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Few Clouds 48° Good Afternoon
Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Searching for answers about inmates' escape

This combination of file photos released by the

This combination of file photos released by the New York State Police shows David Sweat, left, and Richard Matt. Matt, who staged a brazen escape from an upstate maximum-security prison with Sweat and had been hunted for three weeks was shot and killed June 26, 2015. Sweat was shot and captured on June 28. Photo Credit: New York State Police via AP, File

A new and tricky phase has begun in this nearly month-old Dannemora drama.

With one escaped killer dead and the other caught -- three weeks after the breakout of a lifetime -- official probes are underway into root causes of how they got out and who is to blame.

For the moment, some procedural details seem as murky as a rain-drenched search in the woods -- such as what those up and down the line in the prison system's chain of command did and did not know in the weeks, days and hours leading up to the escape.

State correction officials Tuesday tersely announced that a dozen more Clinton Correctional Facility staffers were "placed on administrative leave," including the superintendent and deputy in charge of security.

While disclosing that James O'Gorman, an assistant commissioner, will "oversee" new leadership at Clinton, the Cuomo administration said in a brief news release: "Due to the ongoing review and investigations, additional information is not available at this time."

On Monday, it was reported that FBI agents are exploring broader corruption and narcotics trafficking in the facility -- and whether escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat were dealing heroin there.

The report, carried by CNN, seemed to catch state officials by surprise. Depending on its depth, such an investigation could mark a rare foray by outside officials into one of the Cuomo administration's thorniest departments.

As expected, Cuomo's in-house inspector general is also reviewing the escape.

The moment is unique for prisons and jails; the U.S. Justice Department, for example, has prodded New York City into overhauling operations at its sprawling Rikers Island complex.

When Matt and Sweat chopped and crawled their way to temporary freedom using smuggled tools, the broader political conversation had turned to instances of brutality, excessive incarceration, and neglect of mental illness. New York since 2011 has shrunk its prison system, which was widely regarded for decades as a job generator in economically static upstate communities.

This case, however, raises different questions -- about laxity and fraternization between officers and inmates. Seamstress Joyce Mitchell and Correction Officer Gene Palmer were arrested and charged with aiding the notorious pair. On Sunday, after Sweat was shot, captured and brought to Albany Medical Center, Cuomo said: "Now that we have Mr. Sweat, it gives us the opportunity to have some more questions and provide more facts on the overall situation. Anyone who we find who was culpable and guilty of cooperating in the escape will be fully prosecuted."

Barely three months earlier, three correction officers at the Attica Correctional Facility, accused of severely beating an inmate, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of misconduct and resigned their jobs. Officials then were quoted as saying it was the first time any state correction officers were criminally charged with nonsexual inmate assault.

Later that month, fights involving inmates and officers led to lockdowns at the Auburn Correctional Facility.

Familiar voices will be raised. Prison-reform groups on one hand say a sweeping crackdown on inmate privileges and programs would hurt, not help. Officers' unions perpetually criticize staffing levels.

Taken together, cases of violence, lack of attention and possible corruption combine to form a big prison management problem that becomes Cuomo's to face.

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