New York jail break: staff member may have helped

Manhunt widens for two murderers following ‘Shawshank’-style jail escape

A manhunt for two convicted murderers who escaped in a dramatic prison break from a maximum security facility in upstate New York on Saturday entered a third day as investigators questioned a female prison worker amid suspicions that the prisoners received assistance.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that police were investigating whether Richard Matt (48) and David Sweat (34) were helped in their escape from a prison about 30km from the Canadian border by a civilian staff member or contractor.

Matt and Sweat were discovered missing during a 5.30am bed check on cells on Saturday in the first escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in the prison’s 150-year history.

In an escape reminiscent of the jail break in The Shawshank Redemption and the real-life escape from Alcatraz, the two men used dummies to dupe guards and cutting tools to burrow through their adjoining cells and to escape through a two-foot-wide steam pipe.

READ MORE

The men escaped through the pipe under the prison’s 30-foot walls and emerged through a manhole on a nearby neighbourhood street hundreds of metres from the external walls of the prison.

The inmates mocked guards, leaving a note on the cut pipe with a smiling face of an Asian caricature and the words: “Have a nice day!”

“I would be shocked if a guard was involved, and that’s putting it mildly,” Mr Cuomo told news channel CNN. “But we’re looking at the civil employees now and the private contractors to see if possibly if a civil employee or contractor was assisting the escape because they wouldn’t have equipment on their own.”

Law enforcement officials are struggling to trace the men as they use helicopters and bloodhounds to help with the search around the small village of Dannemora, which has a population of 4,000.

Mr Cuomo issued a warning describing the men as "extremely dangerous". Police have set up roadblocks throughout the region and notified police in Canada and Mexico about the fugitives.

“If you are in the immediate area, you feel safe,” said the Democratic governor. “But can I assure the people of the rest of the state? No. They could literally be anywhere in the country.”

New York state authorities have taken the unusual step of offering a $100,000 (€89,000) reward for information leading to the capture of the men.

Matt was serving a sentence of 25 years to life for kidnapping, killing and dismembering his former boss in 1997, and Sweat had been sentenced to life without parole for the 2002 killing of a deputy sheriff.

Dubbed “Little Siberia” because of its remote location in the Adirondack Mountains, the prison is a five-hour drive from New York City and holds about 3,000 inmates, making it the largest in the state. Opened in 1845, the facility is the state’s third oldest prison.

Almost 90 per cent of inmates at Clinton Correction Facility, which is among the toughest prisons in the state, have been convicted of violent crimes, according to statistics cited by the New York Times.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent