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Manipulation and the Five ‘F’s
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 06/15/2021

Inmates a In my correctional teaching career, including post-retirement, I make notes and have them handy up on the lectern. Like any criminal justice instructor, I consider notes and acronyms useful ‘tricks of the trade’. This is especially true when you are on a topic and want to clearly illustrate a point based on a true event.

I teach a class called Manipulating the System: How Inmates Get Ahead. I discuss the topic of inmate manipulation. And corrections veterans will tell you that they know of many examples of inmates manipulating and fooling staff into doing the wrong things. I am not saying staff members, both sworn and non-sworn are blameless. It is a choice and a conscious decision to break the rules, do inmates’ bidding and not engage in common sense.

When teaching correctional topics, it is always a good idea to bring in actual events. Nothing illustrates manipulation better than objectively reported, factual events where staff allowed themselves to be used by inmates. The results have included contraband smuggling, sexual misconduct, escapes, and inmates being granted the power to do time on their terms. Unfortunately, when a trainer looks online for this topic, many events ‘pop up’.

In addition, these incidents are timeless. What I mean is that the facts and investigations about the event can withstand the test of time. For a trainer, discussions about them in online or classroom training sessions can be used many times. In addition, the more the event has notoriety, the more the trainees will recognize it. This can spark interest in the discussion and enhance what can be learned. Even though it is now 2021, and the escape I will discuss happened in mid-2015, the lessons that corrections staff will hopefully learn from it can be taught and discussed for a long time in the future.

The Clinton, New York Correctional Facility Escape

In June of 2015, two convicted inmates serving life sentences for murder escaped from a New York state prison, aided by a civilian prison worker, a sworn correctional officer (CO) and breakdowns in security policies and procedures. For several weeks, the nation was captivated by a massive law enforcement search for the fugitives, Richard Matt and David Sweat, and the circumstances under which the escape took place. The result was one escapee (Matt) was shot and killed by law enforcement, the other (Sweat) was shot and recaptured. The civilian, surviving inmate and CO were convicted of criminal offenses related to the escape.

I use this case in several classes, including the manipulation class. It is a textbook case of inmate manipulation, and how staff should not conduct themselves. The case is and should continue to be well-known in corrections. Events like these must be discussed honestly, showing what went wrong. Correctional staff, both sworn and non-sworn should know what the ‘slippery slope’ is-and how they can take steps to avoid sliding down that hill. What is at the bottom of the hill? Loss of job, loss of reputation, loss of liberty and freedom, and dangers to public safety.

The inmates in this case were inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat. The staff members were Joyce Mitchell, civilian tailor shop supervisor, and Correctional Officer Eugene Palmer, at the time a 27-year veteran.

The Five ‘Fs’:

Flattery: Joyce Mitchell, the civilian tailor shop supervisor, was reported to be too friendly with the inmates Matt and Sweat. According to the investigation of the escape, she flirted with the two inmates, bringing in food and treats for them. She said that they were always ‘nice to her’ and made her ‘feel good’. Flattery is an important tool for the manipulator. Once the staff member responds favorably to flattery by an inmate, most if not all objectivity is gone. Inmates are not seen as criminal offenders anymore-individuals that a staff member should be wary of. They are viewed as ‘nice people’, or the proverbial saying- ‘They aren’t that bad’. I have heard this from both officers and civilians-and to this day I am still shaking my head. In life-you live and learn. Once you get burned a few times by inmate lies and schemes, you wise up. Compromised staff can also indulge in self-flattery. Matt and Sweat not only built up how nice Mitchell was, but they also flattered CO Palmer, who described himself as the ‘go to guy’, that ‘everybody looked up to’. Flattery inflates the staff member’s ego. Inflated egos are dangerous. Palmer and Mitchell were blinded. This does not let them off the hook; both made choices to do what they did.

Friendship: Once flattery takes hold, and objectivity goes out the door, it becomes easy for the inmates to start friendships with the staff. You know when you become friends with someone, you overlook some behavior. How many of us have not said or done anything that would get a friend into trouble? The two ‘lifers’-Matt and Sweat, were known as ‘Palmer’s Boys’, who looked out for each other. The relationship between Matt and CO Palmer was described by inmates as ‘tighter than two peas in a pod’. Palmer’s interactions with the two inmates were described by investigators as ‘unauthorized and improper’. In addition, Joyce Mitchell became too friendly with the inmates, who exploited her naivete when planning the escape. In 2012, three years before the escape, staff noticed that she was too friendly with inmates. Mitchell herself told investigators it was difficult to maintain a proper distance from inmates, saying that a rapport develops because one is with them every day of the week. Efforts by management to correct her shortcomings were unsuccessful, which had consequences later. It was reported by investigators that management was reluctant to take strong action concerning her unprofessional behavior.

