Sometime on the night of June 5, two convicted murderers popped out of a sewer near Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York and started running. It took three weeks to stop them; the aftermath left one dead, and the other shot and recaptured. Two prison workers who aided that stunning escape might very well end up guests of the same penal system that once employed them: The guard (who bizarrely traded invaluable tools for paintings) was simply naive, but Joyce Mitchell, a civilian overseer in the prison’s tailor shop, was an active accomplice, and in some corners of the media, the biggest villain of them all.
The escape shook up the locked-away world of Clinton CF, in the quiet town of Dannemora; it was enough in fact to stir the turgid world of the Department of Corrections, where faxes still beep and overtime pay conforms to an obsolete stereotype. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2012 report a N.Y. C.O.’s average salary as $61,140, though the top 10 percent got a bump up to $85,330; the state spent $87 million on overtime costs that year. But when justice, morals, and the safety of society are at stake, who’s counting pennies? CNN, for one. The thousand men deployed to catch Richard W. Matt and David Sweat reportedly cost taxpayers a million dollars a day. Twelve members of Clinton’s staff, including the superintendent, are now suspended. With pay.
The part of New York we’re talking about was mostly dairy country once, but today, incarceration is the economic mainstay, with a dozen facilities built to house the state’s convicted and employ the northland men and women who once would have been farmers. Entire families work in prisons, spanning generations; Joyce’s husband works for Clinton, too. Matt and Sweat were unlikely to find any friends by ringing doorbells in Malone, the town where Matt was shot and killed last week. As for Sweat, who was apprehended in the town of Constable on Sunday, he’ll spend the rest of his life in a room without a view, and they’ll get the truth about his escape out of him one way or another. Even though it’s already clear how this was possible.
This has been a sordid, fascinating affair, starring two cunning murderers, half a U.S. Army brigade’s worth of armed lawmen, a cuckolded husband who might’ve had a contract out on his life, Governor Cuomo standing on a prison catwalk staring into the inmates’ vacated cell, a few hacksaw blades concealed in raw meat, some apparently quite valuable celebrity paintings, lurid tabloid hints that one of the escapees was well endowed, and a smitten woman now smeared in the press as a “dumpy granny” or a “Shaw-skank.” What it all proves is that even (or especially) in prison, love is a motherfucker.
Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell is the keystone. Neither the killers’ ingenuity nor the art-loving C.O.’s gullibility were enough on their own to spring anyone from that fortress. Whereas the Queen of the Tailor Shop, where all the prison employees’ uniforms are made by men paid 50 bucks for every 80 hours they work, could get it done as a double agent. She crossed the line with her body and her loyalty, which was temporarily ceded to two vicious killers. She claims she’s come back from the dark side now, ”ecstatic that the manhunt is over,” but back when the men made her feel like a woman again, Joyce was the third amigo, or musketeer, or stooge, depending on your perspective. She was the only one outside the perpetrators themselves who knew the plan, though probably not all of it. Keeping the inmates of Clinton on lockdown afterward to interrogate the other prisoners didn’t help; experienced convicts like Matt and Sweat knew not to trust anyone else.
Gene Palmer, a Corrections veteran with as many decades in as Matt, unfortunately lacked that savvy. The C.O. must have seen lots of cooking done on “stoves”: jerry-rigged heating coils repurposed from coffee machines and electric water heaters. In fact, he probably ate an occasional drumstick or calzone fried by a prisoner that way. Palmer must have also been familiar with these coil-stoves blowing cells’ fuses; during my own prison years, I had to ask my block cop to turn my power back on every time I tried to stir-fry. However, I fixed my problem permanently—wrapping a fuse in aluminum foil lets the current bypass it. It’s highly unlikely that Matt did not know this. Palmer thought he was bringing in tools for the two convicts he favored so they could wire their cells direct, instead of through the fuses, but had he followed the problem of flimsy and old prison wiring all the way to its solution, he likely would’ve given them his sandwich wrapping instead, and kept his pension and liberty.
