The Strangest Details From That Report on the Dannemora Prison Escape

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Richard Matt and David Sweat

Last year, two convicted murderers pulled off a brazen escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the town of Dannemora, in upstate New York. Richard Matt and David Sweat plotted the breakout for months. On the night of June 5, a little after 11 p.m., they climbed through holes they had cut — over months, with tools smuggled in by a prison guard — in the cell walls. They snaked through tunnels and between walls and through a steam pipe, which took them underneath the prison. They popped out of a manhole in the village.

The entire escape took less than an hour. “Shawshank ain’t got shit on me,” Sweat would later say. The manhunt for the men lasted three weeks. Matt was shot and killed by a customs agent on June 26. Sweat had a few more days of freedom until state police tracked him down on June 28. He refused to follow orders and was shot and wounded. He survived and is now in solitary confinement. He pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his escape in November. He must pay about $80,000 in restitution (the manhunt cost New York State about $23 million in police overtime alone) and got a few extra years tacked on to his prison term, though he was already serving life without the possibility of parole.

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The manhole that took Sweat and Matt to freedom. Photo: New York State Police

Now, on the anniversary of Matt and Sweat’s flight, the New York State Office of the Inspector General released a report detailing exactly how the two killers managed to plan and execute such an elaborate plot. The report details a perfect storm of sorts: Matt and Sweat’s tenacious scheming; vital assistance from two corrections officers, Joyce Mitchell, who was enamored with the men and brought the tools they needed into the prison, and Gene Palmer, who delivered tool-filled meat to the inmates; and egregious breaches in security protocol and willful negligence on part of prison staff and guards. Matt and especially Sweat may have been clever and slick, but they had plenty of help from lax and lazy guards. 

The investigation outlines how these two killers hatched the scheme, and relies on interviews with corrections officers, inmates, and the key cast of characters, including Sweat, who paints himself as the true mastermind of the breakout. The report also offers a litany of security and protocol recommendations. A spokesperson for New York State Department of Corrections said the department has put in place a “number of reforms” at Clinton, including installing new cameras and security gates, and retraining and disciplining staff “to help ensure this incident is never repeated.”

And now here are some of the wackiest, most intriguing things we learned from the monster report. 

A bromance is born.
David Sweat was sentenced to life in prison in 2002, at age 23, for shooting and killing a police officer. Matt, a career criminal, got 25 years to life in 2008 for the heinous murder of his former employer. Matt kidnapped, tortured, and killed the 76-year-old man, chopping up his body with a hacksaw.

The two men first got to know each other in 2010, when they both scored cells in the “honor block,” coveted housing for inmates who displayed good behavior (no disciplinary infractions in nine months) and participated in prison programs. Matt was kicked out of the honor block in 2011, but Sweat sent him treats, including rolled tobacco, while Matt was in exile. (Sweat affectionately called him “Hacksaw.”) The two shared a work station in the tailor shop when their tenure there overlapped. According to the report, the two were reunited in the honor block in cells next to each other from August 2013 to September 2014, and again in January 2015 — which they lobbied for so they could plan their getaway.

But their bond was forged over a passion for the arts. Matt, who had already begun to dabble, helped Sweat take up painting as a hobby. Sweat told investigators that he admired Matt’s paintings, “including one depicting a dog in which ‘you could see every hair … [it] was absolutely beautiful.’” 

Anyone who’s anyone wants an original Matt or Sweat. 

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A Sweat painting found in the woods near Palmer's home. Photo: New York State Police

Matt’s artwork, especially, had some serious value around the prison. But many in the jail received paintings from Sweat and Matt, and the inmates knew exactly what they were doing. Sweat told investigators: “When we do … paintings, we give it to you exceptionally cheap because we know that at some point we’re going to be in a bind, or we might need help with something.”

Palmer, in particular, was their No. 1 collector and received at least a dozen paintings and drawings from Matt. Palmer would smuggle the artwork out without incident, and also bring in art supplies or photographs so Matt could use them to paint. Sure enough, Palmer developed a close relationship with the men, especially Matt, which bestowed upon them certain privileges that ended up facilitating the men’s escape. For example, Palmer would escort them to and from their cells without frisking them, and would let them bypass the metal detectors, which makes it pretty easy to smuggle six hacksaws to one’s prison cell. Which Matt did. 

