Gabe Dickens/The Press-Republican/AP
Prison employee Joyce Mitchell is escorted out of the Plattsburgh City Courthouse following her arraignment in New York Friday. She was charged with a felony for smuggling contraband to escapees David Sweat and Richard Matt.

After New York prison break: How can employee-inmate relationships be avoided?

Prosecutors charged Dannemora prison tailor Joyce Mitchell with aiding the escape of two inmates, help that was reportedly prompted by romantic feelings she had for one of them. How can relationships between prisoners and workers be avoided?

Joyce Mitchell thought it was love.

That’s what investigators learned last week as they questioned the prison tailor over her role in the brazen June 6 prison escape of convicted killers David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. The two men have so far evaded capture.

Mr. Matt charmed her, said Ms. Mitchell, a married 51-year-old. He made her feel “special.”

Mitchell was charged with a felony Friday for smuggling the inmates some of the tools they used to break out of the Clinton Correctional Facility 10 days ago. If convicted, she faces up to eight years behind bars. She has pleaded not guilty.

But as Mitchell headed back into court Monday, news surfaced that apart from her apparent affections with Matt, she had also been previously investigated for sexual misconduct with Mr. Sweat, NBC News reported.

The pair’s escape is one of the longest in New York history, triggering a relentless international search that now includes more than 800 officers. As the hunt continues, many are wondering how something like this could happen.

While romantic relationships between prison employees and prisoners are illegal in all states, hundreds of consensual relationships between guards and inmates are documented each year in American prisons, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of all the incidents involving staff sexual misconduct, more than half were committed by female staffers, CNN reported

The National Institute of Corrections extends its jurisdiction on sexual misconduct even to those one might not typically consider “staff,” such as prison volunteers or vendors. People working in prisons are not allowed to have sexual relationships with inmates or “any of the offender’s family members,” according to the Correctional Officers’ Handbook, published by the Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections.    

Indeed, many of the reports from 39 states on prison staff sexual abuse compiled by the nonprofit magazine Prison Legal News highlight problems of extortion and abuse of power that accompany such relationships, with some guards allegedly making threats to prisoners to restrict their recreation time or write them up for disciplinary action if they didn’t comply. A Justice Department report from 2009 found that prison officials are more likely to neglect their duties and subvert security policies to conceal illegal relationships.

Officers afraid of being “in danger of having an inappropriate relationship with an offender” are advised to tell a supervisor and request help, or in some cases may even request a transfer of post or of the offender, according to the handbook.

Maintaining comity among the staff, limiting overcrowding and caseloads, and making sure that prison facilities are adequately staffed can also help prevent the risk of improper relationships, according to national guidelines.

The handbook also urges correctional employees at the limits of professional boundaries to carefully deliberate ethical questions. “Ask yourself, ‘What would a headline in a newspaper look like if they were covering this story?’ If the headline looks or feels bad or is one you would be ashamed to show your friends or family, the decision or action is probably not a good one."

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