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Life for inmates could become much harder after recent prison break, UB expert says

Officials should not let the latest escape influence decision-making when it comes to inmates’ privileges, says UB’s Teresa Miller

Release Date: June 30, 2015

“Despite the fact that you’ve had 170 years of no escapes from this maximum-security prison, members of the public are going to say changes must be made to prevent future escapes.”
Teresa Miller, law professor
University at Buffalo
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Processes that have been considered effective in prisons before will be re-evaluated after the latest escape, says UB's Teresa Miller. Photo: Douglas Levere

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The world tends to romanticize prison escapes: People make movies about them, write books and dissect the possible routes taken by fugitives when a manhunt is on.

But what is forgotten is how these prison breaks impact those who remain behind bars, says Teresa Miller, University at Buffalo law professor.

The recent escape by Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Upstate New York could make life more difficult for inmates who were not involved by raising questions about prison procedures – such as rewarding inmates with privileges for good behavior – that have been effective for a long time, she said.

“Despite the fact that you’ve had 170 years of no escapes from this maximum-security prison, members of the public are going to say changes must be made to prevent future escapes,” said Miller, who has spent the last decade visiting maximum-security prisons in New York as part of her research on prisoners’ rights and the impact maximum-security prisons have on guards and those imprisoned.

“Heightened concern for security may stymie prison reform efforts,” she added. “Processes that were considered effective before will be re-evaluated.”

One of those processes, says Miller, could be placing inmates on the honor block for good behavior. Both Sweat and Matt, were housed on the honor block, giving them more liberties, such as the ability to cook.

Honor block is a management tool and rewards people who stay out of trouble – people who are just trying to live as normal a life as possible, Miller said. This privilege was already briefly suspended at Clinton Correctional Facility after the break out, and Miller fears there could be calls for a permanent change.

In the time she has spent with inmates, Miller said, those she has gotten to know on honor block are typically leaders. They often serve as teachers’ aides, or run aggression replacement classes, for example.

“I think you cannot run a prison without it,” she said of the honor block. “Everyone cannot suffer because of two individuals. Instead of looking at the prisoners on honor block as the problem, we should take a look at their relationship with prison staff. The recent escape was not an easy thing to pull off. It was facilitated by all the help they had. This plot reached deep into the workforce at the prison. There is no reason to demonize honor block or other privileges.”

To find UB faculty experts on other topics — including issues trending in the news — visit UB’s Faculty Experts website.

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