But Palmer, now dismissed as a mere fool, is getting off easy compared to Joyce, who’s become entertainment for both the prurient, religious, and judgmental market (that whore!) and the kinky, lecherous, and horny crowd (that whore!). Her salary (a comfortable $60 grand) has been sneeringly reported countless times, but the media has also hounded her with an even more damning number: 51. Her age quickly became the new code for “desperate.” Quote: “The way I can describe it is in high school, when one of the good-looking jocks looks at the ugly girl or asks her to the prom—that look on her face. She was ecstatic.”
Of course, she did break the ultimate prison taboo. It goes without saying that commandments prohibiting employee-prisoner fraternization are handed down in both the inmate rule book and the C.O. Guidelines. A generation ago, the female contingent within the Department of Corrections was mostly relegated to the safety of offices, far from any even incidental contact with incarcerated men. This is no longer possible for cultural and practical reasons; women have been appointed superintendents of compounds for decades, and the Correctional Academy graduates more women now than ever before. One of its teachings is that every prisoner is capable of every crime, which is not a difficult statement to parse; it’s that sort of training that hardens the staff (civilian employees like Mitchell go through security courses, too) against building personal relationships with incarcerated human beings in favor of a professional attitude toward “packages,” the term used for an inmate transit. Below the rank of sergeant, officers are not even informed of what a package is in for, though the internet has made this rule obsolete. Officers’ first names are also kept secret, keeping convicts at a distance informally and further hardening the line. In the incarcerated world of blue uniforms versus “state greens,” the idea is to eliminate even the possibility of closeness of any kind. There’s hardly room for lust, let alone love.
I had sex hundreds of times in prison, but never with the staff; my wife came on dozens of conjugal visits. Not everyone was as lucky, even if they claimed otherwise. Over my own (now-completed) 10 years down for armed robbery, I heard so many fantasies and delusions that if even half were true, it would have doubled the incarcerated population in the absence of contraceptives. (Condoms are contraband.) Of all those stories told in yards and mess halls that resembled one-handed fantasies more than honest recollection, the grand total that I knew to be true was: two. The tragic ménage à trois now dominating New York’s headlines, in which Juliet trades places with the Romeos, adds a notch to my scrupulous tally as long as Joyce really confessed. That’s only three confirmed affairs in a decade. However, the ongoing Clinton CF scandal is never presented as a cautionary tale about the dangers and irrationality of love’s power. The romance of Joyce and Matt (or Joyce and Sweat, or both) is denigrated as either the base manipulation of a needy woman or a libertine’s payment for his treachery.
Funny. The two cases I personally knew of were both desperate love affairs composed of sacrifices and compromises, though no one escaped. The worst violation was the smuggling in of bodybuilder supplements (not even steroids) in one case, and money put into a commissary account in the other. To please the Romeos, one guard-Juliet brought the proteins that build the body she loved passionately (and frequently) in a lonely corner of a jailhouse kitchen. Looking at the photo, how could she resist? He was even in for steroids. Out now, he told me the story, but with so many unprintable details it’s not worth repeating. Suffice it to say it was passionate, dangerous, and heartwarming. The latter another word that’s not been used regarding Joyce.
The other incident involved a married convict who began a dalliance with an older nurse. I was personally splashed by the breast milk (pumped for their illicit child, called a “trailer baby” inside) his wife threw at him in the visiting room when he told her the truth. However, the authorities found out about that as well; nothing could be proven, but the nurse was given an ultimatum, and she chose to keep her job, while my friend was sent far away: almost as far as Dannemora.
Did love snare Joyce Mitchell? Genuine love, if not true love? It seems like no one’s asked; it’s an unpopular idea for an unpopular woman. In the press, she is so wicked that she’s not even allowed greed as a motivator, let alone legitimate affection. But we’ll never know the truth about her now—she’s buried too deep under speculation and allegation. Lately she’s been accused of plotting her husband’s murder, though not charged with it. She’ll be forever be remembered as a turncoat, though, whereas inside, she’ll be hailed as one of the most successful prison smugglers of all time.
