Monday, June 8, 2015

Dannemora Prison: Some Historical Background

Escaped Clinton Rison Convict 1 Escaped Clinton Rison Convict 2The search continues today for two men who escaped from the maximum security prison at Dannemora, Clinton County.  State Police say David P. Sweat (age 35) and Richard Matt (age 49) were both incarcerated for murder and are “very dangerous individuals”. They are asking that any suspicious activity be reported to (518) 563-3761 or by email to crimetip@troopers.ny.gov.

Governor Andrew Cuomo says the men had help. North Country Public Radio has been covering the story thoroughly, so I thought I’d add some background about Dannemora Prison.

Dannemora, known officially as the Clinton Correctional Facility, is the only maximum security prison inside the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park. The prison is New York State’s third oldest and the largest, holding about 3,000 prisoners.

Dannamora GateWhen Dannemora was built in 1844 there were basically two types of prison systems. The Pennsylvania System, which focused on solitary confinement and penance through silent reflection, was the priority of the Eastern States Penitentiary (built in 1829).  Dannemora was established on the Auburn System, which got it’s name from the older Auburn Prison (built in 1818) where prisoners were kept in solitary isolation and absolute silence, but also forced into prison labor.  Prisoners at Dannemora initially worked at a mine on the grounds and those at Lyon Mountain. The use of prison labor angered many New York workers, but was supported by the conservative Whigs. The Auburn system was said to be less costly, in part because less individual attention was paid to prisoners.

You can find an outstanding history of Dannemora Prison at the website of the New York Correction History Society. Fires, riots, and rebellions at Dannemora are covered in this article by Andrea Guynup, including this riot in 1929, which along with similar riots around the state, was the impetus for some prison reform:

“…the largest riot in prison history occurred on July 22, 1929, when approximately 1,300 inmates charged the prison walls in a desperate escape attempt. After setting fire to lumber and buildings… three guards were shot and killed during the riot, while others were captured, stoned, and beaten. As the riot continued through the afternoon hours, prison officials called upon the help of state troopers and the 26th infantry. Many inmates surrendered after they saw the troopers arrive with a wide array of weaponry, including grenades, guns, and ammunition, while approximately one hundred inmates barricaded themselves in the tailor shop. Finally, when presented with a violent ultimatum from the warden, the inmates also surrendered before the guards needed the assistance of extra forces.”

1929 Dannamora Prison RiotInmates at Dannemora have included:  rappers Tupac Shakur, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Maino and Hell Rell; beat poet Gregory Corso; mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano; New York City “Club Kid” Michael Alig; the “preppy murderer” Robert Chambers; axe murderer Christopher Porco; Jesse Friedman, the subject of the documentary Capturing the Friedmans; David Gilbert, member of the Weather Underground; multiple cop-killer Ralph “Bucky” Phillips; serial rapist and murderer Robert Garrow; Carl Panzram, Joel Rifkin, “Brooklyn Strangler” Vincent Johnson, and a half-dozen other serial killers. You can search for prisoners in Clinton Prison, and New York’s other prisons, here.

For further reading about the prison and its impact with locals, check out this short history written by Rod Bigelow of Chazy Lake, which includes several unique photographs of the prison. There is also this piece by the son of Ernest Blue, an Adirondack forester who established a forestry program at Dannemora Prison in 1912.

Photos: Above, the two escaped convicts now being sought by authorities; middle, Seneca Ray Stoddard’s 1871 photo of the stockade wall and gate at Dannemora; and below, a photo of the prison taken during the 1929 riot.

Some of this story is drawn from a post first published in 2010.


John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




8 Responses

  1. M.P. Heller says:

    John, I have the current inmate population at Clinton at a shade over 2600. Is that correct or is it closer to the 3000 figure you cite?

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      The Village of Dannemora website says about 3,000 inmates. The Correctional Association of New York says its capacity is 2,956 and 2,917 are currently incarcerated there.

  2. B Ott says:

    Are there any backwoods warnings or closures due to this escape.
    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, OH

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      There are no warnings I’ve heard except lock your doors and don’t leave your keys in the car, as if either of those things are meaningful. I’m pretty sure two guys who have killed people in the past and just broken out of a maximum security prison are not that concerned about hot-wiring your car or breaking a window to get into your house.

      It seems to be all about creating fear, not actually protecting people. Right now police have swarmed a section of Willsboro, so if you’re planning on visiting that area, I would hold off. Even if they are not there, you could be mistaken for one of them.

  3. Hawthorn says:

    Locking your house and car will not prevent a determined and skilled thief, but it is likely to encourage them to move on to the next, easier target that didn’t lock up. Somebody hiding from such a dragnet does not want to make noise, be seen, or attract any sort of attention. Personally, I think the advice of authorities to lock up is a “meaningful” and commonsense precaution that takes almost no extra time or effort to do.

  4. Paul says:

    This is a great time of the year to be holing up in a hunting camp. The bugs are pretty good at keeping away the normal users this time of year. You could probably hang in one of these places till late September before anyone would notice.

    I am planning on approaching my remote camp n the Adirondacks with extreme caution here in a few days.

    • Paul says:

      This is the first weekend since their escape it could be interesting what people find when they get to camp. Be extremely careful.