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N.Y. Inmates Hold Three Guards Hostage : Prison: Convicts rip through a recreation yard fence at a top security institution. Several other captured staff members are freed, officials say. BYJOHN J. GOLDMAN

May 29, 1991|TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Inmates at a new prison for New York state's most dangerous convicts ripped through a recreation yard fence and took six guards hostage Tuesday at the top security institution near Elmira, N.Y. Three of the hostages were later released.

State officials said the three released hostages were treated for injuries and one remained hospitalized with lacerations to the head and neck and other wounds.

State police said prisoners at the maximum security Southport Correctional Facility, northwest of New York City near the Pennsylvania border, broke out of individual cages in the recreation area of the prison about noon, then tore through portions of chain-link fences and freed other convicts.

Prison officials said about 50 inmates were involved in the disturbance. Roads leading to the facility were sealed by state policemen as a special corrections department SWAT team entered the penitentiary while hostage negotiators sought to persuade the prisoners to release the remaining guards.

A lawyer who said he represented some of the inmates told an Elmira television station that the prisoners were demanding better medical care, improved visiting rules and protection from what they charged were abusive guards.

The inmates held the prison's recreational area and an adjoining cellblock, and the situation was considered so sensitive that prison officials discouraged television crews from photographing the area where the guards were seized.

Southport holds about 750 prisoners from throughout New York state, the majority of whom have committed crimes while behind bars ranging from murder to assault and drug dealing.

Their 23 hours of daily confinement in cells has allowed the Administration of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo to cut staffing at the facility in the face of New York state's budget crisis. About 270 guards have been laid off statewide, and corrections union officials have been issuing warnings about potential violence in a penal system that has grown from 29,000 inmates in 1983 to more than 55,000.

State Assemblyman Daniel Feldman, chairman of the New York state Assembly's Corrections Committee, said when he visited the facility earlier in May that only one guard was assigned to supervise 50 to 60 inmates while they exercised in their cages in the yard.

Feldman said that after his visit he wrote a memo on May 8 to Corrections Commissioner Thomas Coughlin warning that understaffing at the prison created "a tremendous potential" for the taking of hostages or violence.

James Flateau, a spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services, said 600 of Southport's inmates were considered serious security risks and were held in special disciplinary units.

The corrections department spokesman said that because of the budget crisis, 42 of Southport's 234 guards were laid off this spring during the prison's conversion to a maximum security facility.

Inmates sent to Southport because of serious infractions at other institutions are confined to 6-by-10-foot cells.

The worst prison riot in the nation occurred in New York state in September, 1971, at the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo. During the four-day uprising, 43 people were killed--32 inmates and 11 correctional officers. Most of the deaths occurred when state policemen stormed the facility while a helicopter hovering over the prison yard dropped tear gas on convicts holding guards hostage.

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