‘Systemic failure’ led to prison break, New York Inspector General finds

© Chris Wattie
Don’t give the two inmates who escaped a maximum security prison in upstate New York last year too much credit. “Chronic complacency and systemic failures” within the facility were what led to the three-week manhunt, a state report found.

The state’s Inspector General found during its investigation that the two inmates, convicted murderers Richard W. Matt and David Sweat, coaxed a female employee and a male prison guard into providing them with tools for their escape.

“The June 5 escape from Clinton was planned and executed by two particularly cunning and resourceful inmates, abetted by the willful, criminal conduct of a civilian employee of the prison’s tailor shops and assisted by the reckless actions of a veteran correction officer,” the 150-page report released Monday found.

The two inmates spent months cutting holes in a steel wall and through pipes until they escaped in the middle of the night.

The investigation found that longstanding, systemic failures in management and oversight created a culture of complacency and deviation from acceptable correctional practices, enabling the inmates to escape.

The investigation and subsequent report found an employee was able to smuggle in six hacksaw blades to the maximum security prison, because officers at the front gate failed to search her bag.

When the blades were handed from Sweat to Matt in an in-house tailor shop, they were carried under Matt’s shirt, taped to his side, and carried to the cell. The corrections officer did not frisk the inmate under escort from the tailor shop and did not require him to pass through a metal detector.

The report found that at least 15 weekly scheduled cell inspections and an unannounced cell inspection were conducted superficially and in haste, failing to reveal the breach, a large hole in the rear wall of their cell. The report also found employees committed criminal acts and violated directives and policies.

According to an account of the prison break, it said the inmates escaped shortly after 11:00pm on June 5, 2015, when they slipped through the hole they had cut in the back wall of their cell in the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison operated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

“Using pipes as hand and foot holds, Sweat and Matt descended three theirs through a narrow space behind their cells to the prison’s subterranean level. There they navigated a labyrinth of dimly lit tunnels and squeezed through a series of openings in walls and a steam pipe along a route they had prepared over the previous three months,” stated the report.

“When, at midnight, they emerged from a manhole onto a Village of Dannemora street, a block outside the prison wall, Sweat and Matt had accomplished a remarkable feat: the first escape from the high-security section of Clinton in more than 100 years,” added the report.

The prison break was discovered over five hours later and launched a three-month long manhunt by the New York State Police and more than 1,300 officers from local, state, federal and even Canadian law enforcement agencies.

Three weeks later, Matt, who was armed, was fatally shot, and Sweat was shot and wounded and taken into custody. The report said the manhunt disrupted and brought fear to local communities, costing New York $23 million in law enforcement overtime.

“The extent of complacency and failure to adhere to the most basic security standards uncovered by my investigation was egregious and inexcusable,” said Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott in a statement. “These systemic deficiencies led to the escape of two convicted murderers, striking fear in communities and placing brace law enforcement personnel at risk, at a high cost to the state.”

The two prison workers were charged, convicted and sentenced. The prison guard, Gene Palmer, was sentenced in February to six months in prison. The prison employee, Joyce Mitchell, who was romantically involved with Matt and Sweat, and who snuck in the hacksaws, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The Inspector General’s report comes with recommendations for improvement at the prison, including upgrade checks of the prison’s new cameras, installing better security systems, new management structures and a new unit to oversee abuses in the system and conduct investigations.