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The astonishing escape from Dannemora demands a complete review of procedures

First things first: Law enforcement officers need to recapture Richard W. Matt and David P. Sweat, the two killers who escaped from the state prison in Dannemora. Once that is done, though, there needs to be a detailed investigation of what allowed these two dangerous men to escape a high-security prison and, in particular, to look at systemic issues including overtime and staffing.

Reports confirm the obvious, which is that the escapees had help in executing their plan, allegedly from a woman who worked at the prison. Joyce Mitchell has been charged with helping the two escape.

Details she provides along with information investigators turn up should help with lessons that may be applied to prison operations generally, including prison procedures, employee training and staffing levels.

The Plattsburgh Press-Republican reported that prison guards believe staffing reductions and other financial cuts may have played a role in the escape.

Quoting anonymous sources among current and retired corrections officers, the newspaper reported that after a recent melee in the prison yard was quelled, prison officials were prevented from conducting a lockdown and thorough search of the facility due to high overtime costs. Had such a search taken place as usual after such an event, the sources said, the likelihood is that evidence of the pending escape would have been turned up.

It’s a plausible theory, assuming all facts to be accurate, though it doesn’t explain why prisoners working with power tools weren’t detected through normal prison procedures. Still, it’s important to investigate.

Additionally, the sources told the paper that two guard towers along the main street of Dannemora were going unstaffed at night. The manhole cover where the two escapees emerged would have been in clear sight of those towers, had they been staffed, the sources told the newspaper.

Certainly, that, too is plausible, though spotting the men as they crawled out of a manhole would have been the last possible line of defense. What must have been many other failures leading up to that moment seem worthy of greater attention.

Still, staffing is an obvious issue, especially in a setting as high pressure as a state prison. If it truly contributed to the escape – or could do so in the future – then something needs to be done. But something doesn’t automatically mean adding to state expenses.

New Yorkers already shoulder the nation’s highest combined tax burden, meaning there is plenty of money floating around to fix problems such as this. The question is allocation of funds and costs that are unusually high.

The problem also can be attacked from the other direction, by re-evaluating which inmates need to be imprisoned and which, having committed lesser crimes, could be appropriately punished in a different way. Most people agree that prison populations around the country are unnecessarily high, especially when they include certain nonviolent drug offenders.

The state has announced that an investigation will be conducted by a “respected outside expert in corrections and law enforcement.” The list of questions that need to be answered about this dramatic and dangerous escape is almost endless. That investigator needs to be truly independent and begin identifying those questions and answering them as soon as possible.