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1 Year After New York Prison Break, What Went Wrong At Dannemora?


It has been one year since the dramatic prison break in upstate New York that captivated the country. Two convicted killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, dug their way out of one of the toughest maximum security prisons in America triggering a massive manhunt. Today, questions remain about what went wrong at Dannemora Prison. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Last June, acting state prison Commissioner Anthony Annucci stood outside Clinton Correctional Facility's massive white walls in the town of Dannemora, N.Y. He looked gray-faced and weary. Two of the most dangerous inmates trusted to his care were gone.


ANTHONY ANNUCCI: There was a hole cut out of the back of the cell in which these inmates escaped.

MANN: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stood at Annucci's side. He said he wanted these men caught fast. But he also wanted answers.


ANDREW CUOMO: And one of the big questions is - where did the tools come from?

MANN: The search locked down a vast region of northern New York for the next three weeks as paramilitary patrols swept dense woods. There were checkpoints on the main streets of small towns. I spoke one rainy afternoon with the state police Captain John Tibbets (ph) who was leading an exhausted team scouring the edge of a muddy, overgrown field.


JOHN TIBBETS: After three or four days of doing this, they're hurting. And we suffer dehydration. You know, guys get hungry.

MANN: It took 23 grueling days to track down Richard Matt and David Sweat. Matt was shot and killed by a federal officer. Sweat was shot and recaptured by New York State Police. Getting answers to how all this happened in the first place - that's taken even longer. There are still at least three state probes underway into the prison's operations. And New York Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott has signaled that there were major breakdowns in security.


CATHERINE LEAHY SCOTT: This cold-blooded murderer exploited systemic lapses in Clinton Correctional Facility's security procedures.

MANN: So far, more than a dozen staff and administrators at Dannemora prison have been forced out. One corrections officer and a civilian worker are behind bars for aiding the escape. But state officials still won't say what those wider security lapses were. As part of its probe, the state assembly corrections committee is also looking at allegations that, after the escape, inmates still held in Dannemora prison were terrorized in reprisals by guards. Karen Murtagh has an advocacy group that works inside the prison.

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

MANN: The state officials say they're looking into those allegations. But they won't say when any of their investigations might wrap up. Governor Cuomo said last month he wants the probes to be thorough. Complicating this moment is the fact that Dannemora prison has always had a reputation as a violent, secretive and sometimes lawless place. It's now facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny. While conducting its own probe last winter into the prison's culture, The New York Times acquired a graphic videotape from 2010 that shows a mentally ill inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility dying after an altercation with guards.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Was this guy hit in the head by an officer? Do we know with anything...

MANN: No corrections officers were disciplined following that incident, despite a scathing internal report from state officials. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has opened a federal probe into the death of an inmate at another state prison that occurred last year.


PREET BHARARA: Is there a particular problem with the state department of corrections and how they supervise these various facilities in the state?

MANN: This may be the biggest unanswered question. Will the investigations that are still underway focus narrowly on the breakdown in security before last summer's escape, or will they ask larger questions about how this controversial state prison is managed? For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in northern New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.