Unpopular Facts about NYS Prisons

Over the past few weeks, my Facebook news feed has strongly consisted of posts about the prison escape from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. From people wanting the $50,000 reward to people scared for their children’s lives, I have read hundreds of posts.

This past Friday, it got even more intense. One of the two escaped prisoners, Richard Matt was captured and killed in Malone, NY. This is the very small town where I spent my elementary and middle school years. Yesterday, the second escaped prisoner, David Sweat, was captured in an even smaller town, Constable, NY. This was the actual town I lived in for those five years. To show just how small the town is – the population of Constable was 1,566 people in 2010 and the area is only 32.8 square miles. My house was only a few miles away from the Canadian border and less than a few miles away from where David Sweat was captured. The church I went to every Sunday, a 0.1 mile walk from my house, was shown in video with the 10+ cop cars.

Unfortunately, many of the posts and articles I have read about this situation have been filled with opinions and are lacking some real facts. I must admit, before I continue, that I was raised from a very early age to have a sort of sympathy for prisoners. My mother is the executive director of Prisoner’s Legal Services of New York. As given on the PLS homepage, “PLS’ mission is to provide high quality, effective legal representation and assistance to indigent prisoners, to help them to secure their civil and human rights, and to advocate for humane prisons and for a more humane criminal justice system.”

I understand that people who break the law should be punished, however, most people do not even begin to understand what goes on behind the scenes at prisons. There is so much work to be done in today’s prison system, but unfortunately this is not a top priority of the government.

I am looking to provide some facts about both the prisons today, prisoners, and this particular situation. I am also looking to show that the content that many of us have read over the past several days has been vastly opinionated and subjective.

For example, New York State Senator Betty Little said, “The two escapees were highly dangerous, assumed to be armed and, without question, willing to do anything to elude capture” (1). This is an opinion. The only facts we know is why the prisoners went to jail, that they ultimately escaped, and (most importantly) that they have caused no harm in the three weeks that they have been on the run.

Senator Little’s statement was likely because of why these men went to prison. If they committed murder once, they won’t shy away from doing it again, right? Very wrong. People that go to prison for murder have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all offenders. This article discusses just how low these rates are. A state parole board gave the following statistics, “Of 368 convicted murderers granted parole in New York between 1999 and 2003, six, or 1.6 percent, were returned to prison within three years for a new felony conviction — none of them a violent offense.” Furthermore, in 2014, recidivism rates in general, for all offenses, had fallen to a 28 year low (2).

As I scroll through Facebook, I see posts such as “Matt is dead!!!!” and “I can finally sleep tonight knowing they are not out there.” These two men are people too. No life deserves to be taken. They both broke the law: Fact. They both escaped prison: Fact. They are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such: Fact.

One thought occurred to me the other day… Think about just how awful the conditions must be in Dannemora for two men to think that a life of being on the run, in hiding, in isolation and in fear is better than being in a prison getting daily meals. I am still not justifying that they should not be put back in prison or that what they did was right. Just advocating for them that people should take a minute and think about these people as humans and not prisoners.

I know that people may respond to this suggesting that I do not know quite how people in Malone felt since I am so far away from the area. Please remember that I do have an Uncle and two cousins who live very close to where Matt was found. I also have many friends, teachers, fellow church goers, and more that I care very deeply about. However, when I got news of the escape and when I heard that Matt was found in Malone, I was never fearful for any of their lives. The facts above made me feel confident that things would be okay.

I will never understand, nor will I attempt to consider what goes on in the brains of a criminal. Most of these men and women have some sort of mental illness that none of us can comprehend. But to suggest that any of these people deserve death, or potentially worse, solitary confinement for life, is unjust and uncivilized.

Follow this link for a short video a fourteen year old made for a school project that I think sums up a lot of this stuff very well.

Hopefully I remained as unbiased as possible and was able to present you with some facts that are missing from the “Prisoners captured” articles. No one knows the full story besides Richard Matt and David Sweat. We all must try not to form misled opinions, but rather look only at the facts. Rather than judging these men for escaping a prison, maybe we should take a step back and see what we can do inside the prisons to help the men and women to become better people. It is easy and simple to condemn Matt and Sweat, it is much more difficult to take a second look at the system and reach out to make improvements.

