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Legislature must hold corrections system accountable

Legislature must hold corrections system accountable

Escape revealed systemic problems that won't be solved with investigation into single incident

The escape of convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat from a maximum security prison in upstate was no fluke.

Neither was the fact that they were able to avoid capture by hundreds of police officers for more than three weeks.

Both the escape and the long search unveiled systemic problems that need to be addressed by the entire state corrections system, not just treated as one isolated incident at one prison.

We already pretty much know how the two murderers escaped, duping at least one prison employee into providing them with the tools and the means to get out and stay out. And we pretty much know, based largely on the statements of the surviving escapee, Sweat, how the pair managed to elude police through a combination of planning and luck.

We also know that they would not have gotten where they did had there not been significant lapses in security procedures at the prison and mistakes made in the coordination of the search.

Let’s clear this up right now. This is not a knock on the individual officers who deal with these dangerous individuals every day as guards and other staff. They have one of the toughest jobs you can imagine being surrounded by murderers, rapists, drug dealers, child abusers, wife beaters, muggers, gang members and the rest of society's worst.

And it's not a knock on the individual officers who participated in the search. They not only had to put up with mosquitoes and rain and the heat and the inconvenience of being away from home for a long period of time, but they also had to deal with the very prospect that at any minute day or night, one of these convicted killers could be hiding behind the next tree or rock waiting to blow their brains out.

It is a call to order on the system itself. What was revealed by the escape were fundamental shortcomings in how the state deals with dangerous inmates. Beyond the absurd premise that a cop killer and a man who dismembered his victim should be given special privileges for "good behavior," early reports have found everything from ignoring existing procedures such as mandatory searches and passing items through metal detectors, bending the rules for regular visitors, ignoring reports about inmates having inappropriate relationships with prison employees, not having enough safeguards in place to ensure that outside contractors don't inadvertently leave equipment where inmates can get it, to allowing guards to bring in food and other items without going through security.

In light of this escape, subsequent investigations at other prisons are turning up similar issues.

Relating to the search, what was revealed was that officials allowed crucial minutes to slip away in getting the search going and that there was a lack of coordination with local officials and residents who could have provided important insight into the territory and the inmates' ability to access shelter, food and weapons.

This is about more than Dannemora. And it won't be solved with a single investigation into a single incident.

The state Legislature needs to get involved and hold public hearings on the prison system, bringing in administrators, corrections officers, contractors, employees, prison architects, inmate advocates, crime victims and even prisoners themselves to provide a full view of the problems and what needs to be done to address them. Then procedures, with consequences for not following them, need to be enacted where necessary.

The public needs to be assured that dangerous criminals aren't being coddled and that prison are keeping inmates exactly where the courts sent them.

This escape was a wake-up call. Let's not let the opportunity to address the problems get away from us as easily as Matt and Sweat did.

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