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Report highlights need for greater oversight of state’s prisons

Report highlights need for greater oversight of state’s prisons

If you only read the juicy parts of state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott’s report on last y

If you only read the juicy parts of state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott’s report on last year’s escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, you might get the impression that this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation.

The two inmates who escaped last June were extraordinarily bold and clever, the prison staff exceptionally lazy and incompetent, the security measures at the prison shockingly lax.

But isn’t it possible that at the 52 other prisons in New York state, there are also lax security procedures, incompetent and undersupervised staff, sloppy contractors, and inmates with nothing better to do than sit around thinking of ways to get out?

According to the Inspector General’s report on the escape — the last 10 pages in particular — we get the impression that maybe Clinton Correctional wasn’t alone in the state prison system in its issues.

That’s where state prison officials, the governor’s office and state lawmakers should now focus their attention — on making sure the next Shawshank Redemption isn’t just around the corner.

If night corrections officers weren’t always doing their rounds at Clinton, isn’t it possible they aren’t doing their rounds at other prisons? Was the Clinton crew uniquely lazy and incompetent?

Joyce Mitchell, the escapees’ dupe, managed to smuggle in hacksaw blades in frozen beef and other things to the inmates because she was allowed to enter the prison unsearched.

Are all state prison employees now searched or forced to go through metal detectors and x-ray machines to ensure they’re not smuggling in hacksaw blades? Or are there still employees who have this privilege?

Have you ever wondered how people get drugs into prisons? How they sneak in other contraband? Metal objects?

If there are aren’t enough procedures in place in a state prison to stop the free-flow of materials between the outside and the inside, why not? If corrections officers are being paid off by inmates or others to look the other way, is someone investigating them?

How tightly are outside contractors scrutinized? Is all their equipment inventoried each and every time they come in and out of the prison gates now that we know they sometimes leave sledge hammers and drills lying around for future escapees to use at their convenience?

In its report, the IG’s office noted “multiple breakdowns” and stated that “many changes” are necessary, not just at Clinton Correctional, but systemwide.

One major concern noted in the report was the reluctance of investigators within the corrections department’s Office of Special Investigations to report violations they spot in prisons.

The report says some investigators have expressed fear of being reassigned back to their original prison jobs if they report on what they find. How can you have a legitimate assessment of problems within prisons when the investigators are beholden to the very people they’re investigating? That system needs to be re-evaluated and improved.

To cut down on prison employees like Joyce Mitchell bringing in hacksaw blades and other contraband into prisons, the IG’s office recommended — and Corrections Department agreed — that prisons significantly increase the use of metal detectors, increase random pat-downs of employees, and examine all bags being brought in and out of the prison by employees.

They’re also going to retrain security staff, use more contraband-detecting dogs, and compel management to directly oversee front-gate searches as an extra level of oversight.

Remember how the inmates could escape into the bowels of the prison every night because no one was checking their cells to see if they were actually in them? The report called for more use of electronic monitoring of system checks, more cameras (including thermal-imaging cameras) and better training of officers.

They also plan to crack down on contractors so they don’t leave behind tools that inmates could access, spruce up the metal detection system throughout facilities, and increase the review of procedures relating to the conduct between inmates and their overseers.

The report, findings and recommendations are a healthy first step in ensuring the security of New York’s prison. But they should just be the beginning.

As we all know from personal experience, once the excitement dies down and the heat is off, it’s very easy to go back to the bad old ways. That can’t be allowed to happen.

State officials need to make sure these new recommendations and policies stick systemwide by stepping up outside state oversight.

The Inspector General or an organization under its authority should now regularly monitor the progress prisons are making in boosting oversight and security.

State officials no longer can just take the word of local prison officials that all procedures are being followed, that all equipment is being used to its full capacity, that new policies are actually working, and that all employees have been properly trained and are doing their jobs properly. We saw what happened when they do that.

State lawmakers also need to make sure the prisons have all the equipment and money they need to make the improvements. We don’t need any more desperate escaped murderers running around.

What if there’s another real-life Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz just waiting to happen again? If the state treats the Dannemora escape as an isolated incident, then a repeat of last year is only a matter of time.

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