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"We Stand Corrected: Dannemora," a film by Richie Elson

When Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015 it shook the state of New York and the prison system as they knew it. The investigation into the escape left no stone unturned and as blame was being placed it seemed to rest on the heads of the Corrections Officers (C.O) and the Superintendent. What the state seemed to forget was the budget cuts, policy changes, and the denied request for lockdown that had all happened previous to the escape and made Clinton the scapegoat. But, as we all know, there are always two sides to every story, and this film sets out to tell the other side and give the C.O.’s a voice. This is We Stand Corrected: Dannemora.


Cast of Characters:

Richie Elson……….Producer, Director

David Elson……….Richie’s Father, Retired C.O., Former Clinton Employee

Gene Palmer…..Former C.O., Aided in Matt & Sweat’s Escape


We Stand Corrected: Dannemora is distributed by Gravitas Ventures ((gravitasventures.com)

You watch the documentary on Amazon and iTunes

For more about the movie visit https://www.westandcorrectedmovie.com/

Heather Grayson:
In 2015 Dannemora, New York was shaken to its core when Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility.

B.C. Wehman:
By the time anyone knew that they were gone Sweat and Matt had several hours lead on authorities.

Heather Grayson:
As the investigation into their escape unfolded so did the truth about the prison system.

B.C. Wehman:
We hear about budget cuts, policy changes, a denied request for lockdown, corrupt corrections officers, and all the ways the escape could have been prevented if only the State of New York had listened.

Heather Grayson:
Hi, I'm Heather Grayson. Writer, producer, and director, who craves passion in filmmaking and documentarians are just that. I write fiction, but I love to watch the truth.

B.C. Wehman:
My name is B.C. Wehman. I'm an actor, a writer, an entertainer, all sorts of creative endeavors. But what I love most? Being a storyteller. It's why I love documentaries. They're extraordinary stories from every day, extraordinary people.

Heather Grayson:
This is Behind the Doc. And today we are behind the scenes with We Stand Corrected: Dannemora.

Movie Clip:
Investigators are leaving no stone unturned in the search for convicted killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat. Questioning prison employees like Joyce Mitchell, who has worked at the prison since 2008, and is known to have had contact with the escaped inmates working in the prisons, tailoring shop.

Movie Clip:
The search for David Sweat and Richard Matt now zeroes in on a mountainous area about an hour from the prison where they escaped. Anna Warner is in the search area in Owl's Head.

Movie Clip:
CBS News has confirmed that investigators got what could be an important lead much closer to home, here, just about 25 miles from the prison.

Movie Clip:
State police searched cars at roadblocks and set up a command post in the rural area of Owl's Head, as the search for fugitives, Richard Matt and David Sweat entered its 16th day. Sources tell CBS News that DNA from the escapees was found in a cabin that had been broken into near Wolf Pond in the Saranac Lake region of New York, 25 miles from the prison.

B.C. Wehman:
We're excited today to talk about the film We Stand Corrected: Dannemora. with us today we have two very special guests. The director of the film, Richie Elson, along with his father, a former correctional officer, David Elson. My name is B.C. Wehman and with me as always.

Heather Grayson:
I am Heather Grayson.

B.C. Wehman:
So first, to get started, let's just have you, our guests, Richie and David, introduced themselves.

Richie Elson:
My name is Richie Elson. I am the director and producer of We Stand Corrected: Dannemora. This is my first documentary feature film that I've made. It's a story that really hit close to home for me, both literally and figuratively, because I grew up in the area where this story happened and because my dad, David Elson, was a correction officer at Clinton Correctional for 15 years. This is a story that we wanted to tell to kind of set the record straight.

Movie Clip:
We can't blame everyone for the doings of one, nor should we blame every inmate for the wrongdoings of one.

B.C. Wehman:
That's excellent. How about you David? Give us just a little bit. I know you worked at Dannemora, at the Clinton facility, but didn't you work elsewhere before that?

David Elson:
Yes. I started with the Department of Corrections in New York State in September 19th of 1977 at the Training Academy. After completing two months at the Training Academy in Otisville, New York, I was assigned to Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, which is about 90 miles North of New York City. I worked there for 11 years and then put in a transfer to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. And I moved up there in May of 1988. And I worked there until March 22nd, 2003. First day of spring when I retired.

