Inmates Allege Horrific Abuse Following Prison Escape in New York

August 12th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

After two convicted murderers tunneled through the prison walls and escaped on June 6 at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York—that is when the alleged abuse started, carried out by correctional officers against prisoners who were thought to have information about where the prisoners fled. The New York Times published an investigation on the reported abuse, detailing alleged violent interrogations and other forms of punishment used to coerce statements from inmates.

Though the prison has determined that certain correctional officers, not inmates, were responsible for the escape, that did not stop employees from taking it upon themselves to "investigate," The Times reported.

During the "campaign of retribution" that allegedly occurred in the weeks following the escape, at least 60 inmates have filed complaints with Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, an organization that offers assistance to prisoners who cannot afford legal representation, and 10 additional prisoners (members of an inmate council at Clinton) have made similar allegations in a letter addressed to state correctional officials. The stories of abuse, documented by The Times, are marked by beatings, confinement, and intimidation.

"We have been daily getting complaints along these lines from around the state," Michael Cassidy, a lawyer for Prisoners’ Legal Services, told The Times.

Not everyone who filed a complaint claimed to have endured the kind of punishment that Patrick Alexander did, but a common thread of abuse and excessive force runs through them nonetheless. Alexander worked in the tailor shop at Clinton, and on the night of the escape, he had worked late. He is a fellow convicted murderer and happened to live in an adjacent cell to the men who escaped—Richard Matt and David Sweat, the former who was tracked down and fatally shot by a federal agent on June 26 and the latter who was recaptured two days later—and that apparently made him a suspect. Hours after news of the escape got out, prompting pandemonium within the walls of Clinton, he was handcuffed and taken to a broom closet for questioning; that's where he says he was beaten.

"As the three guards, who wore no name badges, punched him and slammed his head against the wall, he said they shouted questions: 'Where are they going? What did you hear? How much are they paying you to keep your mouth shut?'" The Times reported. One of the guards put a plastic bag over his head and threatened to waterboard him, Alexander said.

Alexander was the inmate who made headlines on the day of the escape after New York governor Andrew Cuomo stopped by his cell and teased with a tough guy bravado, "Must have kept you awake with all that cutting, huh?" The exchange was captured on video, and though it happened well after the first blows and threats were delivered to the inmate, it serves as a reflection of the interrogatory approach taken by correctional officers and prison investigators to elicit information about the incident.

"I would be shocked if a correction officer was involved," Cuomo later said in an interview on Morning Joe.

On two separate occasions on the day of the escape, Alexander said he was interrogated by State police and investigators with the prison's inspector general's office. At one point, an official wearing a Crisis Intervention Unit jacket asked the inmate if he knew the difference between "this interview and those other interviews" and noted that there were only uniformed guards in the room.

"The officer jumps up and grabs me by my throat, lifts me out of the chair, slams my head into the pipe along the wall," he told The Times. "Then he starts punching me in the face. The other two get up and start hitting me also in the ribs and stomach."

They grilled him with questions after each blow; he continued to insist that he had no information for them; one officer reportedly pointed to a plastic bag that was hanging on pipes overhead and asked him if he knew what waterboarding was. Then he put the bag over Alexander's head and beat him some more. The same thing allegedly happened to inmate Victor Aponte, who also worked in the tailor shop. An officer known throughout the prison as "Captain America," named so because of the American flag tattoo he has on his neck, allegedly tied a plastic bag around Aponte's neck until he passed out.

But the abuse exacted against inmates did not end with physical violence. There were repercussions for those who did not comply—though they maintained that they had no details about the escape—and that included in-state transfers to different prisons where inmates who had earned certain privileges (the unit where the two prisoners escaped, and where Alexander, Aponte, and others lived, was known as the "honor block") would have to start over with nothing.

"In the two weeks after the escape, inmates from Clinton’s honor block were dispersed, many of them sent to solitary confinement at other prisons," the Times reported. "Some said they were beaten during their transfers by officers from the department’s Correctional Emergency Response Team, known as CERT."

"Mr. Alexander said that days after being beaten up, he was moved, first to the Upstate Correctional Facility in Franklin County and then to Shawangunk Correctional Facility. In the process, he said he lost his TV, his diaries, family photos and a decade’s worth of letters from his mother and aunt that he had laminated with packing tape for safekeeping."

It bears repeating: correctional officers, not inmates, were ultimately responsible for the escape. One guard pled guilty to aiding in the escape; another is currently facing criminal charges; nine other officers have been suspended from their duties pending an internal investigation; and the leadership of Clinton has been removed.

The Times investigation reveals some of the worst abuses that prison officials have been known to carry out, especially when correctional facilities come under administrative attention and national scrutiny, as was the case in the weeks following the escape. But what it really reveals is a pattern of coercion, intimidation, and violence—a pattern that exists beyond Clinton Correctional Facility and Rikers Island and affects the prison system nationwide.

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The corrections department released a statement following The Times' story. It said that inmate complaints "had been under investigation for several weeks" and that they had “also been referred to the state inspector general.”

The statement continued: “Any findings of misconduct or abuse against inmates will be punished to the full extent of the law."