Thursday, June 11, 2015

New York Prison Escape Brings Back Memories. Plus, Insights from the Author of Ghost Burglar

From fall 1978 to summer of 1979 I was involved one day a week in prison visitation at the Bayamon Prison in Puerto Rico. The experiences I had inspired an idea for a novel that I never wrote, but there were many fascinating stories that came from the experience. The year before I arrived there was a successful prison escape that was somewhat humorous in its audacity. On another occasion there was a less amusing story in which two guards were shot. Both these stories came to mind when the news was first released regarding the well-publicized story of two convicted murderers who escaped this week from a New York penitentiary.

One feature of the story especially struck me, the confidence with which the police indicated that the escapees would be captured quickly. It brought to mind the book Ghost Burglar (Savage Press) which I reviewed a little over two years ago and my interview with the authors Jack Burch and James King.

Tonight I sent the authors a quick email to ask what their thoughts were on this story, and how what they learned from their own research would apply here.

EN: What lessons would you take away from the Bernard Welch story that apply to this news story?

James King: Ed, thanks for remembering the details of our book, Ghost Burglar. I had the same thoughts as you about the recent escape. I think what's powering this story is that the escape process was similar to the movie "Shawshank Redemption." Bernard Welch and his partner saw a flaw in Dannemora prison security and went over a fence during a prison ball game. Not quite as interesting as digging a tunnel, but equally effective.

Welch [ednote: the central character in Ghost Burglar] was free as an escapee for over five years. That was when he was active in the Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC areas. During that time he stole an estimated fifty million dollars in goods, raped several women and committed one and possibly two murders. He was arrested and sentenced to 147 years in an escape proof prison. He managed to escape by concocting a ruse that he was an informer about future planned escapes and was sent to the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago. He and a partner managed to escape from the high rise prison by sliding down a buffer electric cord. It took several months for him to be recaptured near Pittsburgh, PA.

I believe the confidence of authorities in the capture of the two current escapees is to placate the public. The prison certainly has egg on its face because of the brazen way the escape occurred. I would bet that there will be some reassignments of personnel there in the near future. The only positive to the whole affair is the nation-wide media attention on the story. That will make the escapees' efforts to disappear very difficult. It should hasten their capture, but how long will it take? No one really knows. I only hope they do not harm any innocent people while they are on the run.

If you remember a couple of years ago two prisoners escaped from the Chicago Metropolitan Center in the same way as Welch did, but using bedsheets instead of an electric cord. I think this proves that lifer convicts will always try to escape. They have nothing to lose by trying. They are already serving a life sentence. What more can be done to them? The take-away from this is that long-term prisoners with a violent past have to be placed in truly escape proof facilities. That's why Alcatraz prison in the San Francisco Bay was so effective. A few made it over the wall, but did not survive the Bay waters.

The problem is that such high security prisons are expensive to operate. In tight financial times they become difficult to justify to the taxpayer. In high security prisons the inmates are usually held in small single cells for twenty-three hours a day for years. This creates a humanitarian concern. The problem is humanitarian concerns make prison security much more difficult. Desperate people will take advantage of any weakness they can exploit. This places prison administrators in a difficult position.

What's the answer? I don't truly know. History tells us there will always be escape attempts. Can they all be stopped? Probably not.

4 comments:

LEWagner said...

It's a pretty strange story, that a "maximum security" prison wouldn't have at least enough security cameras and microphones to at least prevent somebody from sawing through a steel wall with power tools.
But hey, it's reported in the mainstream media, and even in the Duluth News Tribune, so I'm sure the story has been thoroughly vetted.
It certainly couldn't be that the government/media would ever just make up a story to give the police the "right" to search every vehicle and house in a certain area.
Must have been just bad security at that prison, just as the Tribune reported.
Well, I hope other prisons will take note and install security cameras. They're actually quite affordable, nowadays ... even little bamboo-walled shops over in Laos have them.

Ed Newman said...

It's interesting how consistently you see things from a perspective the average person would never think of. We'll see what happens.

LEWagner said...

"In high security prisons the inmates are usually held in small single cells for twenty-three hours a day for years. This creates a humanitarian concern. The problem is humanitarian concerns make prison security much more difficult."

Where did you read the above? Do you have a link?
It's not true. Only a very small percentage of maximum security prisoners are held in solitary confinement.
"High security" has absolutely nothing to do with inhumane and torturous solitary confinement 23 hours a day, anyway. It has everything to do with sufficient surveillance, which is not even expensive nowadays.
The reporting that that prison is "150 years old" is laughable ... it makes the sheeple think of some old prison-escape movie they saw way-back-when, but believe me, there IS NO "maximum security" prison in the U.S. that has been so insufficiently upgraded either in structure or electronics in 150 years that two prior escape-attemptees could get by with power tools sawing through steel walls, crawling through an unsecured large sewer pipe (Victor Hugo style), and emerging out of a manhole in the street.
Then the idiot media reported at first that these guys with these silently operating steel-cutting power tools "MAY" have had help.
Duh ....?
They're pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, once more, and laughing their well-paid liars' laugh.
Some of us have been speculating that what they're working towards is to "rapture" away those who've bothered to keep their brains functioning, and who have proven so by posting anything intelligent/independent on the Internet ... and that's why they've been practicing all the black-uniformed riot-gear-equipped (and totally illegal) home entries and searches over the past 3-4 years.
We'll see.

Ed Newman said...

I will forward this to James King to see where that information came from.
Thanks.