B.C. Wehman:
Interesting. This is obviously a very personal story for everyone involved. Obviously Richie, you're directing and you're producing it and then you're involving your dad. Why tell the story? I mean, it's a highly publicized tale, the escape of David Sweat and Richard Matt from the prison. Why tell this version of this story?

David Elson:
I believe the story needed to be told because the media, during the escape, and the Ben Stiller film and the other films that were done, made it appear that the officers were the reason the escape was allowed to happen. They portrayed the officers as a stereotype correctional officer that you see in movies. I would hate to say the word as dumb and stupid, but that's the way I took it. It's a hard job. To do it right you have to be able to psychologically stay one step ahead of the inmate.

Movie Clip:
It's an honorable job. It truly is. It's an honorable job and everyone should see it that way because not everyone could do it. It's not rewarding. It really isn't. No one pats you on the back of the end of the day and thanks you for coming to work.

Heather Grayson:
And you absolutely made this documentary to give these officers and people, CERT team, all of these people we saw in the documentary, you wanted to give them a voice. You really wanted to show their side of the story, maybe because they couldn't share it?

Richie Elson:
Yeah, because active correction officers aren't allowed to speak to media while they're employed by New York State, it very hard for them to tell their side of the story. I mostly had to speak to retired correction officers, at least on camera. I was able to talk to some active ones off the record, but couldn't really include much of what they were actually saying because they can be reprimanded by the state, can lose their jobs, can lose their pensions. The more people I spoke to, the more trust I gained within that community. And because I'm also from the area and my dad worked in corrections, it definitely opened some doors that I probably wouldn't have had, which is why the story really hasn't been told yet. A lot of people haven't had that kind of access.

Heather Grayson:
Yeah. One of the big doors you had was you had Gene, you had the CO that caused a lot of ruckus. How did you get him?

Richie Elson:
Gene and my dad used to work together for a long time. I think they actually started at Dannemora around the same year. I believe they actually both started at Greenhaven together. So my dad went back with him quite a ways, and he actually served time for his role in the escape and had kind of just, not gone into hiding, but was really not in the public eye anymore. And we did a lot of outreach and tried to get ahold of him. Once we finally did, he was pretty reluctant and didn't want to be involved, but knew the side I was trying to tell. And it took about six months or more until he agreed to sit down with me. But I was able to finally get that interview with him.

David Elson:
Gene Palmer that I remember was always there when you needed him. When there was an alert, what we call level one or a level two, Gene Palmer was always running up the mess hall stairs, running because he was a response officer. Part of his job was, if there was an emergency, an alarm set in jail or problem, he was on the response team. Gene would be running full out to go there. And so that's the Gene Palmer that I remember. And he called me, and he didn't know for sure that it was me so I said to Gene, "This is how I remember you, Gene." And he asked me questions that I would know. And when I answered those questions, that was part of the reason that he agreed to do this as a way of being able to say his side of the story. And I really appreciated him that he agreed to do the interview with Richard. Because he gave no interviews to anybody else. Gene, when I knew him, was a top notch officer, and that's all I can say.

Movie Clip:
Gene Palmer somehow lost his way as a correction officer. And what I mean by that is he stopped seeing inmates for what they were. He stopped seeing Matt and Sweat as being convicted killers and almost as friends.

Movie Clip:
So I would routinely see the same individuals each and every day, so you get to know that person. Yes, I know that he may have committed a serious crime, but I have to let him out to feed them. So I got to stand next to this guy, so there has to be respect so that when I turn my back on him to address another inmate, that I don't get assaulted.

Heather Grayson:
It was great that you told his side and his story too. So thank you for that.

Richie Elson:
Yeah. I thought it was important. Again, he definitely did things wrong, but I think he also unknowingly aided in the escape. And I think that that was a point that a lot of people missed, especially in the Showtime series. It was very much portrayed that he and Joyce Mitchell were friends and that almost they had co-conspired together. And all my discussions with him and just everything I heard from people that knew that situation well, and that dynamic, it sounded like that wasn't really the case. That he and Joyce didn't really get along. He had kind of told her multiple times that she was crossing some boundaries and not doing the right things, and had even complained to her to administration a few times.

Movie Clip:
Discipline doesn't happen in the facility, it happens from central office. So once that investigation is handed over to the IG, then it's out of the facility's hands.

