Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Dannemora escape from the Guards’ perspective

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Richie Elson says he made his documentary, We Stand Corrected: Dannemora, “to tell the other side” — that of the Corrections Officers, prison guards, local officers and law enforcement — from that told in Escape At Dannemora, Ben Stiller’s 2018 multi-part Showtime docudrama.

Dannemora, from the guards’ perspective — New documentary screens twice on Saturday, Feb. 29, at the Wood.

The Wood Theater is screening Mr. Elson’s movie on Saturday, Feb. 29, at 1:30 and 6 p.m. Tix: $12. Box office: 480-4878 or at www.WoodTheater.org.

Mr. Elson is a Los Angeles filmmaker who more typically makes horror thrillers and works “small jobs on big movies,” he says. But, “that story got my attention.”

Naturally so — a Plattsburgh graduate, his father is a former corrections officer who served 15 years at Dannemora before he retired.

The Showtime series, told from the perspective of the two escapees — David Sweat and Richard Matt — won numerous accolades and a Golden Globe for Patricia Arquette, who portrayed Joyce Mitchell, the civilian employee who aided the two convicts in their escape.

Mr. Elson says, “It seemed to me a lot of fingers were pointed at the COs. It seemed one-sided, and not from the local perspective. The officers were not allowed to talk about it. I wanted to tell the stories from their eyes, to give these guys a voice in the story.”

He contends, “The series seems to glorify the escape. I get it, the seduction of it. But in doing that, I think they did a disservice to the hard working people who had their hands tied with the regulations and policies put on them from the bureaucracy in Albany.”

The documentary interviews several former COs, including the filmmaker’s father. Also on air: The then-prison superintendent Steve Racette, state assemblywoman, officials of NYSCOPA, the COs’ union. Their overwhelming message is that officials in Albany tied the hands of local enforcement with rules from above, budget cuts that decreased manpower at the prison, increasing inmate privileges, general lack of support. Most notably, then-Superintendent Racette had requested but Albany government denied a lockdown following a fight or riot in the prison yard days before the escape.

It would have cost several thousand dollars in overtime but, COs contend on screen, may well have turned up the escapees’ plot.

Notable that Gene Palmer speaks at length also. He’s the CO who spent four months in jail for his role in the escape. It was he who delivered contraband chopped meat — containing a hacksaw, unbeknownst to him — that the two convicts used to cut their way out of the prison.

There’s a brief, graphic image of Matt’s fatal wound to the head that Mr. Elson said he “grappled” with whether to show or not.

He recreates David Sweats’ capture in a detailed narration by State Trooper Jay Cook, who shot and wounded him.

One potential detail in the documentary that would seem to point to a larger conspiracy — that the section of pipe cut away by the escapees was never recovered — Mr. Elson says now turns out to be incorrect.

That’s unfortunate, Mr. Elson says.

Having seen the documentary, I’ll add that I found it extremely well crafted. The one-sided perspective bothered me occasionally, especially when Gene Palmer was given much opportunity to criticize the prison system long before he was identified as the guy who aided, even if inadvertently, the escapees. I do take to heart that a few “bad apples” don’t condemn the whole group. I’m glad that Mr. Elson gives them voice, though — myself, I already felt that way about the officers from the Showtime series.

Copyright © 2020 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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