(1) http://www.wcax.com/story/29426900/shots-fired-in-constable-new-york-suspect-down

(2) http://auburnpub.com/news/local/new-york-doccs-recidivism-rates-for-ex-inmates-hit-/article_c765fdb9-3bcd-59c0-9c11-6cfe217fcd62.html

13 comments

  1. Are you kidding! Kidnap,,torture, shoot a law enforcement officer multiple times then run him over with a car!!!!!! Yes they are human, the worst of the worst of humans. They need to be treated as such. I’m sorry you were raised to believe otherwise, but jail is supposed to be jail. Too many rights put us in the position we found ourselves in for the last 23 days. You need to be reeducated on the realities of the world we live in.

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  2. Dear Lisa and anyone else who wants to criticize my sister,

    Prison is not a place to satiate society’s primitive desire for revenge and retribution. Such a model is dangerous not simply for inmates, but for corrections officers and society at large. Creating an environment without an incentive to behave, without any acknowledgement of remorse or self-improvement, pushes people to the dark depths of isolation, depression, and hopelessness. Instead of promoting good behavior it drives people towards violence, against themselves and against others. People cannot live like this for long, and it is costly to society, both fiscally and morally, to force them to do so.

    While this most recent event was difficult for many, there is no telling how many escape attempts never occurred because of the education and incentive programs in operation at most all major prisons today. And there is no telling how many corrections officers return home to their families each night without injury because we have made a decision to treat the worst of the worst as humans just the same. These non-events, these disasters that never occur, are easily forgotten because they never existed. And they never existed only because we have taken steps as a society to deal with wrongdoers not as demons, evil to the core, but as men and women, human through and through, just the same as you or I.

    This is a difficult and painful truth to grasp, that we are all of the same fabric, that we are not sewn from different yarns but exist together in the same quilt of humanity. It forces you to take responsibility for the sins of every man, to own them as your own, to see them as a reflection of yourself—to understand that the sins of Richard Matt and David Sweat are our sins too, that we are, all of us together, responsible for the world we have created and for each and every man, woman, and child in it.

    It is a beautiful and sometimes bitter truth. And I couldn’t be prouder of my sister for expressing it here.

    Sincerely,
    Billy

    P.S.—If anyone else wants to tell my sister to get “reeducated,” you can go through me first.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Read the post by the Tarsia family……….obviously both you and your sister need to be “re-educated” on who deserves compassion and who deserves to sit in a cell for the rest of his life or better yet, the death penalty!

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    • Its people just like all of you posting negative posts …where this young lady was trying to educate others about what she learned… who call our office crying like babies when the shoe is on the other foot..hopefully the day for you will never come when you decide to get behind the wheel after you turned one wine glass too many or anything else….then prison issues are important when it happens to you. ..it can and for some of you it will and guess what its the same people who your condoning who save you from being abused yourself when you end up behind the wall.

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  4. Do not listen to the naysayers. I agree wholeheartedly with this post. To “Debra”, the post never stated that Sweat shouldn’t be put back in prison. His sentence stands at life without parole. He’s not going anywhere.

    To Lisa, a society should be judged not on how they treat the greatest of them, but on how they treat the least of them. This includes criminals. No one would state that they shouldn’t be punished for their crimes. Far from it. But how that punishment is metered out is how we should be judged. We will never progress as a society until we start treating ALL of us as humans. Every last one. Especially those who don’t deserve it.

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  5. Well, Billy, I appreciate your coming to the defense of your sister, but I did not criticize her personally so please don’t worry, you shouldn’t have to be “gone through”. She opened the conversation to the public. I only took issue with the fact that she, and apparently, you feel that we all should be treated equally, no matter what our crimes. These two inmates committed the worst of the worst crimes, which defines them as the worst of the worst criminals. Kidnapping, torture, dismemberment of another human because he no longer wanted Matt as his employee. Sweat shot an on duty police officer multiple times and then ran him over with a vehicle because he was caught while committing a crime. I will NEVER own these crimes as my own, or see them as a reflection of myself or any other law abiding humans. You may think you are more knowing than some of us, but you haven’t experienced life as a law enforcement officer so you are only seeing one side of the coin. I never stated that I wanted death, revenge, torture or inhumane treatment for any inmate, I only expect that they be not given excess privilege while incarcerated.
    Simple things like wearing civiian clothing, not being able to do a lighted cell check at night and making sure their bodies are seen during a nighly head count will keep us all safe from the nightmare my community was just subjected to.

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  6. Thank you all for your comments. Let’s try not to get caught up in my brothers joke about being gone through and focus on the actual issue at hand.