Movie Clip:
Did notice changes in Mitchell's dress code. But the five times previous that I complained, I was told to lay down. So why bring her dress code to their attention when I already saw what the outcome was going to be?

B.C. Wehman:
That seemed to be a common reoccurring theme throughout your film, is the multiple times where it felt like this could have been prevented. Whether it was the lockdown that should have happened because of some of the inmates fighting, or whether it was the multiple discussions and reprimands that Joyce Mitchell had had, and maybe they could have removed her and seeming that. Is that, David, seemed to be the case in these prisons? Is it just a lot of bureaucracy? I mean, I know there's good people working, but I can imagine, on your end, on the CO's end, the bosses and the big wigs just making your life much more difficult and almost having things like this or helping the incidents like this happen.

David Elson:
Well, I can tell you, I agree with what you said. Albany writes directives, but doesn't know, at the facility level, how it's implemented. Every facility in New York State, all the maximum security facilities, were built at different times. So the layouts are different, the floor plans. So what might work in one jail doesn't necessarily work well in then another facility because of the layout.

David Elson:
In this case, with this escape.

Movie Clip:
All the catwalks used to be monitored or checked on a regular basis. We also used to do the tunnel checks. But because of resources, mainly money, those positions had been eliminated. In the tunnels, back in the day, those steam pipes used to run 24/7/365. That one section of pipe does everything.

David Elson:
With the steam live 24/7/365, had the inmates cut into that steam pipe they would have been scalded to death. But they knew the steam pipe was shut off and they knew that that was a way of getting out.

B.C. Wehman:
What is the difference between a civilian and a correctional officer? Because I know that Joyce Mitchell, in this case, in Dannemora, was a civilian employee of the prison, while Gene Palmer and the other folks were correctional officers. Can you just give us the quick difference between the two and then your thoughts on having civilians work in the prison environment?

David Elson:
Well, you have to have civilians. Civilians are all ... We're all civil servants. We all work for the Department of Corrections. You have school teachers that are in the facility, they work for the Department of Corrections. You have correction counselors, you have medical nurses, physician's assistants, doctors. They are civil servants. They work for the Department of Corrections. So you have correctional staff civilian wise, and then you have the correctional officers who have peace officer status. Those are the ones that work in the housing units.

David Elson:
Now in an emergency situation, those teachers, the counselors, the civilian cooks, they can also be put to work in a housing unit in the time of an emergency like a lockdown.

Movie Clip:
No one perhaps took this escape and the recapture, the prospect of recapture, more personally than the Department of Corrections, in my opinion. And I've got to know a lot of these people, they were terrific partners of mine, but specifically like the Clinton Correctional Facility, CERT team, the correction emergency response team. Those guys, if you were paying attention in 2015, you saw in the media, in the midnight blue uniforms, tactical vest, et cetera. They were out in the worst of the worst conditions. If there was a swamp or a bog that you were going to be up to your chest in, we sent a CERT team out there.

Heather Grayson:
There was a lot of light shed on the CERT team. Richie, I really loved how you showed, not only them and their purpose, you showed pictures and videos that I didn't see while watching any of the coverage, of these guys going out there. I really think that that shed a huge light on so many of the things that we, as citizens here, we don't understand. How did you come about thinking of that and making sure you got the right footage?

Richie Elson:
They are actually correction officers as well, but that work in these specific emergency type situations and train for these specifically. And because of just the timing of the escape, it happened to be at a time when the weather conditions were absolutely terrible. It was literally, I think for the 23 days that they were on the loose, it rained maybe 20 of those. Almost every day. And it wasn't just a few showers here and there. These were torrential downpours. These guys, also just because of the terrain of the area, they were working in some of the hardest conditions, just thick woods, were doing this thankless job, basically around the clock. A lot of them were working 20 to 24 hour shifts. These guys were literally in some of the worst conditions, and that was something I really wanted to portray accurately in this documentary.

B.C. Wehman:
Let's go back a little bit Richie, because I'm curious. So you're out in Los Angeles, you're kind of bouncing around, you're doing a bunch of Hollywood stuff. You're getting your feet in the door. At what point, when this escape happens, do you decide, "Hey, I need to make a movie about this. I need to tell that tale." How long, I guess, did it take from the time you had that idea to you actually decided to start arranging, start filming, literally start planning it out? How long after the escape did this process start and how long till you actually were filming, so to speak?

