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Posted: 2015-07-06 04:00:00
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Credit Adam Maida

It’s a good thing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a corruption inquiry at the maximum security prison in northern New York where prison workers smuggled in tools, including hacksaw blades, that helped two convicted murderers to escape last month.

The escape, from the Clinton Correctional Facility, shows how easy it is for guards and workers to bypass screening systems that are supposed to keep drugs, weapons and other contraband out of jails and prisons. This problem goes far beyond one horribly mismanaged prison in New York.

Controlling smuggling by corrections officers is difficult, because other officers either turn a blind eye to it or fail to enforce security protocols that are meant to prevent it. This problem was underscored in an alarming report issued last fall on New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex by the city’s Department of Investigation.

The report revealed that an investigator posing as a guard was able to smuggle large quantities of drugs, along with alcohol and a razor blade, into the Rikers complex. The undercover investigator was able to walk into all six of the Rikers jails he attempted to enter with the pockets of his cargo pants bulging with heroin, pain killers and marijuana.

In reviewing videotape of shift changes, investigators saw uniformed guards walking through metal detectors carrying plastic bags that had not been scanned with the X-ray machine.

The report said that weapons and narcotics remained easily available to any inmate with enough money to pay for them. Mark Peters, the commissioner for the Department of Investigation, added that officers and civilian staff members often did not sell the drugs directly to inmates but served as couriers, shuttling contraband between people on the outside and the inmates for a fee. The department recommended more measures to prevent illegal conduct by guards, like placing drug sniffing dogs at staff entrances and putting employee lockers outside the gates, to prevent civilian clothing and other items from ever entering the jail.

The problem at Rikers was also the case at the Clinton prison, where two prison employees have been criminally charged with smuggling in chisels, hacksaw blades and other tools to the inmates without any difficulty.

So far, a dozen Clinton prison workers have been placed on administrative leave, the superintendent has been replaced and tighter security measures like weekly cell inspections imposed. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also ordered the state inspector general to investigate what happened at Clinton.

The F.B.I. is on the right track in focusing on possible criminal conduct by employees and inmates, including drug trafficking. If the prison was so porous that it could allow in tools, more lucrative contraband could find its way in as well.

It makes sense for officials to look beyond the circumstances that led to the Clinton escape and beyond Clinton itself to other prisons in the system. These kinds of failures are not limited to New York. After all, it has often been shown nationally that when jails and prisons are awash in drugs, it’s because corrections officers are at the root of the problem.

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