March 2017 / Crime / reading time: 12 minutes (3000 words)
Original artwork by Philip Barrett
It’s hard to find something to write about these days. Sometimes everything I write, both in this blog and in my fiction, seems banal when I see what’s on the news. Much I took for granted in this world appears at risk. I wrote about myself, my dreams and burnout last month but want to look beyond myself in this month’s blog post. I want to share some hope for this world.
I want to tell you the story of a prison break.
June 6th, 2015
On a sweltering summer’s day, Richard Matt and David Sweat, were reported as having escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Dannemora, New York state. It was heavily reported in the US media and internationally. It was often compared to The Shawshank Redemption.
This escape is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, few people have ever escaped that prison. According to Wikipedia: ‘The prison is sometimes referred to as New York’s Little Siberia due to the cold climate in Dannemora and the isolation of the area. It is the largest maximum security prison and the third oldest prison in New York. The staff includes about a thousand guards.’
Secondly it’s remarkable, because the men escaped by drilling through their walls with power tools, navigating through drains, finally emerging from a manhole outside the prison. Yes, just like the Shawshank Redemption.
But there was no movie ending: within three weeks Richard Matt had been shot dead by a border control agent and David Sweat had been caught.
This seems like it should be the end of my story, but there’s one thing odd about the reporting on this story. The earliest reporting said that it wasn’t two prisoners who escaped – it was three.
Who was the third prisoner?
There’s very little in the media confirming there was a third inmate involved. It certainly didn’t made it into the official report on the prison break. So tell this part of the story I’ve had to use information provided to me by the unfortunately named star_butt_lover from Reddit. Yeah, I know. But don’t let his handle get to you, he’s always presented himself to me as a very careful and diligent citizen journalist. He’s agreed to let me quote some of his PMs to me here:
Hi Oran, I hope you are doing well in Ireland and enjoying your Guinness. I’m glad you’re covering this story on your blog. It needs to get out. Here’s what I know. Within minutes of the Dannemora escape, there were reports in local media such as villageofdannemora.com/news and in the social media feeds of the prison officers. All those early reports claimed 3 prisoners escaped. Even an early nytimes.com story mentioned three prisoners. However all of these were quickly revised and the tweets and social media pieces deleted. The only piece I’ve found to confirm that early account is a screengrab from a Canadian newspaper’s website which was up for two days after the event. Don’t bother looking for it now – it’s been erased too.
Not much to go on, is it? The newspaper articles could simply have been corrected because the initial records were inaccurate, right? This is what my unfortunately monikered buddy thought, but he still took the time to travel to Dannemora in early 2016. He found one former prison guard in a bar who agreed to talk.
He told me that he’d heard about a guard who’d been working on the day of the prison break. That guard had been working in the At Risk wing and had been responsible for transferring a prisoner from solitary confinement to a shared cell that morning. The move wasn’t uncommon due to the over crowding problems in the prison. Sometimes they’d have four or five prisoners in a cell designed for two, but it still seemed odd. This prisoner had been housed alone since he arrived. And oddest of all, this prisoner was moved into the same cell as Richard Matt and David Sweat.
No matter how many drinks star_butt_lover bought for the prison guard, the guard didn’t say much more, but what more he said was enough.
He said that he didn’t know the prisoner’s name. After a bit of prompting he said he heard on the grapevine the prisoner was just called Prisoner 54127-399. XXXXing yeah, Oran! He said Prisoner 54127-399!
This isn’t the first time myself and star_butt_lover have heard of Prisoner 54127-399. In fact I’d heard about that prisoner as early as 2013, long before this remarkable New York prison break. In fact, Prisoner 54127-399 is an almost mythic figure among prison break aficionados. Why?
Well there are lots of prison breaks in the US each year. Only days after the New York prison break, here was a headline:
But as the article explains most of these escapes are prisoners on day release absconding or people walking out of open prisons. Very, very few are from medium and even fewer from maximum security prisons. And, sadly, life isn’t like Cool Hand Luke (and if you haven’t seen that film – stop reading this blog and go watch it now), once you escape and are caught the first time, the chances of a second escape are next to impossible due to increased security levels.
And that’s what makes Prisoner 54127-399 such a mythic figure. If this story is to be believed, he escaped from three levels of prison – a minimum security, a medium security and a maximum security prison – something no one has ever done before.
Here’s what we know about the three escapes:
1. July 2000 – Escape from minimum security prison camp Otisville
According to trusty Wikipedia, Otisville has a 115 person minimum security prison camp within its medium security prison which houses 1,050 overall. Minimum security prisons have prisoners who are considered to pose little physical risk to the public. They’re mostly non-violent white-collar criminals. These prisons may not even have a fence.
