A dozen top administrators and front-line corrections officers were suspended Tuesday at Clinton Correctional Facility, the prison in northern New York where two inmates escaped earlier this month.
This house-cleaning comes as the FBI has opened its own inquiry into operations at the maximum security prison.
In a terse statement, and without naming him directly, state corrections officials announced that Steven Racette, the top superintendent at Clinton in Dannemora, N.Y., and 11 other administrators and front-line security officers have been placed on administrative leave.
They declined to offer explanations for why these prison workers have been singled out except to confirm that the move is linked to the inquiry into the escape of convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat.
New York state officials have signaled from the start that the massive manhunt over the last three weeks was only the most visible part of their response to the prison break.
“We’re doing two parts of this case,” said State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico. “We have an investigative piece that’s kind of delving into all the aspects before and after.”
D’Amico’s officers have already arrested one civilian worker and one uniformed guard.
“We’ve conducted interviews with inmates, corrections officers, contract employees and anyone else working here at Clinton Correctional,” D’Amico added.
Law enforcement sources also have confirmed that the FBI has opened its own preliminary investigation, looking not just at how these inmates managed to escape but also at possible corruption or drug dealing by staff at Clinton-Dannemora.
This isn’t the first time this prison has attracted scrutiny. In recent weeks, questions have been raised about lax security.
But over the years, inmates have won repeated court battles after alleging violence and corruption on the part of corrections officers at Clinton-Dannemora.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledges the prison’s controversial reputation.
“This is the prison that they would threaten the other inmates in the rest of the system that if you didn’t behave you would go to Dannemora,” Cuomo said Monday on public radio’s Capital Pressroom program.
The prison sits in a small town in a remote corner of the Adirondack Mountains, and many of the corrections officers are closely related family members. Jeff Hall is a prison historian whose father worked as a guard at Clinton-Dannemora. He says the close-knit prison staff has often stymied past investigations.
“Something that’s referred to as the code of silence, which was sort of this term used to describe the use of extra-legal violence against prisoners by officers inside Dannemora,” Hall says.
But now, that silence may be breaking down. State police are interviewing escapee David Sweat about what he saw in the prison. And the two Clinton-Dannemora employees already in custody are apparently cooperating with the investigation.
Gene Palmer is the veteran corrections officer who has been accused of providing the inmates with contraband. Through his attorney, Palmer has said he had no direct knowledge of the escape plot.
But in a 2000 interview with North Country Public Radio, he described the often tumultuous life inside the prison.
“When we talk about gangs, that’s one of the most challenging things we have here, because they’re little armies,” Palmer said.
In that interview, Palmer also talked about the complicated web of rewards, favors and punishments in the prison and close relationships that often develop between corrections officers and inmates.
That culture is now under the microscope as investigators try to sort out whether this escape reflects an isolated lapse in security, or a wider breakdown among staff.