(CN) — Systemic failures from New York’s correctional department paved the way for two murderers escaping the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility, before authorities nabbed one and killed the other in a headline-grabbing pursuit.
Convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt slipped through holes they cut in the back walls of their cells on June 6, 2015, setting off a 23-day manhunt that frightened communities in upstate New York.
Joyce Mitchell, the prison’s civilian employee who ran a tailor shop, later admitted that she had sexual affairs with both of the men and helped them escape by smuggling hacksaw blades in frozen hamburger meat.
A three-week pursuit ended when a state policeman, Sgt. Jay Cook, saw Sweat jogging along a road near the Canadian border.
Ignoring the sergeant’s orders to surrender, Sweat darted across a field. Cook gave chase and shot Sweat twice in the torso as the escaped prisoner approached the woods. Sweat survived his bullet wounds, but his fellow escaped convict Matt was shot to death roughly 30 miles from the prison in Dannemora, N.Y., which is itself only about 25 miles from the Canadian border.
On Monday, New York Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott laid blame for the episode broadly in a 154-page report released a year and a day after the episode.
“The investigation found that longstanding, systemic failures in management and oversight by [New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision] enabled two convicted murderers to meticulously orchestrate their escape from a maximum security facility,” the report’s executive summary states.
In the wake of the escape, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered what he called “a thorough investigation to determine all factors potentially involved in the escape.”
The inspector general followed up by probing more than 170 witnesses and reviewing a paper trail of tens of thousands of pages.
She found that officers at the front gate failed to search the bags of employees entering the prison.
When officers conducted night counts of inmates, those counts were cursory, as were the cell searches, according to the audit.
The inspector general said that Sweat worked on his tunnels under the prison over the course of about 85 nights, and any of the more than 400 inmate bed checks that should have occurred during that period could have foiled his escape plan.
State corrections officials, for their part, failed to act on documented allegations of an inappropriate relationship between Sweat and Mitchell, the inspector general said.
“The extent of complacency and failure to adhere to the most basic security standards uncovered by my investigation was egregious and inexcusable,” Scott said in a statement. “These systemic deficiencies led to the escape of two convicted murderers, striking fear in communities and placing brave law enforcement personnel at risk, at a high cost to the state.”
Despite the loose practices uncovered in the audit, the prison escape marked the first in Clinton’s 150-year history.
Meanwhile, six Clinton inmates have different complaints about what they call the “unbridled investigation” that allegedly trampled upon their constitutional rights during the escape.
In a 37-page complaint, the black and Latino prisoners led by inmate Luke Matthews claim that corrections officers assaulted them, threw them in solitary confinement and denied them medical care for their physical and emotional injuries.
“In the course of this mistreatment, several plaintiffs were subjected to the most abhorrent racist and religious epithets,” the complaint states.
Calling their treatment “the very antithesis of civil rights,” the men contend: “The fact that David Sweat and Richard Matt were aided in their escape by Clinton employees, and not incarcerated people, makes the sadistic treatment of plaintiffs all the more outrageous.”
Represented by prominent civil-rights lawyer Jonathan Moore of Beldock Levine & Hoffman, the men demand punitive damages for nine counts of negligence, assault, constitutional violations and other claims.
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