One of the two convicted killers who escaped in early June from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility, setting off a three-week manhunt, conducted a dry run of the breakout the night before they fled, two officials with knowledge of the matter said.
The escaped inmate, David Sweat, who was shot and taken into custody Sunday, has told investigators that during the practice run, he made it all the way to the end of the escape route, emerging from the same manhole that he and the other inmate, Richard W. Matt, would use the next night, the two officials said.
While Sweat tested the escape route, Matt apparently stayed behind.
Sweat, who is being treated for his wounds at Albany Medical Center, also told investigators that he and Matt began sawing through the back walls of their cells roughly six months before they staged their escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, one of the officials said.
Matt was shot and killed by a federal agent Friday. Sweat’s condition was upgraded Tuesday to fair condition from serious.
The escape from the prison, in Dannemora, and the ensuing investigation have exposed lax security and raised questions about the operation of the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
On Tuesday, the prison agency announced that three top officials at the Clinton Correctional Facility and nine other security employees were placed on administrative leave. Among them, one of the officials said, were the two men who regularly worked the night shift on the inmates’ cellblock and who were on duty the night of the escape. The section, known as the honor block, was reserved for inmates who behaved well and afforded them certain privileges, such as wearing non-prison clothing.
The state’s inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, is conducting an inquiry into the policies and procedures at the prison and the circumstances that led to the escape. As part of her investigation, which was ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo nine days after the men broke out, members of her staff have been at the prison in recent days reviewing documents and interviewing prison officials, guards, civilian employees and inmates. They have been working alongside the State Police and FBI agents also investigating the escape.
The statement from the prison agency did not name the officials placed on administrative leave, but an official briefed on the matter said they were the prison’s superintendent, Steven Racette; the first deputy superintendent, Donald L. Quinn; and the deputy superintendent for security, Stephen Brown. Racette and Quinn did not return telephone messages seeking comment; Brown could not be reached.
Despite required hourly bed checks of the block’s 180 cells during nighttime hours, the two correction officers who worked the night shift on the honor block and who were on duty the night of the escape either failed to detect or ignored that the two inmates were absent from their cells.
Before the actions Tuesday against the two men, who were not named, they had been permitted to continue to work the same night shift on the same cellblock from which the two convicted killers had escaped, the official said.
A spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents state corrections officers and sergeants, said the union would support its members and noted that the nine placed on administrative leave had not been accused of any crimes.
The union’s president, Michael B. Powers, said in a statement that officers were continuing to do their jobs “inside and outside of those prison walls at Clinton Correctional Facility” with “a high degree of professionalism and dedication despite daily adverse conditions.”
In describing his dry run, Sweat said he slipped through an opening he had cut in the back of his cell and shinnied down five flights of piping to the tunnels beneath the prison, where he crawled through the hole he and Matt had cut through a brick wall. From there, he has told investigators, he snaked his way through a steam pipe they also had cut holes in, walked down a tunnel and emerged from a manhole two blocks from the prison before returning to his cell, one of the officials person said.
The two men escaped the next night. Prison guards discovered them missing on the morning of June 6.
Sweat also told investigators that the cuts he and Matt made through the 24-inch steel pipe through which they crawled beneath the prison’s walls were made with a hand saw, rather than with power tools, as the authorities have surmised, one of the officials said. The official said investigators have not corroborated Sweat’s account.
The actions against the prison officials came a day after the disclosure that the FBI has opened a corruption inquiry focused on employees and inmates at the prison. The FBI is investigating drug trafficking and other possible criminal conduct.
The statement by the prison agency said that its assistant commissioner for facilities, James O’Gorman, will oversee the Clinton Correctional Facility until a new superintendent and other top officials are put in place.