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Inmates and parolee file lawsuit against NY state prison officials following high-profile escape from Dannemora

06 Dec 2023, Jail News, by

Convicted murderers and a parolee take legal action against NY state prison officials post-Dannemora prison escape.

Inmates and parolee file lawsuit against NY state prison officials following high-profile escape from Dannemora - Inmate Lookup

A group of five convicted murderers and a parolee is taking legal action against NY state prison officials, alleging the violation of their constitutional rights in the aftermath of the 2015 escape of inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat from maximum security prison Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

In a trial that commenced on Monday in U.S. District Court in Syracuse, the men argue that two officials from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision infringed on their rights to due process and, in one instance, their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. This occurred when the prisoners were moved from the maximum-security Dannemora prison to the maximum-security Upstate Correctional Facility in Franklin County.

The state’s attorneys contend that the transfer was part of the investigation and witness interviews related to the Clinton Correctional Facility escape.

Plaintiffs include Anthony Mack, 53, who was paroled in 2021 after serving time for attempted robbery in Manhattan; Steven Armento, 66, who shot and killed off-duty New York City Police Detective Daniel Enchautegui in 2005 while committing a burglary with actor Lillo Brancato; Bernardo Martinaj, 46, and Scott Ross, 55, convicted of separate murders in Manhattan in the early 2000s; and Phillip Copeland, 57, one of the defendants who murdered NYPD Officer Edward Byrne in Queens in 1988.

The claim related to religion comes from Charles Toland, a notorious Schenectady killer serving 55 years to life. He alleges he was wrongly denied the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Toland was convicted of the 1995 murder of Jackie Polomaine and the 1994 murder of Paulette Dempster.

With the exception of Mack, all the plaintiffs are currently serving life imprisonment sentences, and Armento is serving life without parole. They are taking legal action against Donald Uhler, superintendent at Upstate Correctional Facility, and Joseph Bellnier, who served as DOCCS’ deputy commissioner of correctional facilities at the time and is now retired.

Jury selection began on Monday in the civil case before Chief U.S. District Judge Brenda Sannes. The case revolves around the weeks following Matt and Sweat’s escape in June 2015. During this time, the six plaintiffs were in the same “honor block” at Clinton Correctional Facility. State Police and DOCCS investigators interviewed inmates in this block, leading to the transfer of the six inmates to Upstate Correctional Facility. They were placed in a special housing unit and stayed there for a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of 32 days before being moved to other prisons.

The state argues in a trial brief that the transfer was intended to prevent contact with potential witnesses. The state attorneys stated in a filing on November 6 that the evidence presented during the trial would establish that the plaintiff’s claims against the NY state prison are without merit.

Upon arrival at Upstate, the six inmates had no personal property. Uhler directed the provision of clothing, toiletries, soap, and supply carts, granting access to writing materials and sick calls. The attorneys mentioned the availability of a grievance office and noted that Toland had access to religious items, including a Quran.

The inmates insist they were denied the basic human services outlined in state regulations. According to them, the transfer resulted in the loss of essential services, including medical care, medication, writing implements, mail stamps, grievance forms, and, in the case of Ross, clothes.

Alan D. Levine, the Queens attorney representing the inmates, asserted in a trial brief that each of the inmates is ready to testify about being deprived of fundamental human services mandated by state regulations.

Three weeks after the escape, Matt was shot and killed by a U.S. Border Patrol team, while Sweat was captured by state police. This high-profile escape became the basis for the 2018 Showtime miniseries Escape from Dannemora.