(Editor’s note: This is the fourth recent piece by Rap Sheet contributor Anthony Rainone, who has been reflecting on real crimes and how they relate to fictional characters facing similar circumstances. You can enjoy all of Anthony’s previous posts here.)
On June 6, 2015, prisoners Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 35, broke out of the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison located in Dannemora, New York. At the same time as that
getaway set off a massive
manhunt that continues today, it caused various news media to compare the incident, if only fleetingly, to the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, which starred Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freedman as Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding.
There are some similarities, to be sure. Matt and Sweat placed dummies in their beds, dug through brick, made their way along interior corridors, cut through pipes with power tools, and emerged outside the prison walls through a manhole cover. Andy Dufresne did not use power tools to escape from Maine’s (fictional) Shawshank State Penitentiary, though he did employ a small ball-peen hammer to break through his wall and dig down to the sewer pipes which also served as his means of escape through the bowels of the prison. Of course, Red Redding walked out of prison a free man, but broke his parole to meet up with Dufresne in Mexico--a locale to which some people thought Matt and Sweat would also head.
Yet the manhole cover escape immediately brought to mind another favorite film, the 1998 caper tale, Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Based on the 1996 Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, that picture at one point finds convicted bank robber Jack Foley (played by Clooney) emerging from beneath a manhole cover only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun held by U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco (Lopez). The similarity extends further in that Matt and Sweat expected to see a woman when they exited their own manhole: accomplice and 51-year-old civilian prison tailor employee Joyce Mitchell.
Parallels end there, though one could technically extend them a bit further, since prisoner Matt seemed to have a sexual relationship with Mitchell, while Clooney’s Foley enjoyed a romantic attraction to Sisco. Clearly, Foley’s was the more admirable liaison, since Mitchell seemed to be merely a pawn in the Dannemora escape plans.
The recent New York fleeing also brings to mind another of my favorite prison-breakout movies: Escape from Alcatraz. Based on true events, that 1979 film starred Clint Eastwood as convicted armed robber Frank Morris and Patrick McGoohan as the sinister Warden. In 1962, the multiple-offending Morris used a sort-of power tool to undo bolts on a shaft vent; he’d rigged the thing from a fan motor and a drill bit. And let’s not forget the dummy head that Morris left
on his prison bed.
Ruining the continuity thread, Morris did not go underground or utilize pipes in his daring flight. Instead, he crossed the roof of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary together with his accomplices, climbed down a wall, climbed over a fence, and used a makeshift raft assembled from raincoats to cross surrounding San Francisco Bay. Morris and his cohorts, the brothers Clarence and John Anglin, were never found and--though they’d be very old men
by now--might still be at large. Most presumed they died crossing the frigid waters fraught with strong currents. But many believe Frank Morris eventually made his way to Mexico--the desired flee-to location for Matt and Sweat as
Maybe Morris, Dufresne, and Redding all enjoyed drinks with umbrellas on the beach. I could live with that.
Life imitates art/imitates life doesn’t fully apply to the case of Richard Matt and David Sweat, of course. There’s a serious departure. Shawshank’s Dufresne was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Out of Sight’s Jack Foley was a gentleman bank robber with charm and morals--he was not a violent man. Frank Morris was a convicted armed robber, certainly a serious matter, but Eastwood managed to make his character sympathetic and gruffly likable, if not entirely innocent.
Matt and Sweat, on the other hand, are cold-blooded killers. There is nothing romantic or likable about these men, one of whom murdered a deputy, while the other killed and dismembered his victim. Unlike Dufresne or Morris, the recent escapees in New York state deserve to be apprehended and serve out their life sentences. Their story does not merit a happy cinematic ending.
FOLLOW-UP: “Sprawling Hunt Ends as David Sweat, 2nd Prison Escapee, Is Shot and Captured,” by Rick Rojas, J. David Goodman, and William K. Rashbaum (The New York Times).