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Prison questions

July 16, 2015
Editorial , Lake Placid News

We have some unanswered questions about how and why the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision decided to relieve 12 people of their duties at Clinton Correctional Facility, holding them responsible for two inmates' escape from the prison last month.

They were not fired, but the top-ranked one of them - Superintendent Steve Racette, who lives in Saranac Lake and is the community's reigning Winter Carnival king - was told to choose between demotion or retirement, according to his wife. He chose retirement and has filed for it with the state comptroller's office, records show. It takes effect July 31. The other two suspended administrators, whom DOCCS named - Deputy Superintendent Don Quinn and Deputy Superintendent of Security Stephen Brown - did not file for retirement between June 6 and July 8. Neither did seven of the nine others, as identified by the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh.

We understand we can't get all our questions answered at this point. We respect that there's a law blocking state agencies from sharing their employees' disciplinary history. A law is a law, even though we think this breakout was egregious and dangerous enough that the public's need to know who's responsible outweighs the guilty employees' right to privacy.

Also, we know we have to wait on some ongoing investigations to find out the whole story. The state inspector general's office is looking into how the escape happened and how it could have been prevented, and state police are handling the criminal probe.

Still, DOCCS knew enough to single out 12 staff members and put them on administrative leave. Therefore, we think it's time these questions were answered so the voters and taxpayers can assess how good a job their government is doing.

* What did these 12 Clinton staff members do, neglect or do insufficiently that allowed David Sweat and Richard Matt to break out of the maximum-security prison?

* Were these 12 the only DOCCS employees who could have done better to prevent this from happening? If not, how much more responsible were these 12?

* Did any policies that DOCCS controls from Albany weaken security at Clinton? If so, why wasn't anyone in Albany suspended?

* Superintendent Racette had only been in charge of Clinton for a year, but he had been with DOCCS for 37 years, rising steadily up the ranks in reward for what we presume was good service. Was he suspended simply because the escape happened on his watch, or was there something he did or neglected that made the escape more possible?

* DOCCS announced a long list of new rules and safeguards at Clinton Correctional last week, in light of the escape. How many of those procedures could have been enacted locally by that prison's officials before June 6? Which ones would have required approval from DOCCS in Albany?

* Is it true, as various prison employees have told news media, that Superintendent Racette requested a prison-wide "frisk," a search of every cell, after a big fight took place about a week before the breakout, but that DOCCS officials in Albany said no? Mr. Matt and Mr. Sweat's escape tools could have been found in such a cell search.

* What was Gov. Andrew Cuomo's role in the suspension, if any? Asked who ultimately made the decision, Ms. Foglia told us it came down to acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci. The governor is the commissioner's boss, however, and Gov. Cuomo made himself the face of this story, appearing repeatedly at press conferences and on TV shows. Did Gov. Cuomo have everything to do with hunting down the fugitives and nothing to do with the dirty work of disciplining staff? It seems unlikely. There's an old saying that excrement flows downhill from Albany.

We have plenty more questions, but those will do for now.

We hope Gov. Cuomo was not involved in this decision because he'd be far more likely to bend to a perceived short-term urge to fire people - to satisfy what Assemblywoman Janet Duprey called the "sharks" who demand a firing, even if it's a scapegoat. His guiding motives are political, not functional. She thinks the suspensions were premature.

We don't want to jump to conclusions. We want answers. We believe the state needs to do a better job of explaining to the public what it's doing up at Clinton prison, and why.

 
 

 

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