New film documents Dannemora escape from corrections officers’ perspectives

Jan 16, 2020

The prison break in northern New York captured the nation’s attention for three weeks in 2015 and spawned two screen adaptations – one of questionable accuracy on Lifetime and another based on the actual events and filmed on location for Showtime.

But as one filmmaker watched what unfolded during and after the escape of Richard Matt of Tonawanda and David Sweat of Deposit, near Binghamton, from the maximum security prison at Dannemora, he felt corrections officers and other workers were negatively portrayed. The documentary “We Stand Corrected: Dannemora“ chronicles the events and aftermath of the escape from the point of view of law enforcement and corrections personnel.

Richie Elson’s father was a corrections officer who worked at Clinton Correctional for 15 years. Elson is now a filmmaker in Los Angeles and closely followed coverage of the escape and the aftermath.

Richard Matt (l) and David Sweat.
Credit New York State Police

“I saw even right from the beginning the way it was affecting my Dad, who had been out of corrections for over a decade, and so I could only imagine the effect it was having on the active CO’s that were still working there," Elson said during a visit to Plattsburgh for a special screening of the film. "The way a lot of the media portrayed it especially in other parts of the country didn’t seem totally accurate to me and I wanted to tell the real story from the perspective of this community and from the perspective of the CO’s and make sure that the facts actually came out.”

Elson told Mountain Lake PBS host Thom Hallock there were numerous false narratives about corrections officers and civilian workers. He set out to engage with the local law enforcement community to document their side of the story. 

“When you’re currently employed by the state you’re not allowed to talk to media and because I couldn’t speak I had to really look to retired correction officers," he said, "and even a lot of them were pretty apprehensive. It really took a long time until I gained trust.”

Hallock: “And not only retired officers. You talked to a number of the key figures in this that hadn’t talked up to this point. Steve Racette, the prison superintendent. Gene Palmer the only CO who was charged in this.”

Elson: “Steve Racette is a wonderful man. You know it was a very raw, emotional interview. Gene Palmer I believe that that is the only on-camera interview with him that exists at this time.”

Palmer is very soft-spoken in the film. 

“I would routinely see the same individuals each and every day. I have to let them out to feed them," said Palmer. "So I’ve got to stand next to this guy so there has to be respect so that when I turn my back that I don’t get assaulted.”

Another individual who has shunned the media is retired New York State Police Sgt. Jay Cook. Elson recorded a riveting audio interview in which Cook describes how he captured Sweat. 

“He agreed to let us audio record the interview," Elson said. "The voice was not supposed to be used in the film and Jay finally agreed to let me keep it in. Nobody else can tell the story like this.”

Jay Cook: “He didn’t stop, so I kind of took a hop and I planted my feet and I brought my pistol up and I squeezed off that first round - and it’s like the whole world just woooooh. The weirdest feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

Other individuals participating in the film include Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie, Clinton County Sheriff David Favro, retired New York State Police Maj. Charles Guess, New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association representatives and former corrections officers.