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Prison escape probe focuses on contractors

DANNEMORA – Far more questions remain than answers in the escape of two killers from Dannemora’s maximum-security prison.

Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, authorities say, used power tools to cut through the steel-plate walls of their cells, descended catwalks, created an escape hatch in drainage pipes and shimmied their way to freedom.

But how did all that happen without anyone at Clinton Correctional Facility catching on?

The maximum-security portion of Clinton Correctional Facility houses 2,689 inmates, with 703 living in the annex, located outside the high concrete walls.

Matt and Sweat were in the main section of the facility.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaking by phone with ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Sunday morning, said he had chatted with other prisoners at Clinton Correctional on Saturday, mentioning to them that they must be “light sleepers.”

“They were heard,” he said of the use of power tools. “They had to be heard.”

As for how prisoners came to be in possession of power tools, no one has answers so far.

The focus, at this point, is on contractors who performed work in the prison, DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci said Sunday afternoon.

An internal inventory has been conducted of tools owned by the prison – “instrument by instrument,” he said during a conference call. “All are accounted for.”

Facilities throughout the state were instructed to ensure they are “exercising the utmost security and caution” with their inventory of tools.

Sources who work or worked in the prison told the Press-Republican that tools from outside contractors are supposed to be accounted for, but guards are not allowed to search workers when they enter the prison.

Many of the construction firms are from out of state, though some are local or from elsewhere in New York state.

Background checks are required for construction workers, but many times they are not done until workers have already been on the job for days, even weeks, at at time.

“We throw a lot of guys out of there once the background checks come in,” a source told the Press-Republican.

All contractors who are currently working in the prison have been cooperating with the investigation, State Police Troop B Commander Charles Guest said Sunday.

Knowledge of interior

How did the prisoners acquire the technical knowledge they needed to navigate the maze of tunnels and pipes that they cut through with the power tools before emerging out of a manhole cover?

“It may have been over a period of time. It may have been trial and error. We don’t know,” Annucci said.

The prison has a security staff of 1,005, Foglia said.

Staffing numbers are different depending on the time of day.

“There’s likely a smaller staff-to-inmate ratio based on the locked cells” during the overnight shift, Foglia said, though she would not provide numbers.

Correction officers confirmed the Matt and Sweat were in their cells during the “master count” at 10:30 p.m. Friday.

Foglia said that is a “standing count -- they don’t have to be literally standing, but they must be visibly seen.”

Authorities have said that Matt and Sweat were confirmed to be in their cells around midnight, as well.

Patrols are made every two hours overnight, authorities said.

Prison guards who talked with the Press-Republican said the rule, when checking on inmates, is to confirm seeing “skin or breathing.”

Matt and Sweat were discovered missing at the 5:30 a.m. check.

Staffing

Tad A. Levac, president of New York State Correctional Lieutenants Local 2951, thinks staffing was a “contributing factor” in the escapes.

He said he has been pressing DOCCS for a year to add a field lieutenant at the Dannemora prison.

“We have a watch commander up front, but there are 3,000 inmates there, and we need a field lieutenant out back to supervise, because of the violence,” Levac told the Press-Republican.

He also said that many veteran officers have retired and less experienced COs are staffing prisons across New York.

“They need that supervision,” Levac said.

Foglia acknowledged the agency has seen a number of retirements.

That’s why, she said Sunday, correction officer training academies were held “this and last fiscal year.

“That’s the reason we’ve had so many classes, to keep up on the attrition level.”