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Dannemora Breakout Turns the Prison Spotlight on Guards


Published July 27, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.

Clinton Correctional Facility - COURTESY OF THE PRESS REPUBLICAN
  • Courtesy Of The press Republican
  • Clinton Correctional Facility

B elow the hulking gray walls of Clinton Correctional Facility, the village of Dannemora, N.Y., bears few reminders of last summer's chaos. Only a handful of Clinton Strong banners and fading yellow ribbons on utility poles commemorate the frantic three-week manhunt for murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt, who tunneled out of the prison known as Little Siberia and caused a media sensation.

The drama is long over: Matt was shot and killed on June 26, 2015; Sweat was recaptured two days later and is serving his life sentence in a different prison.

But the escape left a legacy of tough questions and criticisms for prison guards who work in the Adirondack region.

In June, New York Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott released a 150-page report that concluded the escape was possible because a number of guards had broken the law and violated Department of Corrections and Community Supervision policies.

Most damningly, the report said that several correctional officers refused to cooperate with the investigation even after they were granted legal immunity — adhering to a code of silence. Scott said their conduct was "reprehensible" and potentially violated ethics laws.

Simply put, she found that guards and other staff willfully withheld the truth.

"This investigation was made more difficult by a lack of full cooperation on the part of a number of Clinton staff, including executive management, civilian employees and uniformed officers," the report said. "Employees provided testimony under oath that was incomplete and at times not credible.

"Among other claims, they testified they could not recall such information as the names of colleagues with whom they regularly worked, supervisors, or staff who had trained them. Several officers, testifying under oath within several weeks of the event, claimed not to remember their activities or observations on the night of the escape. Other employees claimed ignorance of security lapses that were longstanding and widely known."

Initially, the breakout implicated just two staffers. Civilian Joyce Mitchell had sex with Matt and provided him and Sweat with some of the tools they used to break out. Guard Eugene Palmer helped the men smuggle other implements into their cells. Mitchell is serving up to seven years in prison, while Palmer was released in June after serving four months behind bars.

But the fallout went beyond that pair. In response to the findings, and subsequent reports in the New York Times that guards beat Clinton prisoners in the weeks after the escape, at least nine Clinton Correctional Facility guards and three administrators have been dismissed.

In recent months, the scrutiny of Adirondack-area prison guards has further intensified.

The DOCCS internal affairs unit, which has long been viewed as subservient to the guards' union, declared it would take a harder line against guard misconduct.

"We will do anything necessary," Daniel Martuscello, the department's deputy commissioner, told the New York Times in April. "I'm not here to make the union happy."

In May, seven newspapers in northern New York published a joint investigation describing guards teaming up to severely beat inmates and using racial slurs in the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, which is west of the Adirondacks. In response, the union encouraged its members to stop reading the papers and for local businesses to pull their advertising.

Earlier this year, some New York lawmakers called for an outside authority to monitor claims of inmate abuse.

The unwanted attention has put the 20,000-member New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association on the defensive. In a June statement, the influential union said the inspector general's report "fell short of recognizing all the dangers and difficulties our officers face on a daily basis" and blamed the escape on a "few bad actors." The union called on the state to provide more guards and better training.

Union spokesman James Miller declined to comment beyond the prepared statement, which also said: "We stand by the majority of hardworking corrections officers who every day put the safety of their communities before their own."

New York's North Country has long struggled with high unemployment and declining population, but in the 1990s, it became an improbable beneficiary of the War on Drugs. The state's prison population doubled between 1985 and 1999, and most of the offenders were sent north. At one point, there were close to 20 correctional facilities in or near the Adirondacks. A few have since closed.

The small, rural communities that host prisons tend to become company towns, and many of their local residents have worked inside for generations. The former superintendent of Clinton Correctional Facility is the son of a prison guard; the mayor of Dannemora, Michael Bennett, is the laundry supervisor for the town's largest employer.

Dannemora resident Peter Light was a Clinton guard for three decades. His dad and cousins were, too, back when prison workers had to live within five miles of the facility.

"It was tough work — some nights, you didn't know if you were coming home with your shirt or not — but it paid for a good living, you've got to be honest about it," said Light, who has spent his retirement years building the Village of Dannemora Museum, most of which is devoted to prison artifacts.

"The state prison system is the largest single employer in northern New York," said Brian Mann, who has reported extensively on the prison system as the Adirondack bureau chief for North Country Public Radio. "It is a driver of the economy for whole towns, and it has been that way for decades now. The result is it's an essential lifeline for families ... it's gone father to son, father to daughter. You can't overstate the power of that work and the union and those folks in the economy."

None of the inspector general's findings surprised Michael Cassidy, who for years has run the Plattsburgh office of Prisoners' Legal Services of New York. He handles complaints from inmates about abuse by those who guard them.

Guards, Kennedy said, have often refused to cooperate when his office makes inquiries.

"It's a chronic problem," Cassidy said. "There's the code of silence — some at DOCCS may take umbrage at it, but it's real and they know it. There's plenty of staff that don't get involved in beating people up, but unfortunately they don't tend to come forward when they do see something. It's such a tight-knit, insular kind of environment in the prison. Most people who live out there are employed in one way or the other by the prison ... There's a knee-jerk blind defensiveness in many situations."

Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. was also raised in a prison family, in a town near Dannemora. His father was a prison guard who told his son stories about some coworkers who slept through night shifts and others who beat the prisoners.

Now a professor at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York in Queens, Hall is writing a book, Prisonland, about the prison culture in the Adirondacks.

"The power of the union and the lack of oversight encourages this sort of behavior," Hall said. "The public is being unnecessarily endangered by irresponsible, lazy, unprofessional employees who very well could permit another episode like what happened last summer. The public ... should be demanding more accountability from the state."

Mid-manhunt last summer, Hall visited the region and gave a series of talks in local libraries about the history of Clinton and previous escapes — topics he assumed would not be debatable. Instead, Hall said, he was "barraged with criticism" from audiences dominated by prison guards and their families.

"That's the mindset up there — if you say anything that could be deemed critical, they don't want to hear it," Hall said. "There is a culture there ... If you even ask questions about the way those prisons operate, you're branded a traitor or worse."

Despite the intense focus on the prison, problems continue. Just last week, Clinton Correctional Facility was on lockdown for several days — inmates could not leave their cells, and no visitors were allowed in. According to local media reports, it started with a brawl that grew large enough to injure at least one guard. Corrections officers then methodically searched every cell for contraband.

The lockdown was still in effect at noon on July 19, when a couple of guards in navy pants and light-blue shirts emerged from the fortress across the street to find food at Maggy Marketplace — the only lunch spot in Dannemora other than a Stewart's Shops gas station. They declined to speak with Seven Days.

While waiting to place his lunch order, one of the guards greeted an old friend, who asked how the job was going.

"Pay is good, but you got to deal with a lot of BS," the guard said. "Been a tough year."

Former guard Light was more forthcoming. After the report was released, Light said he printed a copy and read it thoroughly. He felt Albany's politicians had unfairly maligned the guards.

"A lot of it was a waste of paper," Light said. "It's a lot of politics."

Down the street at a liquor store, Linda Drollette manned the cash register in front of a large window across the street from Clinton. A year ago, she had been eager to talk to a reporter about the escape and ensuing media frenzy.

Twelve months later, Drollette seemed unfazed by the suggestion that the massive wall between her and New York's prison population may not be as secure as it looks.

Speaking of the report, she said, "I didn't even pay any attention to it."

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