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New York Prison Scrutinized, Employees Charged Following High-profile Escape

The June 6, 2015 escape of two New York state prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora revealed troublesome issues that will not soon go away. While many news outlets focused on the spectacular nature of the break-out and emphasized the potential threat to public safety, others noted that misconduct by prison employees was central to the escape. Both escapees were shot, one fatally, while trying to evade their heavily-armed pursuers.

Convicted murderer Richard W. Matt, 49, along with David P. Sweat, 35, who was serving life without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy, broke out of Clinton with the assistance of Joyce E. Mitchell.

Mitchell, 51, was employed by the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) as a supervisor in the tailor shop at Clinton, where both Matt and Sweat worked. Although married, she said she was enticed into a fantasy of helping the prisoners escape and provided them with hacksaw blades. She admitted to having sexual contact with Matt and supplying Sweat with nude photos.

In September 2015, after pleading guilty to charges related to her role in the escape, Mitchell was sentenced to two years and four months to seven years in state prison. She also was ordered to pay $6,375 in fines and court fees, and the state is seeking over $119,000 in restitution for costs associated with the escape.

Clinton, located in an isolated upstate area of New York far from any major metropolitan area, is a maximum-security facility, and state officials claimed no one had ever escaped from the prison before. However, when Governor Andrew Cuomo and hordes of state investigators flooded Clinton looking for answers following the break-out, it became apparent that the facility’s vaunted security was no match for employee corruption and collusion.

The ensuing investigation exposed widespread smuggling of contraband into the prison by guards and other staff members, and resulted in the forced retirement of Clinton’s superintendent, Steven Racette, as well as his assistant and at least two guards; various other employees were suspended.

One guard, Gene Palmer, was criminally charged for smuggling tools provided by Mitchell, concealed within frozen meat, to Matt and Sweat. In February 2016, Palmer pleaded guilty to three counts related to the promotion of contraband and felonious official misconduct; he was sentenced to six months in jail plus a $5,000 fine.

Taking advantage of the assistance provided by Mitchell and Palmer, Matt and Sweat escaped by cutting through a large steam pipe to access a system of tunnels that were incorporated into the prison’s infrastructure. They found additional tools in the tunnels, which led to a manhole entrance beyond the facility’s perimeter. The tunnels were supposed to be inspected regularly but were not.

On the night of the escape Matt left behind a handwritten note in his cell that said, “You left me no choice but to grow old and die in here. I had to do something.”

Once outside, Mitchell was supposed to meet the escapees with a vehicle, a gun and camping gear, but she backed out. As part of the plan, Matt was to kill Mitchell’s husband, who also worked at the prison, then the trio would flee to Mexico.

Instead, with no transportation out of the area, Matt and Sweat melded into the virtually uninhabited pine forests of northern New York state, staying in empty hunting cabins. More than 1,000 law enforcement officers were tasked with tracking them down. However, according to Sweat, Matt was out of shape and unable to resist the lure of alcohol left behind in the cabins, and the pair split up.

Shortly thereafter, on June 26, 2015, Matt was fatally shot by a Border Patrol agent, just 40 miles from Clinton. He was shot three times in the head.

Sweat, who heard about Matt’s death, headed for Canada. He was shot by a state trooper two days later, just a few miles from the border, but survived. Following his capture, after being at large for 22 days, Sweat was taken to the Albany Medical Center and later transferred to the Five Points Correctional Facility. While being treated for gunshot wounds he was interviewed by investigators.

Shortly after those interviews, the retirements and firings began at the Clinton Correctional Facility. The FBI was also reportedly looking into the circumstances of the escape and allegations that prison employees were engaging in a robust drug trade.

Following the escape, DOCCS officials implemented an aggressive regimen of cell searches at Clinton, as well as increased searches of the prison’s infrastructure – including the tunnels utilized by the escapees.

The honor dorm, where both Matt and Sweat had been housed, was disbanded, and many prisoners complained of physical abuse by guards and other prison employees as reprisals.

As a result of the numerous complaints of brutality and unjust treatment, Prison Legal Services filed a complaint against Clinton officials on behalf of more than 60 prisoners. Some complained they had been unfairly transferred to other facilities, while others alleged they were threatened with waterboarding and suffocated during interrogations.

In June 2016, New York Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott issued an investigative report concerning the escape that succinctly placed blame on a culture of ineptitude at Clinton. “Lapses in basic security functions were longstanding.... These included the failure by officers assigned to the front gate to search employees’ bags entering the prison as required; night counts of inmates that were conducted negligently or not at all; inadequate cell searches; and poor supervision of inmates and employees by security staff and civilian managers in the prison tailor shop, among other factors.”

The Inspector General’s report stated that Clinton officials had been investigating the relationship between Mitchell and Sweat as early as February 2015, but had failed to interview relevant witnesses.

Further, the 150-page report noted that Sweat had labored in the tunnels below the prison in preparation for the escape for 85 days. During that time there had been more than 400 prisoner counts – none of which noticed Sweat’s absence, because guards routinely skipped their required rounds. For example, Sweat and Matt had picked a night to escape when a guard named Ronald Blair was on duty because he did not make late-night cell checks.

Similarly, the report related details of one particular search of Matt’s cell, in March 2015, when prison guards apparently failed to discover a gaping hole in his wall. The hole would serve as his point of departure during the escape three months later.

In February 2016, Sweat was sentenced to an additional 7 to 14 years and ordered to pay almost $80,000 after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the escape. Since he was – and still is – serving life without parole, though, it’s not as if he had much to lose by pursuing his short-lived bid for freedom.


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