'Escape at Dannemora': Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell's journey from pleading 'not guilty' to landing in prison
It was through Joyce Mitchell's confession that the biggest secret catalyst helping Richard Matt and David Sweat break out of the facility was revealed
Ben Stiller has done a marvelous job at toning down the sensationalization of the infamous 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility, New York prison break through his on-screen adaptation of the true-crime story in his Showtime production 'Escape at Dannemora'. But no amount of pacing out the action and making the seven-part limited series mostly about the planning could reduce the added sensational aspect of prison employee Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell being involved in a love triangle between the escaped inmates, Richard Matt and David Sweat.
It was through her confession and the explicit details she provided that the biggest secret catalyst helping Matt and Sweat break out of the facility was revealed.
Tillie (played by Patricia Arquette on the show), was roped into the plan under manipulation from Matt (Benicio del Toro) in exchange for the similar prison room sex, that she was also indulging in with Sweat (Paul Dano) — and her testimony leading the investigation to the convicted murders also, in turn, led to her being incarcerated.
The show also does a brilliant job in successfully narrating the entire incident — thorough with the planning, the manipulation, the big escape, and the eventual consequences — through Tillie as she is being interrogated by state investigator Catherine Scott (Bonnie Hunt.) Clad in prison outfits, Tillie's demeanor as she spills the details is almost ambivalent, sort of like an attempt at setting things right out of some conscience, perhaps.
But there's also a certain hint of hesitation in her tone as if she's trying to keep her own self from being accused. And that is exactly how the incident went down in real life. Her instincts weren't entirely wrong, as she did end up getting convicted on a felony charge of promoting prison contraband and a misdemeanor charge of criminal facilitation, but what's interesting is the way she chose to go about divulging the details.
In real life, Tillie's testimony arrived just a day after Matt and Sweat successfully tunneled out of the facility, using tools provided by Tillie over the period of Matt manipulating her with sex and compassion, and Sweat contributing to it too. It started with her voluntarily giving up information to investigators once she failed to follow up with the escape plan, that demanded her picking Matt and Sweat up right after they had managed to burrow out.
In Tillie's recount of the plan, she smuggled in hacksaws inside packages of frozen hamburger meat, which Matt and Sweat later used to cut through the steel cell walls and also a 24-inch steam pipe, before sliding out through the prison through its piping and ventilation system. But she herself failed to arrive with supplies to kill her own husband, Lyle Mitchell (Eric Lange), and dispose of his body the night the inmates escaped. The three were supposed to meet up and run away together, but Tillie had a last minute panic attack and changed her mind, spending the night at the hospital instead.
In her testimony to authorities, Tillie spoke about Sweat and Matt and the trio's budding bond, quite explicitly. "Sweat was a good worker and was always very nice to me. We became close but never had a physical relationship," she told in her confession, as reported by CNN at the time. "Inmate Sweat was really close to inmate Matt. They were always together and shared everything. Inmate Matt and I got along well. We talked every day and he treated me with respect and was nice to me. He made me feel special."
But she also shared that after a point, Matt got sexually aggressive and used force on her. "Matt grabbed me and kissed me. It startled me," she said, adding: "I didn't say anything because I was scared for my husband, who also works in the facility." According to Tillie, Matt also forced her to perform oral sex on him (which she admittedly did) and also made her aggressively touch his penis.
She also had a very self-righteous way to explain the smuggling in of contraband, and how it was all Matt's elaborate plan to kill her husband. "He initially told me it (the hacksaw she smuggled in) was for making frames, but I later found out that (Sweat and Matt) had cut a hole in the wall and were going down into the pipes."
She added, "Sometime around this time, I also bought them batteries for the glasses I had given them. I found out about the hole because inmate Matt was coming into work tired. I asked him about sleeping and he said he was up all night. After a couple days, he told me he and inmate Sweat had cut the holes and were going down in the pipes."
As for Lyle's murder plan, Tillie spilled that when she was supposed to pick the inmates up, she was also asked to bring along a shotgun with her. "The day they (Sweat and Matt) were supposed to escape I was supposed to give my husband, Lyle, 2 pills. These pills were intended to knock Lyle out so I could leave the house."
After she picked them up, they were supposed to drive to her home as Matt was going to "kill 'the glitch'" aka, Lyle. But things didn't quite turn out like that, as Tillie revealed: "I really do love my husband and he's the reason I didn't meet."
But even after she explained how sorry she was for doing whatever she did because she "enjoyed the attention" that Matt and Sweat gave her and "the thought of a different life", she couldn't evade the law. She was eventually sentenced to up to seven years in prison and has been denied parole twice since. As for the escaped inmates, the two tried running through the New York wilderness after their June 6, 2015, escape and survived for a while largely by breaking into roadside cabins before they went their separate ways. After a $23 million manhunt and investigation that panned out over three weeks, Matt was finally shot and killed at sight, and Sweat was shot and taken into custody and is now carrying out his sentence.