Richie Elson:
Again, like I said before, I was following it really closely from day one, just because I couldn't believe this was happening in my hometown, more or less. And so I think about basically exactly a year after the escape happened, they released the New York State inspector-general's report, which really did nothing but point fingers at the officers. It was like 150 page report that just, over and over again, talked about the complacency and all the things that the facility was doing wrong. And didn't take any responsibility for the State's role in this whole thing. So that was the point when I really wanted to use that report to learn some of the fine details, but also to kind of explore them, to kind of dig deeper and see how many of those were actually the truth and how many of those were kind of covering up some of the bigger issues here.

Movie Clip:
There are some awesome people that work really hard up there and that work with odds that most normal people would not want to work with. So to have human waste thrown on you, to be threatened, to be attacked with weapons, to have odds of 50-1 when you're in a mess hall or you're in a rec yard, and knowing that, no matter what you do, may end up being the wrong thing because you're going to get sued by somebody. It could be an inmate, inmate's family, who knows what. Those are not pleasant conditions to work on.

Movie Clip:
I think before anybody starts pointing their finger and casting shadows upon any correction officers that were involved in that, or not involved in that, they really should do their research on what the job involves first and have a much better appreciation for that. They're not just sitting there watching a bunch of sleeping inmates. The job is a lot more dangerous than that. And there's not an awful lot of thanks.

Movie Clip:
Being in corrections is fascinating to begin with. It's hard work, it's unrewarding work. No one thanks you at the end of the day. And you go in hoping you come out.

Heather Grayson:
It is very telling, the whole documentary you really showed how the system is broken.

Movie Clip:
New York State, in my all my time, they absolutely refuse to listen to the people that are hands on with the inmates. They think they know so much more than we do at the facility, that how it should be run and what the problems are and how those problems are to be cured. They will not listen to anybody within that facility, or any other facility in New York.

Heather Grayson:
I really enjoyed that aspect of it because you really had to think about things. And considering how much we've talked about Escape at Dannemora that Ben Stiller made, how did you guys like that?

David Elson:
Well, for me, I watched the first episode and then I refused to watch any more of it, because the way that it portrayed the officers, the way it portrayed Gene Palmer and the way that Richard Matt was dealing with Gene Palmer and the way Richard Matt was dealing with other inmates, it wasn't real.

Movie Clip:
Matt also made himself useful to Palmer by squealing on inmates, guys who were misbehaving, breaking the rules. The favors start small, they get bigger and bigger until pretty soon, here's the frozen hamburger meat. Palmer didn't have to know that there was a hacksaw hidden inside it, but he was happy to deliver it to his old buddy, Richard Matt.

Richie Elson:
When the Showtime series came out, to be honest, as a filmmaker, I did respect the production value of it. I thought some of the cinematography was incredible. I thought it had good writing, good acting. But I also knew that it was a fictionalized way of telling this story. And my biggest critique with it was that a lot of people would take it at face value and not realize that it was sensationalized and it wasn't the truth. It also brought it back to the forefront and it gave a platform for me to tell this counter side of things for people that did enjoy that, to maybe watch my documentary that might not have watched it otherwise.

B.C. Wehman:
It's weird though, because the tale is very much like a movie. Between Joyce Mitchell working that and then them escaping through the tunnels and all that. It has a very much a Shawshank Redemption kind of vibe to it. In fact David Sweat afterwards was saying like, "I'm better than Shawshank. I pulled it off." So if Escape from Dannemora, David, doesn't get it right, is there any movie you've seen that does? Or television show come close to portraying what it's like behind the bars, as you say?

David Elson:
I would say Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank Redemption was what it was like at that time. Like I said, if you've seen the documentary and you've seen me talk; firm, fair and consistent. Inmates know the rules, they know what they're supposed to do. At Clinton Correctional Facility, the grandfather was a correction officer, the father was a correction officer, the son is now a correction officer. So the jail ran one way. Not all the things were right, but the jail ran one way and the inmates knew it.

