ALBANY, N.Y. » The maximum-security prison where two killers pulled off a "Shawshank Redemption"-style escape has a reputation for brutality that belies the reform-minded ideals it was founded upon when it opened on an Adirondack mountainside in 1845.
Back then, the Dannemora state prison a few miles from the Canadian border was supposed to be the beacon of a new reform movement that advocated humane treatment of prisoners instead of the torture practiced downstate at Sing Sing. In keeping with that philosophy, the warden didn’t even punish two inmates who escaped a month after the prison opened and were quickly recaptured in the harsh surrounding landscape.
"That reform mindset didn’t last," said Jeff Hall, a history professor at Queensborough Community College who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Adirondack prisons. "Within a decade, Dannemora was using a dungeon for solitary confinement, as well as a chair bath, which was basically waterboarding. As more and more prisoners were sent there, it became ungovernable."
Today, nearly two centuries later, the 3,000-inmate prison retains an infamous reputation for brutality that ranks it among the worst in the New York state prison system.
A 2014 report by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent non-profit group that inspects state prisons, found Clinton Correctional Facility is a place where there is little oversight, guards regularly beat inmates, and racial tension festers between prisoners and correction officers.
The report found that while 63 percent of inmates statewide are locked up for violent crimes, at Clinton, that figure is about 90 percent. Inmates there report among the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate fights in all state prisons, driven by gang feuds and drug disputes.
Notable past inmates include mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano; New York City nightlife legend Michael Alig; and rappers Tupac Shakur, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Shyne.
State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell visited Clinton last September and was told repeatedly by inmates that brutality inflicted by both guards and fellow inmates was a problem.
"I asked the inmate council, ‘Are you safe here?’ And the guys at Clinton burst out laughing they thought the question was just funny. But it wasn’t," O’Donnell said.
Any inmate who might have heard David Sweat and Richard Matt sawing through their steel cell walls with power tools wouldn’t dream of saying anything, due to a culture of violence and fear that dictates a strict code of silence.
"Let me be clear, that will get you killed, that’s the kind of environment it is," O’Donnell said.
The facility itself is massive, O’Donnell said, with dank, dark cell blocks and facilities that are great distances away from one another, ill-equipped for full security camera coverage.
Jim Miller, a spokesman for the union representing state prison guards, said it would be inappropriate to make any comment about the culture of Clinton while the search for the prisoners was ongoing.
The prison was built on a mountainside with the goals of relieving crowding at Sing Sing and putting the transplanted inmates to work operating an iron mine and forge. The village that grew up around the prison was named Dannemora, after a mining district in Sweden.
"The state lost money on the iron mine operation," said Hall, who grew up in the Adirondacks. "Eventually the prison had to give inmates other things to do and they started other traditional prison industries like making caps, military uniforms, license plates and government office furniture."
The prison is like a village within the village that clings to its perimeter wall. There’s the Church of St. Dismas, the Good Thief, constructed by inmates of fieldstones and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At one time there was a ski jump for inmate use. There was a tuberculosis hospital and an insane asylum, which have been converted to other uses.
The prison was originally built of wood harvested on the site, but later expanded with buildings constructed of red granite mined nearby on Dannemora Mountain, said Peter Light, a retired corrections officer who started a two-room history museum at the prison.
The buildings are heated by steam piped from a powerhouse outside the 40-foot-high perimeter wall. It was through one of those 24-inch-diameter pipes that Sweat and Matt escaped.
Because of its age, the facility is constantly undergoing renovations and repairs, Light said. "In so doing, you have a lot of contractors who come in."
Investigators are looking into the possibility that the escapees got their power tools from an outside contractor.
O’Donnell said when the escapees are caught, they’ll likely spend the rest of their lives in isolation, "in a living hell."