NYS prisons blasted in inspector general report

Jun 7, 2016

New York’s Inspector General has released a scathing report, blasting New York’s state Corrections Department. The report found widespread security lapses and breakdowns in oversight that led to last summer’s escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Dannemora, New York, located near the Canadian border.

David Sweat (left) and Richard Matt
Credit New York State Police

Last summer at this time, there were tense checkpoints on back roads and highways across northern New York.

"Still looking for both of them.  If you see them or think you've seen them, contact state police immediately." A small army of local, state and Federal officers were hunting for Richard Matt and David Sweat, two convicted killers who had dug their way out of Clinton-Dannemora prison.

It became clear in the days after their escape that something had gone seriously wrong inside one of America’s toughest prisons. 

In the report issued Monday, New York Inspector General Katherine Leahy Scott described widespread incompetence and mismanagement and what she portrayed as a complete breakdown in oversight. "The extent of complacency and failure to adhere to the most basic security standards, uncovered by my investigation, was egregious and inexcusable."

The report describes a maximum security facility where basic security had unraveled.  Metal detectors weren’t used regularly. Bags weren’t checked at gates.  Corrections officers allegedly neglected basic duties and discipline and even described themselves as “lazy.” One guard, identified by name in the report, spent his work days reading rather than inspecting prison cells.

Already, at least a dozen guards and administrators have been placed on leave or have resigned.  One veteran corrections officer and a civilian worker are behind bars for aiding the escape.  Leahy Scott says her probe uncovered even more criminal activity. "I have identified a number of DOCCS employees who have committed criminal acts and violated DOCCS policies and procedures."

Those cases have been referred to Clinton County’s district attorney for possible prosecution.

In addition to portraying guards at Clinton-Dannemora prison as almost comically inept, this report points out that many of them refused to cooperate with the investigation.

Leahy Scott also raised troubling questions about whether the state prison system, headquartered in Albany, is capable of providing oversight and proper management of its own facilities – questions that point directly at the leadership of acting Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Speaking last July right after the manhunt ended, Governor Cuomo said that for the time he was keeping Commissioner Annucci in his post. "I haven't said anything to him.  Let's get the investigation done, let's see what they say."

But others have suggested for months that a shake-up in management and oversight of New York’s prisons is long overdue.  Manhattan Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell chairs the corrections committee.  He held a hearing on the Dannemora escape last December.

"Aside from the millions of dollars of cost to the state of New York, it also led to the terrorizing of the community where that prison was located by the people who live there in fear.  And let me be very clear, that is simply unacceptable."

At the time, O’Donnell asked whether a new kind of outside oversight or ombudsman is needed to monitor how New York’s prisons are run. "Is the oversight model we have efficient and effective or are there other potential models that might exist?"

This new IG report suggests that new oversight is needed.  Leahy-Scott points in particular to allegations that some inmates at Clinton-Dannemora prison were beaten and threatened with torture by corrections officers following the escape. 

Corrections Spokesperson Thomas Mailey issued the following statement in response to the IG report: “Since last June, DOCCS has instituted a number of reforms to strengthen operations at Clinton Correctional Facility, including installing new cameras and security gates, retraining staff, disciplining responsible employees, appointing a new superintendent and replacing other senior administrative personnel. We are reviewing the Inspector General’s findings and will work with her office to implement her recommendations to improve operations at Clinton and throughout the entire system, and help ensure this incident is never repeated.”

Governor Cuomo also issued a statement through his spokesperson Rich Azzopardi: “We thank the Inspector General, her staff and Mr. Jacobson for their thorough and comprehensive review of this matter.  Safety is paramount and we will work to ensure that DOCCS implements these recommendations expeditiously to increase the security of our correctional system.”

In the end, Richard Matt was shot and killed.  David Sweat was shot and recaptured and is now serving time in solitary confinement.  The aftershocks of their escape continue in New York’s prisons.