Former Attica superintendent: Clinton escape ‘the perfect storm’

An employee leaves the Clinton Correctional Facility, Wednesday, June 17, 2015 in Dannemora, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

ATTICA, N.Y. (WIVB) — Jim Conway spent 38 years behind the walls at Attica Correctional Facility. He worked his way to the top, all the way from maintenance to superintendent. He retired about five years ago. He spent some time with News 4 to describe what it’s like inside a maximum security prison.

“This job is not for the faint of heart, it’s not for everyone. You’re dealing with the most difficult element that society has to offer,” Conway said. “Attica has always had the reputation of not being a reward type facility. You don’t come here for doing well somewhere else.”

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Jim Conway was named Attica’s superintendent in March 2003. He describes himself as a prison brat, a legacy like so many in the small Wyoming County village of less than 3,000.247E225988364974B2DCA080661E7A57

He watched last month with unique interest the escape of David Sweat and Richard Matt.

“It’s every call that a warden or superintendent dreads,” he said. “You get a call that says the count is not correct.”

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has implemented a series of sweeping changes in the wake of Clinton Correctional Facility’s first escape in its 170-year history.

There have been budget crunch is in state government forever – Jim Conway

Among them, the honor block, where Matt and Sweat were housed, is gone until further notice. The honor block was a special area of the prison with looser restrictions for prisoners, rewarded to prisoners for good behavior.

Accountability started when nearly a dozen corrections officers and deputies were suspended, and the prison’s top two brass resigned.

“The difficult thing is, the job of a corrections officer could be very monotonous,” Conway said. “Day after day you do the same thing. We rely on routine here. Every day you’re doing the same thing over and over again and you can let your guard down. And unfortunately, that’s what happened.”

“It’s a fact of life and those places,” he added. “When they’re that big, and you rely so heavily on the daily routine, everything is the same, people get bored after awhile, they let their guard down.”

Escape path of Matt and Sweat, behind their cell walls
Escape path of Matt and Sweat, behind their cell walls

Conway says that complacency and lax practices likely led to the escape.

“The frisking of the cells, the packing of the inmates property, are the two least supervised things the corrections officers do.”

State regulations require cells to be tossed approximately once every two months. Had those regulations been followed, Sweat’s and Matt’s cells should have been checked three times while they sawing through steel with hacksaw blades, Conway said.

“The Clinton example was the perfect storm of escapes,” he said. “You take anyone of those elements, from the staff complacency, to the compromised staff, to the poor tool control, all of those elements played into that.”

The CSEA, which represents Clinton’s civilian employees, says it’s launching an investigation into whether reduced staffing aided the escape.

Conway says adding staff isn’t always the answer. The same goes for boosting budgets.

“There have been budget crunch is in state government forever,” Conway said. “As far back as I can remember.”

Conway said escapes are as rare as they are because the system — generally — works. But it only takes a series of small opportunities and time — both ample in prison — to make for such a costly error.

“It’s closing the barn door after the horse is gone,” he said. “It’s a sad blemish on the legacy of what was thought of as one of the most secure places in the state.” provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review. Note: Comments containing links are not allowed.

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