B.C. Wehman:
It sounds like it definitely brought you guys together, which is exciting, right? You're going through and you're a little later in life and you have this new bond with your dad. That has to be an exciting moment. Richie, question. You said you were exploring your dreams, you're chasing it out there, you're going to Hollywood, you're doing these things. What is it like? Because I know you've done some other work behind the camera, whether it's production and things like this. What was it like to be, I guess, the person in charge? To kind of run the show, to sit in the big boy chair, so to speak. What was that like versus working with directors? Did you learn from them and did you take that into when you wanted to start shooting and filming?

Richie Elson:
I definitely did. And documentary filmmaking is extremely different than scripted filmmaking, which is my true passion. And I've written and produced and directed several short films. Doing this documentary was definitely different and a little outside of my comfort zone, but it was a really fun experience and I was able to do a lot of the things I did because of my knowledge of the film industry and working around some really talented professionals on bigger sets every day. I wanted to get this story right. And when you're working with a documentary, the story kind of comes together as you go. And you're working with dozens of hours of footage and you have to figure out the right way to tell that story. So much had been told on the other side that it was my full intention to tell this side. And not to just blast it home and to not tell other sides of it too, but to really make sure that the audience left after seeing this and realized that there was a totally different side of this story that hadn't really been talked about before.

Movie Clip:
The day I met, right after the escape, when they were really feeling that there was that whole aftermath of it never should have happened and in a way it's all their fault. And one of the things they said to me was that they couldn't make any statements, that they felt nobody was speaking for them. They didn't have a voice to get their message out. And I said to them, "Oh yeah, you do."

B.C. Wehman:
Did I see in the credits that that was you flying the drone over the prison? Because I have to tell you, it was a great shot and it really surprised me at how large the facility was. Just took me back. It's almost like this college that you can't leave. There's so many different buildings and campuses. And I was like, "Wow, it's a much bigger facility, including the way it takes the place in that town, than I was expecting." So I really appreciated that drone shot, to really set how big it is.

Richie Elson:
Absolutely. Yeah, the prison is massive as you can see. There's actually more people incarcerated in that facility than people that live in the surrounding village around it. So it's definitely a centerpiece of that town. I did not operate the drone myself. It was actually a former correction officer who is now retired and does drone work as a career. His name is Keith Provost and he was able to get these great shots. The prison has strong restrictions, you obviously can't fly a drone over the walls. You can really see, like you were describing, the massive size of this place.

B.C. Wehman:
It was really great to see everything behind the scenes, which I think, Richie and David, because of your connections in this film, We Stand Corrected: Dannemora, it was pretty amazing to see that. So we're really excited we got a chance to speak with you today. I would be remiss if I let you go, Richie, without asking you at least a little bit about the end credit song, because it's all I sing right now. You can ask Heather-

Heather Grayson:
He does.

B.C. Wehman:
... I walked into the door like rock horns flying, singing We Stand Corrected. Was that an original song or did you find that?

Richie Elson:
That's an original song. My composer, his name is Jeremy Nathan Tisser, and really talented guy. He and I have collaborated on a couple of short films before this. But we had this idea to make this big song for the end credits that would kind of talk about the bureaucracy and some of the flaws and the subject matter that we discuss in the film, and put it to music. Because of his connections in the music industry, he was able to get a singer involved, named Tommy Rogers, who's involved in a couple larger metal bands. We were able to use that in the end credits to kind of sum up our story, but to also just really kind of make it hit home at the end. And I'm so happy to hear that you enjoyed the song. I'll definitely pass that onto Jeremy.

B.C. Wehman:
That's a deep song with a killer hook and the chorus just is really good. It's really fun to sing along. I'm going to turn it over to Heather, we're going to say goodbye. Thank you both for joining us very much. Heather.

Heather Grayson:
Thank you so much, Richie. Thank you so much, David. It was so great. Thank you so much for joining us.

Richie Elson:
Thank you for having us.

David Elson:
You too. Bye. Bye.

Heather Grayson:
Thanks for listening to this episode of Behind the Doc. If you liked us, because we all know you did, leave us a review in your Apple podcast app.

B.C. Wehman:
Behind the Doc is produced by Evergreen Podcasts in association with Gravitas Ventures.

Heather Grayson:
Special thanks to executive producers, Nolan Gallagher and Michael DeAloia.

B.C. Wehman:
Produced by Sarah Willgrube.

Heather Grayson:
And audio engineer, Eric Koltnow.

B.C. Wehman:
And you'll find us everywhere and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts.

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