On June 5, 2015, convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in northern New York. For 22 days, the fugitives flew under the radar as officials conducted a massive, coordinated manhunt. The search came to an end after a shootout with law enforcement on June 26, 2015, that left Matt dead and a wounded Sweat in police custody two days later.
“These two were violent men,” former New York Police Department sergeant Joseph Giacalone tells A&E True Crime. “The biggest concern was if they ran into someone while trying to escape, like if they tried to carjack somebody, that it would’ve probably ended in violence.”
Matt and Sweat’s prison break has been described as “brazen” and “elaborate,” the first escape from the highest security section of the Clinton facility in 100 years. The duo used hacksaw blades and other tools to cut through their cell walls and tunnel their way to freedom. But they did not act alone. At the heart of their operation was Joyce Mitchell, a prison employee who engaged in a love triangle with the inmates and aided their breakout.
From Prison Supervisor to Groomed Accomplice
Mitchell, who sometimes went by the nickname “Tilly” or “Tillie,” was hired by the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2008 as an industrial training supervisor within the prison’s apparel manufacturing division. In 2013, she transitioned to Tailor Shop 1, where she worked until the day of the prison break. Her husband, Lyle, was also employed as a civilian at the facility.
[Watch Lifetime’s Cellmate Secrets: Joyce Mitchell]
In 2012, co-workers began noticing Mitchell’s inappropriate interactions with inmates who worked in the shop, especially her behavior around Matt and Sweat.
“[Mitchell] treated them more as an employee or a friend. She didn’t keep the distance,” one co-worker later testified.
Inmates are known for grooming prison staff, which they refer to as “downing the duck,” in the hopes of getting special treatment and favors. At their prompting, Mitchell began providing Matt, who brutally murdered his former boss in 1997, and Sweat, who killed a sheriff’s deputy in 2002, with food and facilitating calls to Matt’s daughter.
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“When you’re dealing with criminals, especially these two guys, you’ll find they’re [typically] pretty manipulative,” says Giacalone. “They paid [Mitchell] attention and, from there, they got her to do things.”
Mitchell engaged in numerous sexual encounters with Matt inside the tailor shop and provided Sweat with nude photos of herself. Matt led Mitchell to believe they were in love.
“I was caught up in the fantasy,” she told NBC News in 2015. “I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me, and the thought of a different life.”
Mitchell Agrees to Aid Escape But Gets Cold Feet
Sometime around January 2015, Matt and Sweat began devising a plan to escape and approached Mitchell for help. They also discussed a plot to kill her husband.
“They introduced the notion to [Mitchell], after developing and cultivating this relationship over many months, that they were considering escaping and would like to take her with them and make her part of their long-term post-escape plan,” retired New York State Police Major Charles Guess tells A&E True Crime. Guess led the manhunt and wrote about the search in his book Relentless Pursuit.
Mitchell smuggled hacksaw blades, chisels and other contraband into the prison, concealed in frozen meat, which Matt and Sweat used to carve holes in their cell walls. For the next three months, they crawled down several catwalks into the sewer system and broke through pipe, brick and other obstacles until they had their escape route tunneled out beneath the prison. They planned to exit through a manhole, located about 400 feet outside of the correctional facility in the village of Dannemora. Elements of the duo’s escape were noted in the media as reminiscent of a scene from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, where the main character escapes from prison via a tunnel and prison sewage pipe.
Mitchell had agreed to meet them in a getaway car stocked with guns, ammo, camping gear and a compass. Instead, on the day the Matt and Sweat went missing, Mitchell checked herself into a local hospital, claiming chest pains from “a case of nerves.”
“Mitchell became Plan A, B and C to facilitate the escape once Matt and Sweat cut their way out of the prison and popped their heads out of the manhole,” says Guess. “But she got cold feet, leaving them without [any solid] plan [beyond tunneling their way out].”
On an episode of Lifetime’s Cellmate Secrets about Mitchell’s case, Erik Jensen, a former inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility who worked with Mitchell, said not showing up to meet Matt and Sweat probably saved Mitchell’s life.
“[Mitchell] made a lot of bad decisions…but the smartest one was not showing up there that evening,” Jensen said. “That decision saved her life, I think. [Matt and Sweat] might have used her to get down to Mexico, but I think they were gonna dump her as soon as they could. She was too emotional, she was a loose end, and she would know where they were. So put all that together and that’s a recipe for murder.”
Mitchell Is Arrested Amid a Massive Manhunt
Matt and Sweat’s escape led to a massive manhunt through the Adirondacks near the Canadian border, involving more than 1,300 officers from local, state, federal and Canadian law enforcement agencies.
“This was very much a multi-agency response and, of course, we started talking with the media right off to get the word out and explain why we had to lock down Dannemora,” says Guess. “There were roadblocks everywhere and, in some cases, people were told they couldn’t leave their homes.”
Authorities began questioning Mitchell several days after the escape when all of the prison tools had been accounted for and officials speculated that a prison employee might’ve been involved. New York State Police arrested Mitchell on June 12, 2015, and charged her with “providing material assistance” to Matt and Sweat. She was arraigned on one felony charge of promoting prison contraband and one misdemeanor charge of criminal facilitation.
“This is by far the worst mistake I have ever made in my life. I live with regret every day and will for the rest of my life,” Mitchell, who pleaded guilty, told a judge during her sentencing hearing.
At the hearing in September 2015, Mitchell was sentenced to up to seven years in prison and ordered to pay $80,000 in restitution for damages incurred during the escape. Eugene Palmer, a correction officer who was friendly with Matt, also pleaded guilty to promoting prison contraband and was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $5,375.
According to a report by the inspector general, the search for Matt and Sweat cost the state of New York approximately $23 million in law enforcement overtime alone. The state also spent $573,000 to upgrade the Clinton Correctional Facility with additional security measures and repair the damage from the prison break.
“I don’t think anybody’s a victim in this. I think every player knew exactly what they were doing, and [Mitchell] just went too far and couldn’t stop the actions that she put into place,” Jensen said.
Where Is Joyce Mitchell Now?
On February 6, 2020, Mitchell was released from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York, to community supervision. She’ll remain in oversight until June 2022, at the home she shares with her husband, in Franklin County, near the Canadian border. (Lyle Mitchell visited his wife every other weekend throughout her sentence.)
Despite her self-professed remorse and good behavior while incarcerated, Giacalone believes Mitchell should’ve had a longer jail sentence.
“She helped release two bad individuals into the public. They would’ve done anything to stay out of prison. She’s fortunate nobody else got hurt,” he says.