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State lawmakers propose changes after prison escape

Photo from Karen Dewitt

More than 10 days after two convicted killers escaped from a state prison near Plattsburgh, some state lawmakers are considering new legislation and holding hearings to correct what they see as flaws in the state’s prisons system that  may have contributed to the break out.

For the first few days after the escape, state lawmakers seemed reluctant to criticize procedures at the Clinton Correctional Facility and in the state’s prison system. But more than 10 days after the escape, and no capture, they’ve begun to propose bills and offer suggestions.

They range from an idea to implant GPS chips in prisoners, to holding comprehensive hearings to find out what went wrong, and what can be changed.   

Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, the Chair of the Corrections Committee says before that, he wants to find out more about what actually occurred.

“Clearly there are some serious problems there,” said O’Donnell, a Democrat from Manhattan. “I observed those problems when I was there last fall, and brought those concerns to the attention of the Governor.”   

Last December, O’Donnell wrote a letter to Cuomo expressing concerns about the prison in Dannemora. In it he said inmates and staff told him that they did feel safe in the maximum security facility designed for the state’s most hardened criminals. O’Donnell asked Cuomo to provide money in the state budget for body cameras for guards, but the governor and his staff did not put that request into their spending plan. O’Donnell, a former public defense attorney, who often visited clients in New York City’s jails, also in the letter expressed concern that the newest corrections officers are placed on the 3 to 11 PM shift, when most of an unusually high number of incidents involving assaults occur.

There have also been reports of staffing cuts and shortages at the prison, including a decision not to staff the facilities two towers on overnight shifts. But Assemblyman O’Donnell says he’s not ready to rush to judgement.

“It’s rank speculation to say this had to do with staffing,” O’Donnell. “There’s no meat on these bones yet. We need to get to the meat of it.”

Governor Cuomo has already announced that his Inspector General will conduct a probe, and O’Donnell says he’s willing to wait to see what that investigation turns up.

But others say Cuomo has a poor track record when conducting his own internal investigations. Assemblyman Jim Tedisco says the governor pulled the plug on his Moreland Act anti corruption commission as part of a budget deal, before the probes were completed. The US Attorney has since taken up those investigations and filed charges against several top lawmakers.

“We hope that it doesn’t get half way through, and all of a sudden it points to some things the governor’s not happy with,” said Tedisco, a Republican from Schenectady. “And he says ‘This is my investigation, I started it and I’m going to end it’.”

Tedisco and the Chair of the Senate Corrections Committee, Patrick Gallivan, from the Buffalo area, want to make it illegal for inmates to be allowed to wear civilian clothes, ever, when they are imprisoned. Both of the escaped inmates, Matt and Sweat, were permitted to wear regular clothes in the special unit in which they were housed, for prisoners who earned special privileges due to good behavior. The Assemblymembers say the most violent convicts also should have more limited access to civilians who work in the prison. The head of the prison tailoring shop, Joyce Mitchell, is accused of helping the inmates escape. Tedisco says he thinks it is appropriate for prisoners to earn special privileges like extra TV time and outdoor exercise, for good behavior.

“Even the worst of the worst probably should have some privileges for good behavior,” Tedisco said. “But we have to have limits.”  

The proposal to implant GPS chips into the most violent prisoners was proposed by State Senator Kathy Marchione, a Republican who represents an area just south of the Adirondacks. It has not been backed by any other lawmakers.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.