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Clinton Correctional superintendent among 12 put on leave

ALBANY – Three officials at Clinton Correctional Facility, including the guy at the very top, are among the 12 people placed on administrative leave as part of the review associated with the prison escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat.

The superintendent, Steven Racette, and the first deputy Donald Quinn are among the three members of the prison’s executive team place on leave, a source told The Buffalo News. The third team member is deputy superintendent for security at the prison.

In addition, nine security staff also are on leave but the source would not say how many of those are guards, other than to say a “handful.”

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced the leaves Tuesday.

A statement from Corrections officials read: “Assistant Commissioner for Correctional Facilities James O’Gorman will oversee the Clinton Correctional Facility as the new leadership team transitions this week. Staffing for the security positions will be addressed through procedures outlined in the union contract.

“Due to the ongoing review and investigations, additional information is not available at this time.”

Albany Medical Center this afternoon said Sweat’s condition has been upgraded from serious to fair.

“David Sweat will remain at Albany Medical Center for at least a few days,’’ said Dr. Dennis P. McKenna, the hospital’s medical director.

The New York Times, citing one source with knowledge of the matter, reported that the FBI in Albany has opened a corruption inquiry focusing on employees and inmates at the maximum-security prison where the two convicted killers escaped June 6.

The prison break prompted a manhunt involving more than 1,000 state troopers, federal agents and other law enforcement officers, which ended Sunday when the second escapee, Sweat, 35, was shot and captured about 30 miles from the prison. Matt, 49, was shot and killed Friday.

The FBI investigation, which the official said was focused on drug trafficking and other possible criminal conduct, is likely to raise the scrutiny of prison officials, their conduct and the apparent lack of security and oversight at the institution in the months preceding the escape, The Times reported.

Two prison employees were arrested in the aftermath of the escape: Joyce Mitchell, a civilian employee, who was charged with smuggling contraband into the prison to assist with the escape, and Gene Palmer, a corrections guard accused of tampering with evidence in connection with destruction of paintings he was given by the two inmates.

Paul Holstein, the chief division counsel for the FBI in Albany, said his office does not confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.

FBI agents had been assisting the State Police and the state prison agency in their investigation of the escape, and an agent from the bureau’s Albany office, Timothy Coll, was present when Palmer was questioned, according to court papers. But the expansion of the agency’s role into a separate corruption inquiry, which was reported Monday afternoon by CNN, was not publicly disclosed until the manhunt had concluded.

News of the federal inquiry also came one day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, reiterated that the state’s inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, was conducting a full investigation into the policies and procedures at the prison and the circumstances that led to the escape. He first announced that inquiry June 15.

Details of the escape raise questions about how the officers who patrol the honors cellblock at Clinton, where Sweat and Matt were housed, could have missed the inmates’ preparations, which are believed to have gone on for weeks, perhaps months. Night after night, officials said, the two slipped through openings they had cut in the back of their cells, climbed down five flights of piping to the tunnels beneath the prison, spent hours cutting through a brick wall and steam pipe, and then returned to their cells.

More than a dozen investigators from the office of Leahy Scott have been at the prison in the past two weeks, including a forensic computer specialist and auditor, as well as certified fraud examiners and several former prosecutors from offices across the state.

Prison rules require hourly bed checks by the two corrections officers assigned to the cell block.

The officers are supposed to use their flashlights to make the checks of the 180 cells. Regulations require that a guard be able to see the inmates’ skin and detect breathing. In practice, according to interviews with several current and past officers, inspections became lax over time, and inmates were typically permitted to sleep entirely covered by sheets and blankets.

Mitchell, a civilian employee, and Palmer, an officer, have been arrested on charges that they aided the two inmates by smuggling contraband into the prison. In a statement to the State Police, Palmer acknowledged bringing the two men tools and, at least once, helping Matt hide items during an inspection of the cells.

Palmer, who is accused of giving the men pliers and a screwdriver and who is out on bail, appeared in justice court in Plattsburgh, New York, on Monday. His lawyer formally waived his felony hearing and requested that the matter be transferred to county court, said Andrew Wylie, the Clinton County district attorney. He also said that escape charges were expected.

Wylie said that he had not seen the statements that Sweat had made to the police, although he had heard Cuomo’s remarks describing Sweat’s comments. Wylie said that from “the reports,” his understanding was that Sweat has told investigators that Palmer had no involvement in his escape – that it was only he, Mitchell and Matt.

The New York Times contributed to this report.