NY Lawmakers Propose Prison Reform Legislation After Shocking Escape

Cortney O'Brien
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Posted: Jul 04, 2015 12:00 PM
NY Lawmakers Propose Prison Reform Legislation After Shocking Escape

By all accounts, escaping from Clinton Correctional Facility was seemingly “impossible.” Yet, inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat managed to do so – twice. The two criminals’ brazen getaway, which preceded a 3-week long police search through upstate New York, ultimately ended in the authorities’ favor. Yet, the ordeal has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the state’s prisons. A group of bipartisan lawmakers are determined to find answers as to why the current culture allowed for such an escape.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has been criticized for his management of the state’s correctional facilities. Since taking office, 13 New York prisons have closed, with the correctional officers’ union calling for more staff. The governor has pushed back against the reproach, citing favorable statistics that show the correctional officer to prisoner ratio has remained the same.

However, reports like this undermine his defensive comments:

Still, the state's prison system had a 29 percent increase in assaults on officers by inmates between 2010 and 2014. Most were at maximum-security facilities, including Clinton, Attica, Elmira and Bedford Hills in Westchester County, according to state records reviewed by Gannett's Albany Bureau.

Cuomo pledged that his administration will investigate the ‘honor block’ system that allowed Matt and Sweat to receive special treatment for good behavior while serving time in the facility. So far, two employees have been charged for conspiring with the prisoners, including providing them with power tools, while dozens more have been placed on leave.

"But we have a lot of work to do, investigating both the cooperators and making the point that that cannot happen, and if that happens, that will be fully prosecuted," Cuomo said.

State legislators are similarly determined to find out what happened.

Assembly Corrections Committee Chairman Daniel O'Donnell, D-Manhattan, has introduced a bill to require any prison investigation to be performed independently by the Inspector General’s Office. Republicans went a step further in suggesting the investigation needs to be conducted outside of the Cuomo administration.

"There needs to be an independent top to bottom investigation as to what happened and then let the chips fall where they may," Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, said in a statement. "But this modest, common-sense legislation is a no brainer."

It’s frightening how much freedom and goods Matt and Sweat were awarded inside Clinton Correctional Facility. If we can’t trust our correctional officers to resist corruption in the form of bribes and flattery, those metal bars may as well be paper mache.