The inmates were effectively running the asylum at Clinton Correctional Facility up until last year's prison break by murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt, which led to a massive three-week manhunt and exposed gaping security holes and glaringly obvious coziness with inmates.
A new report by the state Office of the Inspector General lays out in devastating detail how lax management and guards and prison workers too lazy to patrol cellblocks, search cells or personnel, report missing tools, or monitor workrooms allowed Sweat and Matt to execute their plot over the course of months, with the direct help of a horny tailor shop supervisor and a crooked guard, among others.
Based on interviews with 170 people, including jailers, inmates, and administrators, as well as with Sweat, who state police shot and recaptured 40 miles from the upstate prison, the report's authors skewer the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for "longstanding, systemic failures in management and oversight" that allowed the escape.
Among those failures, during the close to three months' worth of nights that Sweat spent exploring the tunnels beyond the hole he'd cut in the back wall of his cell and hacking through pipes and bricks, guards were supposed to have been checking his cell multiple times per night. Instead, it seems, guards logged false head-counts ahead of their nights' shifts, during which they actually did next to nothing. The report authors found that more than 400 inmate bed checks should have happened while Sweat was sawing away, "any one of which, if conducted properly, would have detected Sweat’s absence and instantly foiled the escape plot."
If guards did patrol, they didn't check to ensure that they could see Sweat's skin or that he was breathing—if they had, they would have noticed that the body in his bed was a dummy consisting of a pair of pants and a hoodie seemingly stuffed with other fabric.
Also, though the prison is supposed to have a system of random cell searches, Sweat's cell was never searched in the year prior to his escape, while some other inmates had their cells searched as many as nine times. The review notes that Sweat's cell came up as one to be targeted, but for whatever reason guards chose to go elsewhere. What's more, a guard reported searching Matt's cell, but it's not clear the search ever happened. Sweat and then-correction officer Gene Palmer, a crony of the inmates, both say they don't remember such a search. The guard who reported Matt's cell search, if it happened, failed to notice the 18.5x14.5 inch hole in the wall, covered by the detached piece of wall and painted tape.
Similarly, guards doing weekly scheduled inspections missed the holes in the walls, and required weekly inspections of the cells' outside walls, along catwalks that were supposed to only be accessible by prison staff, were apparently never done.
"Unquestionably, thorough searches and inspections would have discovered the holes in both cells and stopped the escape," the report's authors wrote.
David Sweat, left, and Richard Matt; Sweat was serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff's deputy in Broome County. Matt was serving 25 years for killing his boss.
To be sure, Sweat and Matt couldn't have done it without the hands-on assistance of Palmer and Joyce Mitchell, the civilian tailor shop supervisor. As early as 2012, one supervisor noticed that Mitchell "didn't keep the distance with inmates." A subsequent supervisor called her an "inmate lover," which proved to be prescient, as Mitchell went on to have sexual relationships with the escapees-in-the-making and entertain the idea of having them kill her husband as part of an escape to Mexico as a trio.
"I will visit with the guys," Mitchell told investigators. "It’s like you get a rapport with them because you are in that same room with them every day of the week," she added.
Multiple complaints regarding Mitchell's behavior with Sweat and Matt—disappearing into a spare parts room with Sweat for 3-5 minutes at a time multiple times a week, spending nearly all of her shift talking at Matt's work station rather than overseeing inmates' work—failed to result in meaningful consequences for any of the three, or to keep them apart, despite multiple investigations. Both inmates remained housed in a cellblock with special privileges including extra storage space and longer recreation times, and Mitchell remained in charge of her tailor shop.
In that capacity, Mitchell took advantage of the lax security at the front gate (guards didn't search or use metal detectors on staffers) to smuggle in all sorts of contraband, including cookies, cakes, a Big Mac, bags of Cafe Bustelo coffee, and more than 70 containers of black and cayenne pepper, which Sweat and Matt planned to use to throw police dogs off their scent. All of this happened under the not-watchful eye of correctional tailor shop supervisor Allan Trombley, who by all accounts spent his shift reading books and magazines.
