DANNEMORA, N.Y. — Other inmates at the state prison in Dannemora may have been in a position to see or at least hear two convicts making their escape using power tools to cut steel, break through bricks and slice open steam pipes.
But in a world where snitching can get you killed, investigators ran all too predictably into a wall of silence.
“Nobody heard anything. Nobody saw anything,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said sarcastically this week about the questioning of inmates. “They’re all heavy sleepers.”
Prison experts and former inmates say breaking through that silence is tough but not impossible. And in a case as notorious as the weekend escape of two murderers from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, investigators may be willing to make deals.
“There’s certainly a group of people in every prison or every jail who are just waiting to be snitches,” said University at Buffalo Law School professor Charles Ewing, a forensic psychologist. “But it needs to be done very discreetly.”
A prisoner wanting to talk might send an anonymous note to the warden offering information that can be valuable currency behind bars. It could be traded for a favorable parole recommendation, dismissal of disciplinary measures, a transfer to a prison offering “easier time,” or something as simple as extra bedsheets.
Indeed, investigators are wary of snitches who make up information just to get benefits or settle a score.
But the code of silence can be so strong that any rewards authorities can offer may be outweighed by the dangers of being branded an informant. Investigators coming through a prison may well hear inmates yelling to each other from behind bars: “Make sure you mind your business!” said Ronald Day, a former New York inmate who is now a vice president of the Fortune Society, which helps ex-prisoners.
The search for the escaped inmates entered a fifth day Wednesday, with law enforcement officers in helmets and body armor going door to door in the Dannemora area.
The 170-year-old, 3,000-inmate prison has a particularly notorious reputation, singled out in a watchdog report last year for a higher rate of violence among inmates than most New York state prisons.
State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, who is chairman of the Corrections Committee and visited Clinton last September, said he was astounded by the accounts of violence from inmates. He said any inmate who might have heard the power tools used in the escape wouldn’t dare say anything.
“Let me be clear: That will get you killed. That’s the kind of environment it is,” O’Donnell said. “You can’t expect people to behave like Catholic school monitors.”
While investigators try to protect their prison sources, Day said word of any informants on a case as big as this one is likely to leak out.
It took New York City private investigator Joseph Barry three years to persuade a group of convicts at the Dannemora prison to sign statements clearing fellow inmate David Wong in a deadly prison-yard stabbing.
Barry showed up repeatedly, seeking to catch the inmate witnesses by surprise and in private. Over time, more than 10 met with him behind bars.
Some were promised parole recommendations, transfers or other benefits, he said.
But the ultimate factor in getting them to come forward? The fact that the inmate they implicated in the stabbing had died and couldn’t retaliate, Barry said.
“Because you can’t be looking over your shoulder all the time,” he said.