Investigations by the New York state inspector general’s office and CNN have uncovered evidence to suggest that an appalling breakdown in security allowed two convicted murderers to escape from Clinton Correctional Facility and remain at large for the better part of June. The lapses are serious enough to suggest that the prison in rural northern New York may be maximum-security in name only.
If you’ve followed this story closely, you already know about one major lapse that helped Richard Matt and David Sweat in their daring escape plan. Joyce Mitchell, a supervisor in the prison tailor’s shop, slipped hacksaw blades and drill bits into frozen meat and took the meat through the main prison gate. A veteran guard, Gene Palmer, then took the meat into Matt and Sweat’s cell block without passing them through a metal detector–though Palmer maintains through his attorney that he didn’t know anything was hidden in the meat. Mitchell and Palmer are both facing felony charges for their actions. After spending most of the month on the run, Sweat was shot and killed on Friday, while Sweat was captured on Sunday afternoon.
However, a number of other red flags have popped up that led Governor Andrew Cuomo to wonder–loudly–on Friday, “Was there a breakdown in the system?” For instance, a retired maintenance supervisor at Clinton told CNN that the prison was chronically understaffed. According to the supervisor, who worked at Clinton from 1973 to 2008, prison officials frequently used inmates to do plumbing and electrical work whenever there was a shortage of maintenance workers. This allowed the prisoners access to catwalks behind the cells.
The former supervisor added that there were so few correctional officers on staff that at times, there wasn’t always someone there to supervise these inmate plumbers and electricians, even though they made major repairs that took them inside the cells and to the catwalks. The supervisor’s concerns were backed up by Kathy Garrison, the president of the Civil Service Employees Association’s Capital Region chapter. She told CNN that her members have complained for years that Clinton was badly understaffed, to the point that there are times the watchtowers aren’t manned–something that would be unthinkable at any maximum-security prison in this country.
Garrison blames the breakdown in security on reduced budgets for the state Department of Corrections. If that’s the case, it’s safe to say that any savings the state managed to realize have been wiped out several times over by the amount of money spent tracking down Sweat and Matt. And even if money wasn’t a factor, it’s not worth the danger that these two have posed to people on both sides of the U. S.-Canadian border. For those who don’t know, if you drive only 45 minutes north of the prison, you’d be in the suburbs of Montreal. This area is part of a television market that encompasses all of Vermont in addition to a large swath of northern New York. Its television stations have been carried on the Montreal area’s cable systems for decades, and Montreal stations have long been available on cable on the American side of the border.
If there is anything to this, this could have all been avoided if not for what appears to be a total breakdown in security. How big is this? If not for the two landmark Supreme Court decisions that came down over a period of 48 hours on Thursday and Friday, there is no question that this breakdown would be the big story of the moment. Suffice to say that the answer to Cuomo’s question is a resounding yes.