    I think some people are missing the point of this post. First and foremost I want to educate some people on the facts of todays prison system. It is not in good shape. There is a lot of work to be done to improve the system for people on the inside and the outside.

    Again, thank you all for contributing to this conversation. While I may not agree, it is helpful to hear arguments from the opposing side.

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  7. Lisa,

    The simple truth here is that you did criticize her personally. You attacked the way she was raised and the foundation of her education. These are personal attacks, attacks on her, her identity, her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, and the many mentors and teachers that got her to where she is today. These are not simply attacks on her ideas or on the conversation she opened to the public. There is a big difference in saying “I believe your ideas are wrong” and “I believe you were raised wrong.”

    After denying that you criticized my sister personally, you also criticized me personally. Because I disagree with you, you suggest that I must think I am “more knowing than some of us.” And by noting that I have never experienced life as a law enforcement officer, you challenge not my ideas, but my capacity as an individual to contribute thoughtfully to the conversation.

    You have taken issue not just with the ideas that my sister and I have offered, but with who we are as people. I do not understand why you decided to personally attack a young woman on her blog for having the courage to post an unpopular opinion. I do not understand why you insisted on commenting on my experiences with little knowledge of them. And nor do I understand why you insist on denying the content and effect of these attacks after the fact.

    But in truth I think that you and I agree on much more than we disagree. Neither my sister nor I ever suggested that all people should be treated equally regardless of their crimes. Her point was only this: “They are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such.” Treating people as human beings still means that we put them in prison when they murder, kidnap, or torture. Treating people as human beings still means that we deny them certain privileges and rights when it is necessary to maintain security, order, and discipline.

    In light of recent events, it is only natural to feel anger and fear, and it is easy to allow these feelings to push us towards rash action and unproductive policies. It was these feelings, found on Facebook feeds and Twitter posts, that my sister was responding to. She believes, as do I, that by reminding ourselves, now that the danger has subsided and we can begin to pick up the pieces, that the many men and women serving time in prisons around the state are still human beings, we can hope to hold back our understandable emotions of fear and anger and move forward with kindness and compassion, even for those who don’t deserve it. And in so doing, we can create a safer environment for all of us: our communities, our inmates, and most importantly the law enforcement and corrections officers who work hard to protect us everyday.

    We have the same goals. And personal attacks on how my sister and I were raised, on our experiences, and on our educations have no part in a productive conversation towards those goals.

    Best,
    Billy

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bravo to Kathleen and Billy! I was thinking many of the same thoughts as the search for the men unfolded like some deranged fox hunt. I’m heartened there are such thoughtful, compassionate and smart folks out there as you two. I’m so grateful for your writings. Kudos and best wishes to you and your family. The arc of the moral universe is long…

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  9. Kathleen brought some much needed perspective to this incident. The point is not that the escaped prisoners are angels–note she specifically stated they should be punished for their crimes. Prisons are full of ordinary people…on both sides of the bars. Neither those sentenced to prison, nor those working in prisons, are monsters; they are all regular human beings, just like the rest of us–they make mistakes, they make poor choices, they love and are loved, they feel pain and joy. Yes, prisoners have made bad choices–or had bad choices foisted upon them. To paraphrase Andrew Vachss, from “This Is How I Roll,” People say I made bad choices; but most of the choices were made for me before I could make any choices.”

    The point is that the real culprit here is the prison system itself. It places bot prisoners and guards in a position where they are at great risk of losing sight of their common humanity. They are brutal, degrading, terrifying institutions….and at the same time, their defining characteristic is mind numbing boredom.

    Kathleen, your voice is powerful. Keep writing your truth.

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  10. Thank you, Kathleen, for your post. I also wondered what kind of hell these men lived in to push them to try escape and prefer a life on the run. I believe they knew the risks of eventually being caught with a high possibility of being killed in the process. Death was preferable to prison. Obviously these men were in prison for very good reasons; however, because someone should be in prison does not mean that they should be treated as less than human. The food served will turn you into an old person with various medical problems years before your time. The sheer boredom will drive you crazy. The ever present need to be constantly looking over your shoulder in order to stay safe wears you down. Unless you personally know someone who has been in prison and what they have been through, you really have no clue. None. Do we need prisons? Yes. Do we need to fill them to the max and build more? No. I agree with Cheryl – when the shoe is on the other foot, people learn very quickly how corrupt our prison system is and that there is little being done to help people turn their lives around in a good way. Wounded people enter prison; broken people come out.

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