For their trouble, Sweat and Matt gave Palmer and Mitchell paintings, including portraits of family members and pets. Mitchell also "engaged in numerous sexual encounters with Matt in the tailor shop," according to the report. Earlier, Sweat had been removed from her shop on suspicion of being in a sexual relationship with her, and as Matt carried on with Mitchell, he also passed sexy notes from Sweat.
As Mitchell remembered, Sweat "was telling me that he loved me and that he wanted to spend his life with me...[H]e’s like, 'I love you, can’t wait to get you in my arms, make love to you all night long.'"
Joyce Mitchell in court (AP)
As the plot advanced, and Mitchell got more involved, they persuaded her to bring in six hacksaw blades, and later, two chisels, a steel punch, concrete drill bits, and two more hacksaw blades hidden inside frozen ground beef. In the first blade delivery, Matt taped the gear to his side and went back to his cell escorted by Palmer, who told researchers he didn't ever frisk inmates coming into or leaving the shop, or put them through metal detectors. For the second tool delivery, at which point Sweat had made his entry hole into a steam pipe and needed one more set of blades to cut an exit on the other side of the prison wall, Palmer passed the blades himself, though he contends he didn't know what was inside the meat package.
Palmer said when he took the handoff from Mitchell, he discouraged her from future smuggling, telling her to leave it to him:
"Tillie, don’t be doing this," he recalled saying. "If [Matt] needs something, he’ll go through me."
The report also breaks down in spellbinding detail the trial and error of Sweat's travels through the tunnels beneath the prison, recounted wistfully by Sweat to his captors:
[I]t felt good, because you kind of felt free. You know, you weren’t caged up in the cell no more. Nobody knew where you were. I always left my ID in my cell, you know, when I left the cell, so I didn’t feel like I was an inmate anymore. It gave me that little feel of freedom because whenever I left my cell, on a normal basis, I always had my ID. And it was different for me, you know, after 14 years, or 13, or whatever it’s been. It was something new, it was doing something that I could actually use my mind for, that I could apply myself to.
Matt, killed by police 20 days into the manhunt, was heavier than Sweat and only ventured out of his cell a few times before the escape. Sweat recalled coming back to their cells after a night's excursion:
“So we’re sitting on the pipes, I’m pulling my boots off, he goes ‘What are you doing.’ I said ‘Cleaning my boots off.’ I said, ‘You’re cleaning yours off, too.’ He says, ‘Do you do this every night?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Take one of them washers . . . pull all the gunk out of your boot, and then take your glove off and wipe the bottom of your boots off.’ He said, ‘I’m not doing that,’ and I said, ‘Bullshit.’ I said, ‘You’re wiping your boot off because you’re stepping on my back, there ain’t no way you’re stepping on my back with a dirty-ass boot.’ So I ended up helping him up and . . . the first [tier] you go up is really tight for him, so he was fidgeting to get his chest through and then, you know, he’s got a gut, so when he finally got his . . . I’m already up, you know, he’s downstairs, he’s standing on a pipe coming up. I’m already up on the first [tier] and his gut plops over the catwalk and he’s stuck. It looks like he’s stuck there like a half a man with a gut hanging out, and I’m laughing my ass off, in the middle of this. And he’s like, ‘What’s so funny, man?’ I said, ‘The way your fucking gut’s hanging out.’ That was kind of funny. I helped him up.”
Down in the guts of the prison, Sweat got help from sloppy maintenance workers who repeatedly left tools, including a sledgehammer, unattended, and failed to report them when they went missing.
When, after three months of dirty toil that shaved 30 pounds off his frame, Sweat emerged from a manhole on a Dannemora village street just beyond the prison, he said to himself and Matt, "Shawshank ain't got shit on me," according to testimony cited in the report.
Matt left notes for the guards discovering his disappearance, including a note on the table in his cell that read, "You left me no choice but to grow old and die in here. I had to do something," and a second on a picture of Tony Soprano, saying, "Time To Go Kid!"
Palmer was sentenced at the end of February to six months in prison after pleading guilty to promoting prison contraband and official misconduct. Mitchell is serving two and a half to seven years in prison for her role. Several other guards and the prison's superintendent have been disciplined. Sweat, already serving life, got additional years tacked onto his sentence and is being held in solitary confinement.