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Critics say NY prisons face crisis of violence, poor oversight

Gov. Andrew Cuomo toured Clinton Correctional Facility in June shortly after two prisoners escaped from there.

Prisons around the state continue to face closer scrutiny following last summer's escape from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. State and federal probes are already underway. But a growing number of lawmakers now say violence behind bars and the breakdown in security mean more oversight is needed.

Beatings, escapes, attacks on guards, and an alleged murder

When Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell from New York City’s Upper West Side opened his hearing last week into conditions in New York’s state prisons, he described a system in crisis. He began with last summer’s escape of two killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, from a maximum security facility in the North Country – a prison break that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

"It also led to the terrorizing of the community where that prison was located by the people who live there [lived] in fear," O'Donnell said. "And let me be clear, that is simply unacceptable."

O’Donnell, a Democrat who chairs the Assembly Corrections Committee, also pointed to the alleged killing of a mentally ill inmate last April.

"At a correctional facility in Fishkill, an inmate died and after the inmate died the official explanation was fabricated. What we now know is that the inmate was in fact murdered, murdered by employees of the state of New York," he charged.

Breakdowns in security and alleged violence by corrections officers are already being probed by the U.S. attorney’s office and by New York’s inspector general. But during O’Donnell’s hearing last week, expert after expert testified that these two individual cases reflect a larger lack of oversight.

Karen Murtagh, head of inmate advocacy organization Prisoners Legal Services, said after last summer’s prison break, corrections officers at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora allegedly brutalized inmates who had done nothing wrong.

"One person was grabbed by the back of the neck and his face was slammed into a steel pipe," Murtagh recounted. "Another individual stated that a plastic bag was put over his head and tied. And when the individuals would say that we really don’t know anything about what happened in the escape, they were told things like, you know what’s going to happen to you? You’re going to disappear."

According to Murtagh, those officers kept no records of the interrogations and wore no name tags. She says that means there’s likely to be little accountability.

How to boost accountability?

Michael Mushlin is a professor at Pace Law School and serves on the American Bar Association’s national working group on prison oversight. He said New York needs better systems in place to keep these kind of alleged abuses from occurring again.

"What’s the state of oversight in New York? On a scale of zero to ten, I give it a point-five," he said.

Those who spoke at the hearing urged consideration of a new ombudsman or independent agency to review prison conditions regularly. They also urged more access to prisons by watchdog groups and the media and called for corrections officers to be better trained and equipped with video cameras similar to the ones now worn by many police officers. They also called for more aggressive efforts to weed out bad apple officers.

Jonathan Moore is an attorney who represents the family of Samuel Harrell, the mentally ill man who was killed last April at Fishkill Correctional Facility. Moore said their investigation found evidence that corrections officers organized a so-called beat-up squad that was tolerated by the prison administration.

"Officers who are called to inflict harm on inmates. One of the members of that squad was an individual nicknamed Captain America," he said.

Protecting officers as well as inmates

Republican Assemblymembers who attended last week’s hearing generally agreed that more oversight is needed. They argued that better systems would help keep officers safe and reduce the number of assaults that guards face every year. Assemblywoman Janet Duprey represents the communities around Clinton Dannemora Prison. She said most corrections officers are professional and ethical.

"The vast majority of these men and women do their jobs incredibly well every single day of the year under very difficult circumstances. And I hope as we go forward we don’t every lose sight of that," Duprey said.

Many voices missing from Assembly hearing

State officials with the Corrections Department and the inspector general’s office declined to testify at this hearing, citing their on-going investigations and the federal probe underway at Fishkill Correctional. 

Corrections Committee Chair O’Donnell said he accepted that argument, but plans to resume this hearing after those probes are over and will then demand that state agencies testify about conditions in New York’s prisons. He said he would summon state officials "by subpoena if necessary, to address these two and other issues regarding oversight of the state correctional system."

New York’s corrections officer union also declined to take part in last week’s hearing and instead launched a statewide ad campaign mocking O’Donnell for his role as Corrections Committee chairman. In a statement, union president Mike Powers from Ogdensburg accused O’Donnell of grandstanding and said the Assembly should instead focus on reducing the number of violent attacks by inmates against officers.