Who are the escaped murderers in New York, and why oh why were they given the prison privileges they appear to have been given?

The answer to the first question is: they are probably among the most psychopathic, cold-blooded killers in the prison population, and that’s saying something. Both of them became criminals in their adolescence, and have never looked back. What’s more, the report of those who knew them is of relentless exploitation of other people and hardly a glimmer of anything you might call a conscience.

Here’s Sweat’s story. It’s not a pretty one. And Matt’s is, if anything, worse:

Age: 48

Early life: He grew up in the small city of Tonawanda, New York, near Buffalo. Classmates told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that Matt was often in trouble as a child. “He would terrorise kids on the (school) bus,” Randy Szukala told the newspaper. As a teenager, he ran away from home on a stolen horse. Eventually, Tonawanda police Capt Frederic Foels told the Democrat and Chronicle, he became a “small-time thug”.

Previous crimes: Matt had been known to law enforcement for years, committing numerous offences, but his most serious crimes appear to have started in the late-1990s. In 1997, a fisherman found the dismembered body of William Rickerson, a Buffalo businessman, in the Niagara River. Investigators zeroed in on Matt – one of Rickerson’s former employees. But Matt fled to Mexico before he could be arrested. While there, he reportedly killed an American man in a bar, landing him in a Mexican prison. He was eventually sent back to New York in 2007. Matt was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life with no chance of parole before 2032.

Matt falls into a particular category of psychopathic killer known as the escape artist. It’s a potentially more lethal combination than “psychopathic killer” alone, for obvious reasons. This is Matt’s escape history; it’s impressive.

As for Sweat:

Age: 34

Early life: His mother, Pamela Sweat, told the Press & Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton, New York that her son had a troubled childhood and had violent tendencies. “I don’t want nothing to do with him,” Ms Sweat told the newspaper. “He has tormented me since he was nine years old, and now he’s 34 and I feel like he’s still doing it.”

Previous crimes: In 2002, a New York sheriff’s deputy caught Sweat and his cousin, Jeffrey Nabinger, with stolen guns. But when the deputy, Kevin Tarsia, tried to arrest them, the pair shot Tarsia 15 times and ran him over with their car…

So, tell me: why were Matt and Sweat given the following prison privileges?:

The killers seemed the wrong match to put in adjoining cells, a combustible combination promising no good. They were both callous, early adopters of a life of lawlessness. They could be wily. One had demonstrated escape skills. The other was a systematic schemer, reading blueprints, sketching maps, mulling over the fine details of crime…

They served their time on the so-called honor block, housing gained through good behavior that allows greater freedom of movement, the right to cook meals and the benefit of wearing street clothes in your cell.

Read the whole thing.

Remember, also, that:

When [Matt] returned to New York in 2007 [to stand trial], authorities exercised extreme caution. The New York Times reported that measures included staffing the courthouse with double the usual number of deputies and making Matt wear an electric stun belt.

Quote: “He is the most vicious, evil person I’ve ever come across in 38 years as a police officer.” Gabriel DiBernardo, a retired captain with the North Tonawanda Police Department, told the New York Times.

Matt not only has a history of repeated escape attempts, he has also made explicit threats to a detective who worked on his case:

And now that Matt’s on the run again, a retired detective who helped lock him up is sleeping with one eye open — and his finger on the trigger.

“I stayed up pretty late last night, and I’m armed with guns,” former Tonawanda cop David Bentley, 67, said Sunday. “I had a tough time sleeping, knowing he could come around.”

Bentley, who has a home security system and a watchdog, also said, “We have patrols keeping an eye on some of the retired guys who dealt with him.”

The night before his 2008 conviction for the grisly murder of William Rickerson, Matt wrote a chilling letter to Bentley.

“You lied in court to [expletive] me over for the DA,” Matt wrote. “You also make it very clear that we are not friends. I’ll remember both . . .”

At the time, Bentley said the three dots suggested “there’s more to come.” On Sunday, he said he hadn’t forgotten the warning.

“This is a tense situation — he’s absolutely capable of anything.”

I am aware of the argument for allowing a man like that to benefit from the usual rewards for good behavior in prison. It goes something like this: he’s there for life, or at least many many many years, and there needs to be some possibility of rewards for his cooperation or he’s going to make the place miserable the whole time. Having no rewards at all increases his dangerousness because he has nothing to lose by acting just as bad as he can, and nothing to gain by acting better.

But surely there should be some limits to what a man like that can gain by cooperation. Psychopaths tend to be smart and very good at conning people, and this guy was also an escape artist. He should never, for example, have been placed in a unit where he could wear civilian clothes. And yet he was—that, and more.

Most of the coverage of Matt and Sweat’s escape has focused on the sex, and on the charm they exercised on prison employee Joyce Williams, who assisted them in their escape. But it was a crime of opportunity. If they hadn’t found Williams, they’d have found another Williams. And another, or another. Maybe they did; who knows at this point how many people helped them with the breakout? The entire escape episode was nearly inevitable.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]