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Sweat tells of practice run to test escape route

ALBANY – The two convicted killers who escaped in early June from the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, setting off a three-week manhunt, conducted a dry run of the breakout the night before they fled, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

One of the escaped inmates, David P. Sweat, who was shot twice by a state trooper Sunday and taken into custody, has told investigators that he made the practice run to test the escape route the night before he and Richard W. Matt escaped from the prison, the two people said.

Sweat, 35, 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 their escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, one of the people said. Matt, 49, was fatally shot by a federal agent Friday. Sweat’s condition was upgraded Tuesday to fair, from serious; he was originally listed as critical.

Sweat also told investigators that he and Matt listened to reports about the manhunt on a radio and that they had marijuana.

The escape from the prison and the ensuing investigation have exposed lax security and raised questions about the operation of the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

In a separate development Tuesday, the prison agency announced that three top officials at the Dannemora prison and nine other security employees were placed on administrative leave. Among them, one of the people 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 state’s inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, is conducting an inquiry into the policies and procedures at the prison and 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 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 a person briefed on the matter said they were the prison’s superintendent, Steven E. Racette; the first deputy superintendent, Donald L. Quinn; and the deputy superintendent for security, Stephen Brown. The three officials and nine uniformed officers have been placed on paid leave.

Despite required hourly bed checks of the honor block’s 180 cells at night, the two correction officers who worked the night shift the night of the escape either failed to detect or ignored that the two inmates were crawling through the holes they had cut in their cells. Before the actions Tuesday against the two men, who were not named, prison officials had allowed them to continue to work the same night shift on the same cellblock, the person said.

In describing his escape test, 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 cover two blocks from the prison before returning to his cell, the person said.

The actions against the prison officials came a day after the disclosure that the FBI has opened a corruption inquiry into prison employees and inmates. The FBI is investigating drug trafficking and other possible criminal conduct.