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PLS Executive Director Speaks Out on Clinton Escape - PLSNY
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PLS Executive Director Speaks Out on Clinton Escape

June 15, 2015

Notoriety and Scorn Shadow Clinton Prison, Michael Winerip, New York Times, June 7, 2015

The two men who escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility in the village of Dannemora, N.Y., were still at large early Sunday afternoon. CreditGabe Dickens/Press-Republican, via Associated Press

Clinton Correctional Facility, the state prison where two men serving murder sentences were discovered missing on Saturday morning, is a tough place to do hard time.

Nearly 90 percent of inmates at the maximum-security prison have been convicted of violent crimes, compared with an average of two-thirds statewide. They are serving minimum sentences of 13 years on average, more than twice the systemwide rate.

The two men who escaped from Clinton, Richard W. Matt and David Sweat, were still at large on Sunday. They were convicted of murder in separate cases in different parts of the state and at Clinton lived in neighboring cells, according to state officials. Mr. Matt, 48, was serving a sentence of 25 years to life with no chance of parole before 2032; Mr. Sweat, 34, was serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Nicknamed Little Siberia, the prison is in the village of Dannemora, which has a population of about 4,000 and is roughly 25 miles from Canada’s border. For inmates and their families, Clinton is foreign territory, a five-hour drive from New York City.

Richard MattCreditNew York State Police, via Associated Press

About three-quarters of the prisoners are black or Latino, while none of the 929 corrections officers are black and five are Hispanic, according to a recent report by the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit inmates’ advocacy group authorized by the state to inspect prisons.

“Clinton is one of the last places you’d want to be in the state system,” said Jack Beck, director of the Prison Visiting Project at the association, who has visited most of the state’s prisons. “Among incarcerated people it is notorious.”

From 2000 to 2014, more prisoners at Clinton have committed suicide, a total of 23, than at any other state prison except the Elmira Correctional Facility in Chemung County, which had 27, according to state figures.

David SweatCreditNew York State Police, via Associated Press

With about 3,000 inmates, Clinton is the largest prison in the state and the third oldest. It opened in 1845.

A recent survey of 610 Clinton prisoners by the correctional association found that more than three-quarters described racial harassment as common, and more than half said there were frequent fights among inmates. During the 1990s, 17 inmates who said they were beaten by guards either won or settled lawsuits against the state.

Karen Murtagh, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, said reported cases of brutality by guards had been more sporadic in recent years. A few years ago, she said, her lawyers represented several inmates who had been wrongfully accused of taking part in a melee in the prison yard. After appeals, their infractions were dismissed.

Escaping from ‘Little Siberia’

Two inmates managed to cut a hole in a pipe inside the prison and slither through it to emerge from a manhole on the street a block away.

Ms. Murtagh, who grew up in the area, said, “It is depressing to drive through a place where the prison is the essence of the town.”

That is not how many of the residents see things. When they look at Clinton, first and foremost, they see jobs. The 11 state prisons along Canada’s border are the biggest employers in their towns.

Every year or two, when governors propose shutting down prisons as a budget saver, the North Country’s representatives rally to defend the institutions. It is not uncommon for several generations of local families to have worked inside Clinton.

The official website of the Village of Dannemora describes the purpose of the prison this way: “Clinton Correctional Facility serves not only as a place of employment, but as part of a longtime family livelihood tradition.”

Correction: June 7, 2015
An earlier version of this article, using information from state officials, misstated the year that Clinton Correctional Facility opened. It was 1845, not 1865.
Correction: June 14, 2015
An earlier version of this article, using information from state officials, misstated the ages of Richard Matt and David Sweat. Mr. Matt is 48, not 49. Mr. Sweat was 34, not 35, at the time of publication. (He has since had a birthday.)

A version of this article appears in print on June 8, 2015, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Notoriety and Scorn Shadow a Prison.