So nothing here suggests that it would be difficult to escape from Otisville nor that anyone who escapes from it is much of a danger to society. What’s curious is that there is very little on the Internet in any detail on the escape than the stub article shown above. The name and identification number of the prisoner is not given, nor is there any further identifying information. So how do I know that it’s him?
Well, every prisoner in the federal system has a unique identifying number. This is known as a Federal Bureau of Prison’s Register number or BOP number. In searches on the public FBP online inmate locator, I and others confirmed that Prisoner 54127-399 had been an inmate in that prison for six months before the escape. And just days after the unnamed prisoner escaped, our prisoner was no longer registered in Otisville.
But he turned up again in another prison.
2. April 2005 – Escape from Medium Security Prison Ray brook
FCI Ray Brook is a medium security prison with a population of about 700 prisoners currently. It’s a notorious prison according to Wikipedia ‘The Bureau of Prisons has received numerous complaints regarding conditions at FCI Ray Brook.‘ This includes a lawsuit ‘filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons on behalf of six inmates who were allegedly housed in an extremely hot and cramped single room without adequate ventilation and cleaning supplies. The Court found that the evidence justified a claim of cruel and unusual punishment.’
The FBP locator states he was held in that prison from January 2001 until April 2005. It says nowhere on the system where the prisoner was held between his escape in 2000 and January 2001, so either he was missing for all that time or the records are incomplete.
Just as an aside, there is literally nothing on either state or federal databases or in online court records saying what Prisoner 54127-399 was convicted of. Nor is there any evidence of him being put forward for parole. We know almost literally nothing about him.
But whoever he is, on the 25th of April he escaped again.
The only evidence of this escape is a leaked memo. It was due to released within the New York State prison system (clearly using information provided by the federal system), but was unaccountably quashed and never released.
The memo states in full that
‘Prisoner 54127-399 was receiving necessary medical treatment for a recent injury when, assisted by accomplices disguised in hospital scrubs, he escaped. The prison officers who accompanied him were subdued using chemical sleep inducing agents and his handcuffs were removed with power tools. He escaped from the prison in the company of his accomplices. His location is currently unknown.’
There was no discussion of this escape in the media. No public attempts were made to alert the public to any possible risk. However there must have been some attempt to find him because he was caught.
3. June 2015 – Escape from a maximum security prison Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, New York
So we’re back to Dannemora.
Using the reliable FBP locator system, we know that the prisoner was placed in Clinton Correctional Facility maximum security prison on 17 July 2005. Where was he between April 25 and 17 July? Missing? Held in another prison temporarily? What date was he captured? Your guess is as good as mine, but we do know from the locator that he was in this prison for almost 10 years.
If the prisoner officer’s account is true, then Prisoner 54127-399 was held in solitary confinement in the At Risk wing of the prison. Was he held in solitary confinement for all ten years? It’s not clear, but either way the US prison system’s use of solitary confinement is often described as a human rights abuse by international rights groups such as
Amnesty International .
Despite being isolated from other prisoners, he obviously had support from high up within the prison if he was transferred to the cell of Matt and Sweat on the day they escaped. Why hasnt this ever come to light? Were those imates working with Prisoner 54127-399 all along? Again, who knows?
There are more questions than answers in this story.
This was all that I knew in relation to Prisoner 54127-399 until a few months ago when the following leaked report was circulated on Reddit forums. But this time it’s not an account of how the prisoner escaped. This is about how Prisoner 54127-399 was captured after the Dannemora escape.
December 29th 2015 – Capture at Cape May Inlet, New Jersey
Why did the Prisoner and his accomplices choose Cape May for their escape? There must be some reason, but the seeds of his capture were sown in this choice. Just check out the map above. The Cape May inlet is next to the United States Coast Guard Training Centre, the 5th largest Coast Guard base in the USA. And it was coast guard recruit in training, Maya Jerome, who was the last person between the prisoner and the Atlantic Ocean and freedom.
Here’s the full transcript including the original redactions:
I was on a solo training run at 2312hrs when I observed a small fishing vessel making its way out of the port. Due to the unusual time for the sortie, the cold blustery conditions and the erratic movements of the vessel, I approached it to observe further. It immediate sped up as if to avoid my attention. As I had been advised in training that should be treated as a red flag, I signaled to the vessel to stop. I radioed in to base to request assistance. The vessel continued to speed, but I easily out ran it and positioned myself in front of it. I announced on my loudhailer to the captain to stop his vessel and this time it did stop.