Mitchell has so far pled not guilty to the charge of promoting prison contraband; the wording of New York’s state law S 205.25 may sound like the work of villainous (and eccentric) marketers and ad-men, but it is simply a way to say “smuggling” broadly enough to close any possible semantic loopholes. A year is the usual assumed sentence for this class-D felony in all of the 12 prisons I visited, even if the transgression is deemed serious enough to be “in the first”; committing this infraction “in the second” drops the classification to a misdemeanor with no possibility of state time. The topic interests the minority of inmates who receive regular visits, in that it’s a colossal hassle: My parents and wife visited about once a month apiece for the 123 months I spent paying my debt to society, and suffered various indignations for their trouble. My mother was refused entry for her overly provocative clothing, my wife was countlessly patted down for “random” drug tests, and my father never forgot the panicky day when four prisoners overdosed and the extra-cautious staff looked in every visitor’s mouth.
Which makes prison workers like Joyce the only option for many convicts in need of contraband. On top of the money, there is a social cachet to running “mules” (and preferably entire “stables”); talking a staff member “into your pocket” is just as respected by the upside-down jailhouse morality, and Joyce Mitchell has been presented as a victim of this kind. Inmates accustomed to manipulating for a living are naturally low on empathy: I listened to them practice minimizing the risk in preparation for convincing gullible female targets to smuggle for them. As a non-violent offense low on the scale, breaking the law against “introducing prison contraband” is a non-violent offense low on the scale. Even if convicted of it, you can reduce your sentence through “merit time,” “good time” (which is not the same thing), and other opportunities unknown to violent felons like Richard Matt and David Sweat. So it’s relatively low-risk for the one doing the smuggling, and the final gambit is always the same: Should the unthinkable happen, there is an easy out for the woman charged. All she has to do is tell the cops she was threatened with death and worse if she did not appease her merciless tormentor. When approached, the man usually admits it’s true, adding another felony and potentially years to his sentence. That’s how affairs of the heart work.
Maximum-security prisons like Clinton can hold more than 2,000 people, but hundreds of them have never been in the visiting room. Their bridges were burnt long ago. It seems Matt and Sweat had no one but Tillie; there does seem to be an officer who was close enough to them to be under suspicion now, but even Matt’s son slandered him on television. I doubt he visited much. A woman known for kindness—a woman like Mitchell—might have noticed that.
When Mitchell’s husband recently visited her in prison, just as I would visit my wife if she killed and ate the president or even voted Republican, he was mocked in the press. “Love is blind,” I read, thinking that someone finally noticed how far she seemed to have gone in its name. But the phrase referred to her husband instead, criticizing him for supporting his traitor-wife, the very one who made a cuckold of him. After the allegations of a plot to kill him appeared, he relented and announced that he no longer loved “Tillie.” Who is 51, by the way.
So now what? The consequences of the escape will be both enormous and meaningless. Things will be extra tough for Clinton CF prisoners for a while, and the brass will spend less time in their offices. The officers will be scared to even appear to trust an inmate in any way. More money will be wasted to secure the sewers or something. David Sweat will be in Administrative Segregation for the rest of his life, but he will also get a lot of mail and probably write a book. And then it will all go back to normal. Incarceration functions as long as the guards don’t see what’s in their cages as fellow human beings. And that is an unnatural state, because there are human beings on both sides of the bars. Tillie certainly saw Matt and Sweat as people instead of numbers or packages or whatever de-humanizing semantics are deployed. And people are built to love each other, at least for a while. The guards of Clinton and good citizens of Clinton County may not agree, but we’ve all heard that love conquers all. The same spark that lit this fire will burn again. The resulting inferno might even result in another prison break, someday. Because everyone knows that if you love something, set it free.
Daniel Genis is working on a memoir of his incarcerated reading life for Penguin/Viking, titled 1,046 for the number of books he read while in prison. You can also follow him on Twitter here and read his other work here.
Lead illustration by Jim Cooke (photo via Getty); inset photos by Getty.
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