A prisoner serving a life sentence has all the time in the world and almost nothing to do with it but think. The mental clutter of modern life–gone. No grocery lists. No car pools. The doctor, the dentist, the barber all make house calls. What’s for dinner? Whatever arrives through the tray slot.
Oceans of time. More than enough to plot an elaborate escape from a seemingly impenetrable fortress. The concrete walls of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., loom 60 ft. (18 m) above the bare prison yard lined with cell blocks made of steel and brick. Inmates call the place “Little Siberia” for the cold of the region and the hopelessness of life in this ancient relic. Over a century and a half of the prison’s existence, no inmate had ever escaped from maximum-security lockup–until convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat cut, hammered, squirmed and clambered through the innards of the joint to a manhole in the pavement a city block beyond the walls.
If this sounds like a movie–The Shawshank Redemption, perhaps, or Escape From Alcatraz–that may be exactly what the killers were aiming for. Their final coup was a Hollywood cliché: when roll call sounded at 5:30 a.m. on June 6, flummoxed guards finally noticed that the lumps in the bunks belonging to Matt and Sweat were nothing more than rolled-up clothes. Left behind was a note, bearing a racist drawing, that read Have a nice day.
But while would-be screenwriters pondered who might reprise the Steve McQueen role, hundreds of police officers fanned out in pursuit of the fugitives. These were, after all, two truly dangerous characters. Matt had spent most of his adult life in U.S. and Mexican prisons, and at his most recent trial–for torturing and dismembering a former employer–fearful officials outfitted him in a remote-fired Taser belt before courtroom appearances. Sweat, for his part, was serving a life sentence for killing a police officer in a hail of 15 bullets.
Escapes, great or narrow, have long captured our imaginations. Oedipus escaped death by unlocking the riddle of the Sphinx. Harry Houdini won fame and fortune by having himself locked into unbreakable traps and plunged into water–only to emerge, miraculously unbound. Some of the world’s great religions speak of life itself as a prison, death as the warden and faith as the escape route.
But metaphysics won’t spring a hardened criminal from Little Siberia. After the immediate shock of the escape wore off, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others began to reflect on the obvious fact that the inmates apparently needed a lot of outside cooperation.
For example: Who mapped the unseen spaces of the prison for them? The inmates’ way out took them through holes cut in the steel walls of their cells, along an internal catwalk, down some 50 ft. (15 m) of railings and pipework, through a 24-in. (61 cm) brick wall, to an idle steam pipe with entry and exit holes cut through the heavy iron. This led to the manhole, sealed shut with a heavy chain. Not a self-evident path, in other words.
And who provided the power tools required to cut steel and drill through bricks? The heavy extension cord? And what of the prison guards, who somehow missed the blinding light of a cutting torch or the shrieking of a metal saw mere feet from the cell bars? Suspicion fell on a female prison employee who may have planned to serve as the getaway driver for Matt and Sweat until her nerve failed. But the logistics of the escape suggest an even larger web of collusion, stretching perhaps from the construction crews working on prison renovations to the see-no-evil staff.
When all is known, the lesson from Dannemora will not be that prison is no match for a determined and ingenious criminal. The lesson is that prisons are only as strong as the people who work in them. We have scattered our maximum-security facilities in remote hamlets where economic security outside the wall is at a minimum. Wages are low and prospects are few when a jail is the only game in town. This is a recipe for failure–and when the manhunt is over, Americans might want to think about it.
This appears in the June 22, 2015 issue of TIME.