Inside The Dannemora Prison Escape

Media consumers seem to love a good prison break story. A well-executed escape plan has been central to the plots of scores of films over the years, as well as countless books. There's a reason why "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Great Escape" have captivated movie audiences for decades, and why novels like "The Count of Monte Cristo" are still in print today. The excitement of the jailbreak is a reverse heist, of sorts. Instead of free criminals plotting to get into a secure location, incarcerated cons are following a carefully orchestrated set of plans to get out. 

One of the most publicized prison breaks in history was the infamous Alcatraz break in 1962. That year, three men filed their way out of their cells and into the inner labyrinth of service areas and ventilation shafts of "The Rock" before making their way to the roof. They were able to leave the island on a makeshift raft, constructed from raincoats, and were never seen or heard from again (via History). 

The circumstances in the Alcatraz prison break are similar to another case that occurred decades later in a remote corner of New York state. In 2015, two convicted murderers, aided by a female corrections officer, were discovered missing from their prison cells in the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. As the search for the two escapees would unfold, it would evolve into one of the most expensive manhunts in the history of the state and involve hundreds of law enforcement officers. 

2 murderers get some inside help

Joyce Mitchell was in charge of the sewing shop at the prison when she met David Sweat (per the New York Post). Sweat was a convicted cop-killer and had been sent to the Clinton Correctional Facility to serve out a life sentence without parole for killing Broome County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia in 2002 (via Investigation Discovery). Officer and convict soon began an affair, which ended abruptly when the New York Post reports that Sweat was transferred from the shop when rumors of the relationship got back to prison officials. Mitchell soon found herself involved with a new prison beau, however, when she was introduced to Richard Matt. 

Matt was a convicted murderer who was in the middle of serving a sentence of 25 years to life for the dismemberment of a business associate in 1997 (via Investigation Discovery). Matt used his charm to eventually talk his new corrections officer friend into doing him special favors. One of these included smuggling in tools to aid in a future escape attempt. 

Matt worked with Sweat on an elaborate escape attempt that would see the men use smuggled hacksaw blades to cut their way out of the back of their prison cells. On the night of their break, the men piled clothing under their blankets to make it look as though they were asleep on their cots. They wiggled through the holes they cut and navigated the interior of the vast prison. They were able to make their way to the roof, and shimmy down six stories to the ground. 

The manhunt begins

After gaining access to a system of tunnels, they emerged from the inside via a manhole cover (via Investigation Discovery). When their absences were discovered, the search was on. The dragnet in upstate New York would eventually involve nearly 1,000 trained officers and cost an estimated $1M per day. 

It wouldn't take long for authorities to realize that Sweat and Matt had help from the inside. Six days after their escape, Mitchell was arrested — and she talked. She was to meet the pair at a rendezvous point and drive them away but she backed out at the last minute. In a statement given to police, she revealed that the plan was to first go to her home and have her husband killed before she and Sweat went their way and Matt went his. 

Despite Mitchell's no-show, Sweat and Matt got distance between themselves and the prison. They separated, allowing federal officers to corner Matt in a remote cabin some 30 miles away. He had been spotted firing a shotgun at a passing car, leading the heat to him. He refused to drop his gun and was shot in the head three times, per NBC News. He was legally intoxicated at the time of his death, according to Investigation Discovery. 

Sweat was found days later, just over the U.S./Canadian border, The New York Times reported. Police shot him twice, but were able to take their prisoner alive. He had additional time added to his life sentence for the escape. Mitchell was sent to prison on several charges and sentenced to serve a max of seven years for her part in the escape.