Chisels, hacksaw blades: How N.Y. prison worker helped murderers escape

Prison worker Joyce Mitchell has been charged with providing tools escaped murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat used to escape from prison. Hundreds of law enforcement officers are involved in the search, now in its second week.

Mike Groll/AP
Law enforcement officers walk along Route 3 on Saturday in Saranac, N.Y. Hundreds of law enforcement personnel have begun an eighth day searching for David Sweat and Richard Matt, two killers who used power tools to cut their way out of Clinton Correctional Facility.

The hunt for two escaped murderers in upstate New York continues into its second week with no apparent progress. But the way in which Richard Matt and David Sweat were able to cut their way out of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, vanishing into the night, is becoming clearer.

In a classic story that seems straight out of Hollywood, they were given chisels and hacksaw blades by a prison worker who had become romantically involved with one of the prisoners, according to law enforcement officials.

Prison tailor shop instructor Joyce Mitchell was arraigned Friday night on a felony charge of promoting prison contraband and a misdemeanor count of criminal facilitation. "The defendant did intentionally ... and unlawfully introduce hacksaw blades, chisels, a punch and a screwdriver bit, dangerous contraband, into Clinton Correctional Facility," according to the criminal charge.

The contraband Ms. Mitchell is alleged to have provided did not include the power tools Matt and Sweat used to cut holes in their cell walls and a steam pipe before escaping through a manhole. Those items could have been provided by another accomplice or taken from contractors working at the prison.

That Ms. Mitchell had become so close to one of the prisoners that she agreed to help them did not come as a total surprise to prison authorities.

Within the past year, officials looked into whether she had improper ties to Mr. Sweat, who was serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff's deputy. The investigation didn't turn up anything solid enough to warrant disciplinary charges against her, according to Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie.

Mitchell is also suspected of providing the men with a cell phone and of making arrangements to have a car waiting for them when they escaped, but apparently abandoned the plan after suffering an anxiety attack, and they were left to flee on foot, the Albany Times Union reported.

Her husband and prison co-worker, Lyle Mitchell, is also under investigation, but has not been arrested or charged, authorities told CNN. He worked in the maintenance department at the tailoring block where Ms. Mitchell was employed.

The longer Matt and Sweat remain free, the more their case becomes anomalous. In recent years, the rate of successful prison escapes has dropped significantly.

Cases of long-sought fugitives are not unheard of – it took 56 years to find Frank Freshwaters, who escaped from a prison farm in Ohio in 1959 before being tracked down in Florida this month – but most escapees are quickly caught. Between January and March of this year, there were 14 prison escapes in Florida. All 14 resulted in recapture, nine of those within 24 hours.

While the state prison population has ballooned, escapes have continued to go down. In 1993, 14,305 prisoners (out of 780,357) escaped or simply walked away from work outside prison walls or other low-security situation. By 2012, that number had dropped to 2,538 escapees out of 1.35 million prisoners.

“With staffing cuts, it may seem counterintuitive that escapes have decreased,” the Discovery Channel reported last year. “Advances in security technology, however, have relegated most prison escapes to Hollywood. There are more cameras, and electric shock or ‘stun’ systems on fences. Better classification of prisoners has also lowered the number of escapes, experts said. Inmates in maximum security are locked down 23 hours a day. Inmates in a medium-security prison are monitored and escorted everywhere they go.”

Also, the deterrent of being caught – an extra sentence, and a move to a more secure prison – is too great for the vast majority of non-violent prisoners in jail for a short time to attempt to leave. For Matt and Sweat, who were serving long sentences – 25 years to life and life without parole, respectively – the impetus to try an escape may have been greater.

State police said Saturday there were no new leads and that the search would continue to target a triangular area of heavy woods southeast of the prison walls, the AP reported. Hundreds of law enforcement officials are involved in the search.

Joyce Mitchell has been transferred to the Rensselaer County Correctional Facility about 150 miles south of Dannemora, officials said, in order to avoid the distraction of having her in the vicinity of the manhunt for Matt and Sweat.

Her next court appearance is Monday. She faces eight years in prison if convicted.

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