Joyce Mitchell, described by colleagues as “inmate lover,” was enamored with the men — and was the key to their escape.
Sweat and Matt couldn’t have pulled off their getaway without corrections officer Joyce Mitchell, who had a reputation for getting a little too close to inmates. Colleagues and supervisors had called out Mitchell for her chumminess beginning in 2012. Mitchell admitted this to investigators, saying she tried to build a “rapport” with prisoners.

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The tailor shop where Mitchell grew close to Sweat and Matt. Photo: New York State Police

Despite numerous red flags, Mitchell ended up in charge of the tailor shop where Sweat and Matt eventually worked. She often distributed baked goods to the inmates, and “one inmate testified he observed Mitchell giving Matt “cookies, cakes … meals that were prepared, like venison, sauce, biscuits.” 

Sweat and Matt both cultivated a relationship with Mitchell, who told investigators that their attention made her feel good. Other corrections officers and inmates noticed that, while she “laughed and flirted” around the shop, she focused her attentions on Sweat and Matt.

The relationship with Sweat developed first, according to witnesses. In late 2014, prison administration received an anonymous letter — though it didn’t mention specific names — that tipped supervisors off to a potential relationship between Sweat and Mitchell. Mitchell denied the allegations, as did Sweat, but administrators ended up removing Sweat from his coveted post in the tailor shop. 

Mitchell did not face any consequences and stayed in charge of the tailor shop, but inmate testimony says she was distraught over Sweat’s departure. An inmate told investigators, per the report:

She really had a crush on Sweat. There’s no question about that. A serious crush.” According to another inmate assigned to the shop at the time, “When Sweat got fired, Mitchell cried [and] wanted to have a drink when she got home [and] was mad [and] hard on everybody for a week.”Yet another inmate stated he overheard Mitchell tell Matt, “Hurry up and get Dave back here, I’m horny as fuck.” 

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Light from a sewing machine, probably pilfered from the tailor shop (above) and part of the reading glasses Mitchell bought the men. Photo: New York State Police

Matt stepped in and won over Mitchell’s affections — she told investigators his attentions “made her feel special” — and eventually started asking for a little contraband here and there. He asked for reading glasses with lights so he and Sweat could paint at night; both were found in the tunnels and were probably used in the escape, according to the report. He also asked for food and cayenne pepper, which the inmates planned to use to throw dogs off their scent. 

Sweat and Matt started planning their escape in earnest in January 2015. 

Sweat considered a few plans for breaking out, but ultimately decided that going out the prison tunnels was the most feasible option. For this they needed tools, so Matt got to work on Mitchell. Sweat, who still wasn’t in that shop, passed notes to Mitchell through Matt. Matt told Sweat:

She’s fucking nuts, she’ll bring us whatever we want, just tell me what you need and I’ll get her to bring it in.”

Mitchell delivered the first tools, six hacksaw blades, in February 2015. She brought them into the jail, undetected. Matt taped them to his body and smuggled them to his cell. He did not pass through a metal detector, probably because Palmer escorted him back.

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The tools the inmates used. Photo: New York State Police

The two cut through the rear walls of their cells in about three weeks during prison recreation time. Sweat started exploring the tunnels and soon realized they’d need more tools. Mitchell then provided “two chisels, two concrete drill bits, and a punch” in late April or early May 2015. She hid the tools inside two pounds of ground hamburger meat, and instructed Palmer to deliver the meat to the inmates. Palmer apparently didn’t know what was inside, but he shouldn’t have been delivering raw meat to inmates in any case. Mitchell used this tactic at least one other time to get the men tools.

Mitchell had a pretty easy time getting the tools into the prison.

Mitchell didn’t so much sneak the tools in as walk right into the prison. Guards were supposed to search her bag before she came to work each day, but they never did.

Dummies work!

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Who could know? Photo: New York State Police

Sweat explored the tunnels every night once they made the prison-wall holes. He waited until after the night check at 11 p.m., and then deployed a dummy fashioned out of a sweatshirt and prison pants. As the report notes: “the dummy lacked any material resembling human flesh, which, as noted, officers conducting rounds are required to observe.”

In fact, Sweat climbed out of his cell a total of 85 times. “If only one of more than 400 required checks was properly performed during the time Sweat was out of his cell,” the report notes, “the escape would have been instantly foiled.

Oh, and about that hole … and those tools.

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Not easy to find, at all. Photo: New York State Police

The report says corrections officers rarely did thorough searches of inmates’ cells. Sweat’s cell was never searched, according to records. Matt’s cell was searched in March 2015. Unbelievably, the guards “were unable to find the 18½-inch-by-14½- inch hole in the rear wall.” As the report wisely notes:  “a proper cell search would have found the breach and thwarted the escape.”

