Was security really maximum at New York prison where killers broke out?
PLATTSBURGH, New York — The Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York is classed as maximum security, but the escape of two convicted murderers this month has left plenty of people wondering how accurate that description is.Two prison employees have been charged in connection with the elaborate June 6 breakout, and the accusations against them highlight a series of apparent security lapses.
Investigators from the New York State Inspector General’s Office are looking into possible breaches of security protocols that allowed Richard Matt and David Sweat to escape, setting police on a vast and costly manhunt for the past three weeks. Other agencies are conducting investigations at the prison.
“How did these people get the tools to conduct this really massive engineering task in this breakout?” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked Thursday. “Was there a breakdown in the system? If there wasn’t a breakdown in the system, should we change the system?”
The growing list of possible issues at the prison, which is in the small town of Dannemora, is far from reassuring.
The sleep issue
Investigators are looking into whether prison guards on the block housing Matt and Sweat would sleep during their evening shifts and if that allowed the two killers to remain virtually unsupervised as they worked to prepare their escape, a law enforcement official told CNN on Thursday.
The contraband issue
Then there’s the hamburger meat.
Joyce Mitchell, a supervisor in the prison’s tailor shop, smuggled frozen meat containing hacksaw blades and drill bits through the main gate at the prison, according to authorities. Gene Palmer, a veteran prison guard, then took the meat into Matt and Sweat’s cell area, bypassing a metal detector, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said.
Palmer was unaware that the meat contained contraband, his former lawyer has said.
The prison guard also loaned Sweat tools to work on electrical breakers in the catwalk behind the convicts’ cells, an area that was part of the fugitives’ escape route, according to an official familiar with the investigation.
He had been suspended with pay, but state officials changed his status to suspended without pay Thursday, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
The catwalk issue
Access to the catwalks was not unusual for prisoners, a former maintenance supervisor at Clinton told CNN.
The correctional facility used inmates to do plumbing and electrical work that sometimes involved them entering the catwalk area, said the former supervisor, who worked at the prison for 35 years.
Inmates would fill in those positions, especially when the maintenance department was understaffed, he said.
The staffing issue
Correction officers were also in short supply at times, and they wouldn’t always be with the inmate plumbers and electricians as they repaired things, said the former supervisor, who left the facility six years ago.
He said inmates worked unplugging toilets, changing lights, fixing leaks and repairing wiring. Their work took them inside cells and to the catwalks behind the cell walls for major pipe repairs.
Wylie, the district attorney, told CNN that he believes Palmer was with Matt and Sweat when they worked on the electrical breakers in the catwalk area.
Kathy Garrison, president of the Civil Service Employees Association’s Capital Region chapter, which represents support staff at Clinton Correctional Facility, said that’s not always the case.
“Oftentimes it’s our members dealing directly with these dangerous inmates, and oftentimes there’s not a corrections officer assigned to the area,” she said.
She said she’s been hearing concerns from her members for years about low staffing at the prison.
“It’s very dangerous,” she said. “The watchtowers aren’t manned 100% of the time. It’s craziness.”
Garrison placed the blame for the dangerous environment, and security lapses leading up to the escape, on tight budgets and pressure from the governor’s office to curb overtime.
Budgets have fluctuated under Cuomo, going down in his first year in office before rising, falling and then rising again. The proposed correctional system budget for 2015-2016 is $2.9 billion, up from $2.8 billion the year before.
The quid pro quo issue
Mitchell, 51, has pleaded not guilty to promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitation. Palmer, 57, is pleading not guilty to charges of promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct.
Both reportedly accepted paintings from Matt.
After the breakout, Palmer tried to get rid of evidence by burning some paintings and burying others in nearby woods, according to authorities.
He described his arrangement with Matt in a statement he gave state police.
“Matt provided me with elaborate paintings and information on the illegal acts that inmates were committing within the facility,” the document says. “In turn, I provided him with benefits such as paint, paintbrushes, movement of inmates, hamburger meat, altering of electrical boxes in the catwalk areas.”
Asked whether he assisted in the escape, Palmer told investigators: “No. Not intentionally.”
The deal-making issue
Such deals between convicts and guards were commonplace inside Clinton, said Erik Jensen, a former inmate who knew Matt, Sweat, Mitchell and Palmer.
“Say you want more freedom, more out-of-your-cell time to maybe go to somebody else’s cell, do a tattoo. … So what do you do? You give up some information: inmates who have knives, drugs, other forms of contraband,” Jensen, who was in Clinton from June 2011 to March 2012, told CNN.
The former maintenance supervisor at Clinton described how these kinds of relationships could develop, saying inmates sometimes asked prison employees for favors, such as sending a letter or asking for a pack of cigarettes.
Prisoners started with small favors and followed up with bigger requests, sometimes threatening to turn in the employee for delivering on the smaller offense, he said.
“It’s the employees that are the strongest factor in prison security, but they also can be the weakest link,” Robert Ayers, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison in California, told CNN.
The overall environment issue
Matt and Sweat were housed in the prison’s “honor block,” a special section for inmates who’d gone years without significant disciplinary action.
Being in the honor block gave inmates privileges such as going outside every day, having hot plates and refrigerators in their cells, and congregating for hours in a central gallery area each evening with fellow inmates, according to a longtime prison employee.
After the escape, the honor block at Clinton was shut down and turned into a regular cell block, a source with detailed knowledge of the facility told CNN last week.
Palmer hasn’t spoken publicly about the prison break, but he gave an interview 15 years ago about life inside Clinton.
“It’s a negative environment,” he told North Country Radio’s Brian Mann. “And long-term exposure to a negative environment, you become hard on issues.”
Palmer said life as a prison guard was as miserable as those of the prisoners. “With the money that they pay you, you’ll go bald, you’ll have high blood pressure, you’ll become an alcoholic, you’ll divorce, and then you’ll kill yourself,” he said.
Hundreds search dense woods
As the investigations into shortcomings at Clinton continue, hundreds of law enforcement officers are continuing to search for Sweat and Matt in a densely wooded area roughly 20 miles west of the prison.
The fugitives are believed to have burglarized a hunting cabin in the small rural community of Mountain View, New York.
Searchers are combing the thick vegetation in the surrounding area in the hopes of finally catching the men.