I observed three individuals on the vessel as I neared it. There was an African American woman in her forties, a white man in his early twenties who was on the wheel of the vessel and an Asian woman in her early fifties. I asked them to identify themselves, but they did not answer. I told them that they needed to wait with myself until a full coast guard vessel arrived. I told them I would be boarding.
The Asian woman raised a shot gun and pointed it at me. I was unarmed as is protocol for training assignments. The woman ordered me to let them pass. I refused. I ordered her to drop her weapon. The two other individuals shouted and begged me to let them pass. I refused to do this. The stand grew very tense and I had reason to fear that I might be in danger, but I held my ground.
A fourth individual emerged from the vessel’s hold and the others went silent. He was [redacted]. He raised his hands to show me that he had no weapon. He asked me to please let them pass. He said that they were no risk to anyone. I again refused.
The man was silent then approached the armed woman. He put his hand on her shoulder and whispered something to her. She lowered her weapon and handed it to him. He threw it into the sea.
While I waited for the coast guard back up to arrive, the four people on the boat held hands and waited. The three cried silently. The four man said nothing. He stared out at the sea.
Once the coast guard arrived, they took control of the situation. I returned to harbor in the motorboat where there were authorities from [redacted] awaiting. When the four arrived with the coast guards, the [redacted] took the four into custody. Despite requests from my superiors, they refused to give any further information other than to say that the fourth man was an escaped federal prisoner.
Careful FBP locator watchers found a registry listing Prisoner 54127-399 in a fourth prison a week later, a prison he’ll may never be able to escape.
4. ADX Florence – United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX), supermax prison, Fremont County, Colorado.
ADX Florence is considered to be the one of the hardest prisons to escape in the world and described by no less a source than Maxim magazine as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”:
In 1994, ADX was built in response to other US prisons’ inability to control their worst prisoners. As a result, ADX is entrusted with the absolute worst of the worst criminals – those deemed too dangerous or too great a risk to national security for even the other max prisons on this list. Once inside ADX, it is impossible to know which direction you are facing or where in the building you are. All cell windows only face the sky, and inmates are allotted recreation in a windowless concrete pit, making it impossible for them to plan an escape or map out the facilities. If they do attempt an escape, the thousands of motion detectors, cameras, and pressure-sensitive, 12ft razor wire fences surrounding the perimeter will surely put a swift end to it.
There’s no evidence that the Prisoner is a violent man. Indeed, both his original committal to a minimum security prison and his adherence to non-violence in all his escapes, suggest he’s the opposite, but he’s now in prison with the most violent prisoners in the United States, including the Unabomber and international terrorists. And no one has ever escaped this prison since it was built.
But if that wasn’t enough, something recently happened that makes his escape even less likely.
On the morning of 21 January this year, the day after Trump’s inauguration, I got a message from star_butt_lover that changes everything.
Oran! Those XXXXers. Those XXXXing XXXXers. They’ve done it. They erased him. They’ve XXXXing erased him!
I inputted his BOP number into the Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate locator website. Star_butt_lover may be stupidly named, but he is right. Try it yourself here and you’ll see what they’ve done. They’ve erased him from the system.
I can’t be sure this story is true. Since the 21st January I can’t even be sure he is still alive. But, right now as you read this he might be out.
He’s deep in that fortress prison, perhaps in solitary confinement. He is sitting or standing. Perhaps in the darkness. Perhaps even in shackles. Everything has been taken from him, even his identification number.
But I want to believe that he hasn’t given up hope.
I want to believe that he’s waiting. He’s waiting for his chance at freedom, no matter how long it takes. And now as his story is starting to become known to the world, there are more and more people around the room who are ready to help him in his cause. I for one will do all that I can.
And even if this story isn’t true, even if it’s all made up, maybe I want it to be true. Why? Because I want to believe that everyone who suffers in this unequal, damaged, divided world will eventually get their freedom too. That they will all escape from the darkness too.
Oran, what are you doing?! Take this down off the blog and write the movie immediately!! Seriously. This is GOLD. I know that you are a kind person who looks at, you know, human rights, and justice and stuff, but I am shallow, and this is a smash hit in waiting.
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Am shallow too so pleased to hear you liked it. Not to try to upsell you, but if you liked this one then you’ll probably like my Finland storyteller post from last year too if you haven’t read itm
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Not only do I remember that piece, I remember thinking the exact same thing – except I thought someone else was already writing or making some documentary about it? In which case making being a man of honour a real drag?
Great stuff Tara, but remember that feeling you had at the end of reading my bookshop blog… well it might be relevant for both of these blogs too. But hopefully you won’t feel it for too long.
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