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Another Voice: Escape from Clinton Correctional Facility exposes the need for reforms

By Robert Weiner and Sylvienne Staines

New York spent a million dollars a day in the three-week manhunt for convicts Richard W. Matt and David Sweat.

The recent escape became something of a national joke from Joe Scarborough to Jon Stewart: women workers’ relationships with inmates, saws in food, the public’s Bonnie-and-Clyde perception of the perverted heroism of bad guys avoiding capture. However, the reality of prison staff corruption and mismanagement – the violence, drugs, weapons and money – are no joke. The arrests and removals of at least 12 officials including the superintendant are a window into a national scandal of prison corruption.

Clinton Correctional Facility showed the nation that it is time to address the lack of vetting during the hiring and screening processes, absence of staff unity and loyalty to mission and the need to closely monitor inmates and guards. Dannemora, as well as many other prisons, even had a heroin supply ring run with guard support.

At the Baltimore City Detention Center, 44 people were convicted for organizing the Black Guerrilla Family. Twenty-four of them were corrections officers. Heroin and crack cocaine flowed, inmates impregnated four guards and the gang paid employees $16,000 a week.

David Starbek’s “The Social Order of the Underworld” notes that prison staffs feel they need the gangs to enforce order, define property rights, trade and profits and protect individuals. They are an alternative government.

At Rikers Island, physical force against an inmate was recorded 7,074 times in 2014. It employed people with “multiple arrests and convictions, prior associations with gang members or relationships with inmates on their records,” CNN reported. New York City investigators found that more than one-third of the new employees should have been disqualified or investigated further before hiring.

Every year, 80,000 men and women report sexual abuse in America’s prisons. Fewer than 35 percent of assaults are reported, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and half of prison sexual assault complaints in 2011 were filed against staff. To date, only two states have fully complied with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

Embarrassed, Dannemora has added standards, but the nation must follow. Incarceration costs taxpayers $63.4 billion a year. Yet our prisons are crumbling from the inside out. Daily motivational staff meetings, an increase in training and education, stopping gangs before they start, vetting employees and a new policy of zero tolerance of corruption are needed not just in Clinton, but prisons across America.

Robert Weiner is former spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Policy. Sylvienne Staines is criminal justice analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.