Favors: Favors are a dangerous two-way street. Once the inmate does favors for you-he or she will expect favors in return. One of the things a corrections professional, either uniform or non-uniform, learns is the importance of saying no. This means no to special requests, favors or ignoring policies and procedures. In the Clinton Correctional Facility escape, Matt and Sweat put their art talents to work. Described by investigators as ‘prolific artists’, both inmates produced paintings and drawings for staff members. This they used as a type of ‘prison currency’. Sweat stated that these artworks were given exceptionally cheap to staff; knowing that in the future staff will owe them a favor if they (Matt and Sweat) were in a ‘bind’. Security is compromised when staff performs favors. CO Palmer would escort Matt from the tailor shop, and bypass metal detectors. Matt and Sweat, thanks to Palmer, were given access to the catwalk behind their cells. Inmates wanting to have their electricity in their cells upgraded to facilitate hot plates were accommodated by Sweat and Matt, assisted by Palmer. Palmer, according to investigators, warned Matt of upcoming cell searches, so that contraband could be concealed. Night rounds by officers were not regularly conducted, and cell searches were described as ‘cursory’. Containers carried in and out of the front gate of the prison were not regularly searched. As a result, when Mitchell brought in packages of food with escape tools hidden within, and Palmer was the staff person who helped transport them.

Mitchell, the civilian worker, was also a key player. She developed relationships with both inmates, brought in food, and called Matt’s daughter on his behalf. Favors also included sexual favors, such as genital fondling, oral sex, and kissing. Matt and Mitchell engaged in sexual encounters. Matt told her that he loved her. Mitchell had a negative view of her marriage and discussed with the two inmates the possibility of murdering her husband, who also worked at the prison. The three-Mitchell, Matt and Sweat devised an escape plan; one of the destinations discussed was living in Mexico. The favors-getting around security, accepting gifts and sexual encounters-made the escape plan very do-able.

Fly-Away or Flight: This is the fourth ‘F’. On the night of June 5, 2015, the two inmates, David Sweat and Richard Matt, descended three levels down under the prison. They escaped through holes in their cells that they had cut. The two navigated through dimly lit tunnels and a steam pipe. They exited through a street manhole about a block from the prison, in the town of Dannemora, New York. However, one key thing went wrong-Joyce Mitchell, the civilian worker who obtained their escape tools, did not show up as planned to drive them away. She said that she had experienced a ‘panic attack’ and went to a local hospital. She was admitted for observation. The two escapees were abandoned and had to flee on foot. The resulting manhunt lasted for three weeks, put the community on edge and cost an estimated $23 million.

Joyce Mitchell pleaded guilty to charges relating to the escape and received a sentence of 2 and 1/3 to 7 years in prison. She was ordered to pay restitution, including a sum to the state for damages to the physical plant of the prison. Palmer pleaded guilty to several charges and resigned from state service. He received a sentence of 6 months in the county jail and a fine of $5,000. Sweat was transferred to another New York prison, and was placed in special housing for a six-year term, with a loss of several privileges. He pleaded guilty to two felony counts and received a sentence of restitution and 3 and ½ to 7 years on each count.

However, there is a fifth and final ‘F’: that is failure. Security failed, ethical behavior failed, staff failed, and in this case, the inmates won.

Inmate manipulation and staff misconduct are serious issues. Inmate manipulation and the tangled web it weaves must be discussed in meetings, seminars, basic recruit schools, orientations and in both basic and ongoing in-service training. It applies to sworn staff-and non-sworn staff. As I say in my manipulation classes, to sworn officers, civilian facility staff, and volunteers:

“Inmates are not stupid. All staff have what the inmates want-access to the outside. And remember…. if there was a university for ‘street smarts’…. many inmates would have Ph.Ds.”

Please take this event-and learn from it.

Reference: State of New York, Office of the Inspector General. (June 2016). Investigation of the June 5, 2015 Escape of Inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility. Catherine Leahy Scott, Inspector General.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses: punishment and corrections, community corrections, jails and preparation for internship. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. He has also presented webinars and Skype presentations on correctional issues. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections, including The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition, (2009) from the American Correctional Association, and
The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, (2008) from Pearson Prentice Hall. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University. In January 2011, Gary started a blog “Tales from the Local Jail” on The Corrections Connection (www.corrections.com) followed in December 2012 by his second blog, “Talks About Training” on Corrections One (www.correctionsone.com). Gary has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local adult corrections. He has corrections projects in development, including, a new second edition of The Twenty Minute Trainer, from the Civic Research Institute, and a new third edition of Stressed Out: Strategies For Living and Working in Corrections from Carolina Academic Press. Gary has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Tier Talk, discussing corrections security, training and staff issues. He presents training for InTime Solutions and Lexipol. He resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.


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