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A Look Back Two Years After The Dannemora Prison Escape

Photo of Clinton Correctional
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Clinton Correctional

Today is the second anniversary of the end of one of the largest manhunts in New York history — when officials captured the second of two men who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. The episode led to convictions, inquiries and calls for security reforms.
Two years ago Governor Andrew Cuomo made an announcement that relieved many residents of the North Country: “It took 22 days. But we can now confirm that Mr. Matt is deceased and the other escapee Mr. Sweat is in custody.”

On June 6th 2015 David Sweat and Richard Matt were discovered missing from their cells at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.  Following a 23-day manhunt, both inmates were eventually found in neighboring Franklin County.  Matt was shot and killed by a tactical team from Customs and Border Protection on June 26th.  Sweat was shot and captured two days later.  Sweat survived his injuries and later pleaded guilty to charges related to the escape.

Complaints of brutality against inmates increased in the immediate aftermath of the escape. In August 2015 the New York Times reported prisoners were beaten, placed in solitary confinement, threatened, transferred, and lost property and privileges during and immediately after the search.

The New York State Inspector General had been ordered by Governor Cuomo to investigate what happened.  The report on the management of the prison and what led to the escape was issued on June 6th, 2016 and Catherine Leahy Scott criticized everything from prison management to state oversight.  “The extent of complacency and failure to adhere to the most basic security standards was egregious and inexcusable. DOCCS has cooperated with my office to implement critical reforms.”

Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York Executive Director Karen Murtagh says in the two years since the escape and the year since the IG’s report there have been some changes at Clinton Correctional.  “There were some administrative changes early on. They brought a zero tolerance policy, higher standards for security and DOCCS also instituted a pilot project to have CO’s wear body cameras at Clinton and also at Bedford Hills.”

Murtagh reports the upsurge in the number of prisoner complaints filed with Prisoners’ Legal Services shortly after Matt and Sweat were captured, alleging violent retribution by corrections officers, has diminished.  “Does it mean that the changes in management at Clinton and the body cameras and the zero tolerance policy have improved conditions? Or does it mean that prisoners are less likely to complain because of what happened to them when they did complain? It’s really difficult for us to say.  But I do know that the complaints have gone down.”

Clinton County Sheriff David Favro was thrust into an unexpected scenario, as there had never before been a successful escape from the maximum security  prison.  As he looks back he says the events did not lead to dynamic changes in local patrols but rather in how he assesses strategy.  “I’m going to evaluate situations a little bit more and regroup with my people and get more input from them and look at options of things that we can do.  I know there were sometimes nearly 900 people that were focusing in the area of Cadyville for example, and now I’m looking at that saying it would have been probably better served had we broken up some of our resources and put them out west where I initially was up in the Lyon Mountain area.”

Former prison tailor Joyce Mitchell was convicted for her role in helping Matt and Sweat escape and is serving her sentence at the Bedford Hills Correctional facility.  She was denied parole in February 2017.

Former corrections officer Gene Palmer was fined and sentenced to 6 months in the Clinton County jail for his role in the escape.  He was released after serving 4 months in June 2016.

A Lifetime television movie about the breakout aired earlier this year, and a Showtime series is also reportedly in the works.

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