There’s no better time than escaping from prison to make lots of Shawshank references — or even call on it for tips.

The first time Matt and Sweat explored the tunnels together they couldn’t help but reference the movie. “According to Sweat, ‘We were laughing and joking about how Andy did it in 20 years; I think we might be able to do it in 10.’”

Sweat called on the movie again when he was trying to figure out a way through the steam pipes. 

At first, Sweat considered breaking a hole in the pipe by striking it with the sledge hammer and chisels or punch. Here he again recalled “The Shawshank Redemption,” specifically the scene in which the protagonist “hit [the sewer pipe] with the rock, and he broke the pipe to climb into the shit tube to get out.” However, when Sweat tested this technique on the steam pipe, he immediately knew it was a mistake. As he recalled: “So I tapped it with the sledgehammer. Man, you could hear that fucking thing go all the way down to the power house, all the way the other way, and come all the way back. It was really loud, it echoed the whole way. I said, ‘I can’t do that, it’s way too loud,’ and I wasn’t even hitting it, it was just tap, tap, and that was too loud.” Sweat concluded, therefore, he had no choice but to cut holes in the steam pipe with hacksaw blades.

And Sweat summed up his entire escape: “Shawshank ain’t got shit on me.”

Maybe we should all try the prison-escape workout.

Sweat told investigators he was “probably about the best physical shape I been in” and lost about 30 pounds climbing through the tunnels and hacksawing through pipes. He even made Matt lose some weight; Sweat was apparently nervous that his co-conspirator was a little too chunky to fit through the escape route. Sweat apparently asked Matt to measure himself, and carried a tape measure with him to compare his waistline with the openings in the tunnels to “make sure fatso could fit.” According to the report, a tape measure with “National Guard” printed on its case was recovered from the tunnels after the escape. It likely came from the tailor shop.

Sweat broke out once before.

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The hole in the steam pipe. Photo: OGS

Sweat broke through the steam pipe in the early morning hours of June 5. He climbed through the pipe into the tunnel, which led him to two manholes. The first led into a yard in a power plant, but Sweat decided that opening was too risky. He hacksawed the chain on another manhole, which led him out to a street intersection, outside the prison walls. “I actually had my head out into freedom,” Sweat told investigators, but he had made a promise to Matt, and “I wanted to stick to my word.”

Matt and Sweat tried to make a memorable exit.

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Matt's farewell note. Photo: New York State Police

The convicts decided to go with their tried-and-true dummy method to avoid detection on the night they escaped. They put their plan into motion after the 11 p.m. rounds on June 5. Then they said their good-byes:

Matt left two handwritten notes in his cell. One, on a note pad left on a table, stated, “You left me no choice but to grow old & die in here. I had to do something.” A second note, written on a wall calendar illustrated with reproductions of his own artwork, read, “Time to Go Kid!” with the date “6-5-15.”

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Matt's second note. Photo: New York State Police

Sweat affixed notes along the escape route, which he says Matt also wrote. The note that said “Have a Nice Day” with an offensive image, Sweat says, was given to him by another inmate a few days before.

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Notes in the escape route. Photo: New York State Police

Bloopers!

Sweat went first but had to pull Matt, who was apparently a bit claustrophobic, forward with a bedsheet. When he got through the opening in the pipe, Sweat told investigators, “his pants came halfway down and I said, ‘Oh, Matt, I didn’t know you cared.’”

What to pack for your prison escape.

The two carried a guitar soft case filled with extra clothes, 20 packs of peanuts, 40 granola bars, and 12 sticks of pepperoni. Sweat believed the guitar case would throw people off. “If somebody sees a guitar case, they’re not thinking you escaped … they’re going to think you came back from playing in a band or … hanging out with your friends … 

Apparently it worked, though.

Sweat and Matt almost got caught. They slithered out of the manhole and saw a car, with its headlights on, approaching. Matt apparently panicked and ran into a nearby backyard. “What the fuck are you doing, man? Where are you going?” Sweat yelled after him.

At that point, Sweat recalled, the car turned into the driveway of the same home, and the driver, who resided there, got out and yelled, “Hey, what are you fucking scumbags doing in my yard?” Sweat replied, “Oh, man, I’m sorry. I apologize. We were just cutting through. We were on the wrong street.” Sweat’s explanation and appearance satisfied the individual, as no further words were exchanged.

How Two Inmates Escaped From Dannemora Prison