Danbury Federal Correctional Institution was not accustomed to notorious murderers like John Patrick O’Shea.
That didn’t account for his escape from the small-town prison in November 1981.
That month, President Ronald Reagan vowed to veto any spending bill that didn’t include at least half of his desired $8.4 billion in domestic budget cuts, leading to a government shutdown.
O’Shea, convicted of killing a police sergeant during a bank robbery in Massachusetts, was temporarily housed in the low-to-medium-security facility in Connecticut while prosecutors extradited him across the country on unrelated charges. Because of the stalemate, and furloughed government employees, O’Shea was left under the watch of two young, inexperienced security guards from a private company.
“Presidential officials get cavalier playing political chess. They don’t understand from a grass-roots level how important it is that the government stays open,” Mark Shapiro, a 35-year government worker and then-employee at Danbury FCI, told The Washington Post. “Or how dangerous it can be if it doesn’t.”
The current government stalemate, stemming from President Trump’s demand for funding for a border wall, is nearing its fourth week. Amid the shutdown, closed national parks have been desecrated with human feces and overflowing garbage. Other hazards have caused several deaths.
Reagan’s impasse lasted only two days, which may seem comparatively insignificant but was, at the time, the largest federal closure endured by the nation.
Shapiro first met O’Shea on Sunday, Nov. 22, 1981, while working in the prison as a physician assistant.
O’Shea arrived at the infirmary from solitary lockup, shackled and standing between several guards. Shapiro, the on-duty physician assistant, buzzed the group in and the steel door locked behind them.
He recalled the towering 39-year-old was “polite, kind of burly and looked like a tough inmate.”
O’Shea was there complaining of chest pain, claiming he was having a heart attack.
Shapiro, working the weekend shift alone, checked his vital signs (they were normal) and did an EKG (it was unremarkable), which aroused his suspicions. Was O’Shea planning an escape attempt?
“O’Shea was very shrewd,” Shapiro told The Washington Post, recalling that the inmate staged the medical “crisis” on a football Sunday, as the NFL season neared the playoffs, when many officers were preoccupied.
Rather than transfer O’Shea to the local hospital, Shapiro suggested hourly tests to track any change in condition. Although Shapiro said he wrote a memo denying the hospital transfer, prison higher-ups made the final call. Shapiro’s recommendation was overridden.
According to Shapiro, his supervisors concluded it was a liability to keep O’Shea in the prison. Accompanied by two seasoned corrections officers, the high-risk inmate was sent to Danbury Hospital. The team of two was joined by two additional guards from a private agency when they arrived.
Danbury Federal Correctional Institution did not return a request for comment Thursday.
With O’Shea checked into a hospital, the federal budget lapsed the following morning. Reagan ordered the 241,000 federal employees considered “nonessential” to be furloughed and placed on temporary leave.
The Bureau of Prisons has over 100 federal facilities throughout the country. Employees assigned to the institution — whether working as officers, medical providers or food servicers — are all considered “essential.”
The corrections officers assigned to O’Shea were not. The New York Times reported that the 1940s-built prison in Danbury was well over capacity by at least 100 inmates at the time of the shutdown. The understaffed prison summoned back the pair of experienced prison guards.
O’Shea, though still in federal custody, was left at the hospital, where he was watched by an unarmed teenager, according to the Times.
“There wasn’t enough staff to go around in terms of personnel. Everyone had extra duties,” Shapiro explained.
Twenty-four hours later, O’Shea was missing.
How O’Shea escaped remains a mystery. News reports detailed most of his chains had been removed and abandoned in the hospital room. Shapiro heard he waited until one “rent-a-cop” went to the bathroom, then threatened the other’s life with a pen to his throat.
While at large, O’Shea enjoyed a crime spree: He stole a car and had a joyride down the east coast from Connecticut to Georgia, where he disarmed a deputy and left him handcuffed to a tree. He also stole a 12-gauge shotgun, according to court documents, before he was arrested in Oregon eight months later.
Shapiro called what happened at the Danbury prison a “trickle-down effect” of the government shutdown.
“Officials get cavalier playing political chess,” he said. “It’s a real situation. They’re playing with people’s lives.”