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New York prison officials put on leave; Senate plans hearings

William Dreyer, attorney for Suspended Clinton Correctional Facility

William Dreyer, attorney for Suspended Clinton Correctional Facility corrections officer Gene Palmer, leaves Plattsburgh Town Court after waving waiving his clients' preliminary hearing Monday, June 29, 2015, in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Photo Credit: AP / Gabe Dickens

ALBANY - The superintendent of the prison where two murderers escaped has been placed on leave along with 11 other employees of the Clinton Correctional Facility, state officials said Tuesday.

Superintendent Steven Racette and Deputy Superintendent Stephen Brown have been suspended in the aftermath of the June 6 escape by convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat from the state prison in Dannemora, near the Canadian border, a source said.

In a related development, the chairman of the Senate Crime and Corrections Committee said Tuesday the chamber will conduct hearings on the prison break, separate from the Cuomo administration's internal investigation.

"I think we have an obligation to look at it in our oversight capacity," said Sen. Patrick Gallivan (R-Elma), a former trooper and Erie County sheriff. He added he "would not wait" until a review by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's inspector general is completed.

Cuomo officials didn't immediately comment.

After evading State Police and other searchers for three weeks in the deep northern woods, Matt was killed and Sweat wounded and captured. Officials now will delve into how and why the convicted murderers were able to escape the maximum security prison.

Cuomo's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in a statement that 12 employees had been placed on leave. It also announced that James O'Gorman, the prison's assistant commissioner, "will oversee the Clinton Correctional Facility as the new leadership team transitions this week."

That brings the total of suspended employees to 14. A prison guard and a civilian employee at Dannemora previously had been placed on leave and face potential criminal charges for allegedly helping Matt and Sweat escape.

Prosecutors have said prison tailor shop employee Joyce Mitchell got close to the men and agreed to be their getaway driver but backed out because she felt guilty. Authorities also have said they discussed killing Mitchell's husband.

Mitchell and corrections officer Gene Palmer have been charged in connection with the escape. Mitchell pleaded not guilty June 15 to charges including a felony count of promoting prison contraband.

Palmer has told investigators he provided Matt and Sweat with tools, paint, frozen hamburger and access to a catwalk electrical box. But he said he never knew of their escape plans.

Sweat had been serving a life sentence in the killing of a sheriff's deputy in Broome County in 2002. Matt was serving 25 years to life for killing and dismembering his former boss in western New York.

Cuomo has asked his Office of Inspector General to investigate the escape. Separately, the FBI reportedly is investigating drug trafficking at Dannemora.

But some lawmakers are saying it shouldn't be left up to the Cuomo administration to investigate itself, said Assemb. James Tedisco (R-Schenectady).

"There's got to be an investigation and it's got to be an independent investigation out of the governor's purview . . . because there may be some culpability on the part of the administration," Tedisco told CNN.

Besides wanting to sort through the basics of how they escape happened, Gallivan said he wants to look at security and bed check procedures -- Sweat and Matt left stuffed dummies in their bunks while they escaped through a sewer pipe. The senator also noted that two Dannemora towers within sight of the manhole from which the two prisoners emerged onto the street reportedly were no longer manned.

"Could it have made a difference? Maybe, maybe not," Gallivan said. "But I think we have to take a look at staffing . . . are monetary concerns driving security? Those are all questions to ask."

The senator, pointing to evidence that the prisoners methodically gathered tools and access to a catwalk over a long period. "The fact that this could have happened over an extended time defies common sense," Gallivan said.

The Assembly chairman of that chamber's Correction Committee said he was content to await the inspector general's report before deciding to hold hearings. "Let's see what they come out with," said Assemb. Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan).

With Associated Press

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