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Inspector General finds persistent security lapses at Clinton-Dannemora, other state prisons

File Photo
Natasha Haverty

It’s been three years since inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. The prison break set off a three-week manhunt across new York State. Matt, of Tonawanda, was killed in a shootout, while Sweat was shot, arrested ad now serving time in Attica Correctional Facility.

In the months that followed there were crackdowns and investigations, some highly critical reports about corrections practices and personnel. Corrections officials say they have worked to improve security at prisons statewide.

But a new report from State Inspector General, Catherine Leahy Scott, found ongoing security lapses that continued at least through last year.

Zach Hirsch talks with NCPR's Martha Foley about the report.

Martha Foley: What did they find?

Zach Hirsch: It’s a pretty scathing report. Surprise inspections at four state prisons turned up corrections officers sleeping on the job, contraband in officer areas, confidential inmate records left unsecured, even basement doors that should have been locked but were left open. 

Credit New York State Inspector General's Office
Unauthorized sleeping kits, documented in the August 31, 2018 report.

The report also describes an improper relationship between an inmate and a civilian worker at Clinton Correctional Facility in 2017. In fact, that’s what triggered this report from the IG in the first place.

MF: It sounds familiar, really similar to circumstances that lead to the 2015 break and manhunt.

ZH: Yeah, really similar. Remember Joyce Mitchell? After the prison break, investigators discovered she had a romantic relationship with the inmates at the prison tailor shop. Mitchell smuggled in tools that helped them escape and promised to be the getaway driver. She’s now serving prison time for her role in the break.

So now, this report says two years later, another woman working in the tailor shop also had a romantic relationship with an inmate. Her name is Denise Prell. She’s from Schuyler Falls, near Plattsburgh.

Credit New York State Police
Denise Prell

The IG says between May and September 2017, Prell and the inmate kissed and exchanged love letters. Prell smuggled in beef jerky, candy and cash, and she used a fake name and a TracPhone to avoid getting caught.

But this time an officer saw her acting strangely in the tailor shop. Corrections officials and the Inspector General investigated, and State Police arrested Prell about a year ago.

MF: So Joyce Mitchell is already behind bars. What’s likely to happen to Denise Prell?

ZH: Last week in Clinton County Court, Prell pleaded guilty to 23 counts of official misconduct and one count of sexual abuse in the third degree. A felony “promoting prison contraband” charge was reduced, so now all the charges are misdemeanors. She’ll be sentenced in November. So we’ll see.

One more detail here – the report notes that, “ironically,” the state Corrections Department chose Prell to advise the actress Patricia Arquette during the filming of that Showtime TV series on the Dannemora prison break that’s set to air soon. Arquette plays Joyce Mitchell in that series.

MF: So, pretty tangled up there. This report also found people literally sleeping on the job at a bunch of state prisons.

Credit Gabe Dickens / Plattsburgh Press Republican
Plattsburgh Press Republican
Joyce Mitchell with her attorney Stephen Johnston in Plattsburgh in 2015.

ZH: Yeah. State officials visited Clinton in Dannemora, also Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, Taconic prison near New York City, and Wende prison near Buffalo - all state prisons.

At Clinton and Upstate, there were blankets, mattresses, alarm clocks, even a hammock discovered, in the infirmary and basement. The IG says officers were sleeping during their shifts and failing to properly check on inmates. Seven officers were suspended without pay, and several others are also facing discipline.

MF: I can imagine this must be kind of frustrating, both for corrections officers who aren’t sleeping on the job, and for the state officials who really don’t want another situation like 2015.

Credit New York State Inspector General's Office
Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott

ZH: Of course, and you can kind of feel the IG's frustration in the report. I just want to read this statement from Leahy Scott. She said, “Clearly, some employees or small units at individual facilities have not fully grasped the responsibilities required of them, and I will not, nor should anyone, tolerate security breaches or reports of prison employees neglecting their duties.”

MF: There have been some reforms since the 2015 escape, though.

ZH: That’s right. Officials have set up new security cameras, thermal detection, more frequent and thorough cell inspections, metal detectors and stricter rules for corrections officers, other changes, and the IG commended prison officials for making those reforms happen.

This report made some additional recommendations –more training for civilian employees on inmate manipulation, more cameras, better visibility at prison tailor shops, and the Department of Corrections has agreed to those additional changes.

Read the Inspector General's report.

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