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After Prison Break In New York, Viral Video Raises Questions

The nationwide manhunt continues for two convicted murderers who escaped earlier this month from a maximum security prison in New York. At the same time, a viral video is raising new questions about security at the prison in Dannemora.

This story begins with a pair of observant viewers who video taped a Fox News broadcast on their TV in the days after this prison break began.

In the Fox segment, host Greta Van Susteren is interviewing a reporter on the scene in Dannemora, with the massive white walls of Clinton Correctional Facility, the guard towers and the village's main street visible in the background. Then the viewers point out something strange.

"There's a person in the background with a red bag," the man making the video says, "walking across the street in the background. The newscaster's reporting, and they walk over to the prison wall."

The person, wearing civilian clothes and a dark jacket, can be seen climbing the steps under one of the guard towers.

Civilians and journalists have been warned away from that area since Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped. But in the video, the person in the dark jacket isn't stopped, and the observant viewers are clearly flabbergasted by what happens next.

"Somebody lowers a rope," the man in the video narrates, "and pulls the bag up, so you can see the bag going up the wall there, OK, right on TV!"

The entire process isn't visible in the video, but you can clearly see the bag being hoisted up the wall. This at a time when this maximum security prison was in lock-down with a tense manhunt underway.

It is important to say this clearly had nothing to do with the escape of these two inmates. But the video went viral, with more than 5 million hits, sparking a lot of questions and debates and even mockery about just how secure this prison is.

"You have to see this before we go," Fox host Greta Van Susteren says, in a later broadcast, "because we're getting so many viewer emails, tweets and Facebook messages right now."

The video also sparked an angry response on social media from corrections officers and their families. They say that using ropes to hoist lunches, carry-out food and other supplies to guards working long shifts in the tower is a long-standing tradition at Clinton-Dannemora. A tradition that they say doesn't threaten security.

Two restaurant operators confirmed to NPR that they had delivered carry-out lunches to guards in this way in the past. They wouldn't agree to be interviewed on tape or let their names be used because they don't want to risk losing business they get delivering food to prison employees.

NPR also sent repeated requests to state officials in New York's corrections department to find out if this activity is considered normal and safe. They declined to comment.

But it seems certain that practices like this, some in place for decades, will now face close scrutiny. Two investigations are already underway to determine whether security lapses at Clinton-Dannemora prison allowed the two convicted murderers access to power tools they needed to cut their way out.

Copyright 2015 NCPR

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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