Wednesday, August 19, 2015

New York Prison Problems Continue

Clinton State Prison - Dannemora, NY
(photo Gannett)
New York Post - Aug 2015

Less than two months after a task force of federal, state and local law-enforcement officers searched through the Adirondack Mountains for two escaped murderers from a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, again finds itself with egg on its face — and new revelations suggesting Albany deserves more of the blame for the security breach.

The first piece of bad news for the Clinton Correctional Facility came when Prisoners Legal Services, an inmate advocacy group, filed a complaint on behalf of more than 60 inmates at the prison alleging physical abuse and harsh treatment immediately following the discovery by security staff that two inmates were missing from their cells in the early morning of June 6.

That was when two killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, dug their way out of the back of their cells, climbed down a catwalk, crawled through a steampipe tunnel and under the wall, coming up through a manhole cover on the streets of Dannemora. The breakout led to a massive three-week manhunt involving over 1,200 law-enforcement personnel.

The inmates filing the complaints of abuse claim that immediately after the escape was discovered they were interrogated, beaten, threatened with waterboarding, unfairly removed from Honor Block and arbitrarily transferred to other prisons throughout the state. During that time, state officials instituted new security policy and procedures to operate a “tighter ship” in the wake of the escape.

The procedures were instituted to “gain control” of a prison run amok. Other actions included the suspension of numerous facility employees, including the facility’s Executive Team, and the arrest of two employees for helping Matt and Sweat carry out their escape plans.

Yet the great escape might have been thwarted if state officials had heeded the warning signs coming from the facility in the months preceding the incident.

In the first half of the year, the prison saw a significant increase in assaults and contraband, including drugs. It culminated in a riot in the yard on May 31 when security staff had to use chemical agents to quell the disturbance. Many of the incidents were believed to be related to the drug trade in the facility and control for turf and money.

The majority of the narcotics were being smuggled in through visitors and packages, but a small percentage was from employees and volunteers.

One week before the escape, prison Superintendent Steve Racette contacted officials in Albany and requested that the facility be put on “lockdown” and searched. Crucially, he also wanted a search of the tunnels and catwalks throughout the facility by the department’s elite Corrections Emergency Response Teams. This request was based on the prior reports that had been forwarded to officials in Albany on the unusual increase in trouble brewing at the facility.

It’s DOCCS policy that no superintendent has the authority to shut down prison operations to conduct security searches. He must request permission from the deputy commissioner for facility operations.

The answer from the deputy commissioner’s office was emphatic: No.

One week later, Matt and Sweat broke out.

The decision to avoid the facility search was a misjudgment based in part to avoid the cost of overtime to conduct the searches. That decision has now cost almost $25 million in overtime for the law-enforcement officers deployed to capture the killers. Additional costs for equipment and repairs to the facility have yet to be calculated.

To this date, the focus on pinning blame for the prison break has centered on Dannemora, not Albany. Yet we know that several department heads had oversight and responsibility for the security procedures that were in place at the time of the escape as well as the placement of Matt and Sweat in the facility’s Honor Block.

To add to the department’s woes, we’re now being told that the FBI is opening an investigation into allegations of corruption and drug trafficking at the Clinton prison. It suggested the feds’ had little confidence in the department’s Narcotics Unit or Internal Affairs investigators to conduct a thorough investigation on their own.

Those units also operate out of Albany as part of the Office of Special Investigations.

The previous director of operations for that office was arrested in January for sexual harassment. The office has been in disarray since and the new department head had only been there a short time when the escape occurred. His previous background was in white collar crimes, not prison operations.

The state’s corrections-related budget — which had saved money when the state reduced the inmate population and closed several facilities, acts that were the direct results of a reduction in crime and modified sentencing laws — will be heavily impacted by the mistakes made by state officials.

The current DOCCS commissioner has never been confirmed by the state Legislature. His title is “acting Commissioner.” He’s been acting for more than two years, since May 2013.

Perhaps it’s time for that act to close and new leadership to be brought in.