inmates.

On some level, America has kind of accepted that prisons are largely lawless places. That's why prison rape jokes are popular enough that President Obama had to point out how inappropriate they are. And the president didn't even mention the cluster of other jokes and stereotypes about life in prison, rife with cracks about shivs and assumptions about race gangs.

That's a stereotype grounded in some level of fact. But it also makes it hard to remember that there are rules and standards for humane treatment in prison, and that guards aren't supposed to have total and capricious power over inmates. Being angry because a pair of inmates escaped is a terrible reason to throw another inmate in solitary confinement or force him into a $3-a-week job. But there aren't very many good reasons to do those things, either.