The prisoners are long accounted for, but fallout from the 23-day manhunt for two escaped murderers continues. A New York Times report says there was widespread retribution carried out against inmates at Clinton Correctional during the search for Richard Matt and David Sweat. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley has reaction.
Prisoners Legal Services works with inmates and “advocates for humane prisons.” During the lockdown that occurred during June following the escape, it worked with New York State Department of Corrections and administration officials to assure prisoners had access to showers and hot meals and that their letters were sent to family members.
But tensions were high within the prison walls. The Times reports prisoners were beaten, placed in solitary confinement, threatened, transferred, lost property and privileges.
More than 60 incidents have been reported to Prisoners Legal Services according to Executive Director Karen Murtagh. “We heard from family members at the very beginning, not about the specific abuses, but concern from family members that they couldn’t get in touch with their loved ones in prison. So those were the first phone calls that we got for the first two weeks. And then we started getting letters from prisoners, not only at Clinton but across the state. Prisoners who had been transferred out of Clinton to other facilities and the letters alleged that some very disturbing things happened after the escape.”
Murtagh emphasizes that as of now the reliability and accuracy of the reports is undetermined. “What we’ll do is engage in a full investigation of every allegation that we receive. We’ll interview witnesses. We’ll FOIL documents. We’ll interview the person who complained himself. And then we’ll make a determination whether we can proceed any further. Typically after incidents like these, aberrational incidents really an escape, these types of situations do occur. They occurred significantly after the Attica uprising. So we know that when situations like this happen abuses often occur. But until we have the opportunity to investigate each and every allegation I can’t comment on their veracity.”
Speaking on WAMC’s Congressional Corner Wednesday, North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik said she is concerned about systemic problems. “There are a lot of concerns. I think that’s why there needs to be a top to bottom investigation. Not just of Dannemora but also of the other prisons in New York State.”
Despite the severity of the allegations, advocates and historians aren’t surprised. Queensborough Community College Professor of History Jeff Hall, an expert on upstate prisons, says severe treatment of inmates has been documented as far back as the 1850’s. “Only about a decade after Clinton opened the Correctional Association of New York reported that the warden had built a dungeon underground at the facility and that the dungeon was being used to torture inmates. The use of extra-legal and illegal violence by officers against inmates is a common feature not just at Clinton but really you could find it in every prison across the United States. It’s a pretty common part of prison life.”
The spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association sent an emailed statement to WAMC that says, in part: “Despite yesterday’s latest one-sided press report, our stance from the onset of the Dannemora escape has been pragmatic and we will not rush to judgment or point fingers. The priority of the law enforcement community was the capture of the two convicted murderers. Once that occurred, our focus was to allow the State Inspector General’s Office to conduct their internal investigation, cooperate fully, and hopefully have a role in reforms that would come in the future…. Our course will continue to stay the same regardless of “allegations” made by a handful of violent convicted felons.”
Also in an email, the NYS Department of Corrections says: “These allegations have been under investigation by the DOCCS Office of Special Investigations for several weeks and have also been referred to the State Inspector General. Any findings of misconduct or abuse against inmates will be punished to the full extent of the law.”