PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — A sobbing former prison worker who helped two murderers escape from a maximum-security lockup said she regretted her “horrible mistake” as she was sentenced Monday to up to seven years behind bars as part of a plea deal.
Joyce Mitchell apologized profusely as she was sentenced to 2 1/3 to seven years in prison, saying she acted in part out of fear. She also might have to contribute to the $120,000 in restitution the state is seeking for damages to Clinton Correctional Facility from the brazen June 6 escape. The judge showed little sympathy as he handed down the sentence and set a Nov. 6 restitution hearing.
“If I could take it all back, I would,” she told the judge. “I never intended for any of this to happen.”
Mitchell entered the courtroom in tears and cried throughout most of the 35-minute sentencing. She apologized to the community, her former co-workers and law enforcement officers for the weeks of fear and disruption the search for the killers caused.
Mitchell, 51, had pleaded guilty to charges related to providing hacksaw blades and other tools to inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat.
Matt was serving 25 years to life for the killing and dismembering of his former boss. Sweat was serving life without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy in 2002.
The pair eluded more than 1,000 searchers who combed the thick woods and bogs of northern New York for much of the next three weeks. Matt was killed by a border agent June 26. Sweat was wounded and captured by a state trooper two days later.
Mitchell admitted becoming close with the pair while she worked as an instructor in the prison tailor shop. She told investigators she agreed to be their getaway driver before backing out after suffering a panic attack. The escapees were forced to scrub plans to head to Mexico and instead fled on foot after emerging from a manhole.
Judge Kevin Ryan noted that the resulting search disrupted life in a wide swath of the region for three weeks.
“A large portion of the local population were terrorized,” he said. “Many were forced to flee their homes.”
Mitchell said she didn’t tell anyone about the inmates’ escape plan because Matt had threatened to harm her family, particularly her husband, Lyle, who also worked in the prison.
“I was fearful of Mr. Matt threatening to kill my husband and wanting to know where my son and mother live,” she told the judge.
But the judge rebuffed her claim that she was protecting her family by not divulging the escape plot to authorities.
“I just don’t find that explanation credible,” Ryan said.
Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie echoed that sentiment outside court afterward, telling reporters that “she once again is making excuses.” He called her apology an insult to the searchers and victims.
State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott, whose office is investigating the escape, said her report on that probe will show Mitchell “used her position to abuse and manipulate systemic security lapses” at the prison. She said Mitchell “spent months assisting two cold-blooded killers plan and execute their escape” and then misled law enforcement while they were on the run.
Lyle Mitchell gave his wife a thumbs-up as she entered and exited the court. She mouthed “I love you” to him as guards led her away.
Officials said the convicts used tools to cut their way out of their adjacent cells and get into the catwalk between the cell block walls. They crawled through an underground steam pipe and reached a street near the prison walls through a manhole.
Sweat, who is being housed in a solitary cell at a central New York prison, faces charges in the escape.
A prison guard, Gene Palmer, who authorities have said unwittingly abetted the escape plot, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of promoting prison contraband. Officials said he gave the two prisoners frozen hamburger meat Mitchell used to hide the hacksaw blades she smuggled to Sweat and Matt.
Wylie said after court that negotiations were continuing in those two cases. He said Sweat also could face restitution.