After six seasons of scheming, the show Prison Break ended in May of 2017. Prison Break was the twisting, turning, and undeniably enthralling Hollywood version of a prisoner plotting his escape, rivaled in fame perhaps only by The Shawshank Redemption.
But what might the actual version of such an escapade look like? Escape at Dannemora, a bleak six-episode mini-series premiering Sunday, November 18 on Showtime, aims to find out. Escape at Dannemora tells a story so wild that it may surpass the antics in The Shawshank Redemption — and it's entirely based on fact.
In fact, Ben Stiller, who directed the entirety of the series, passed on a preliminary script because about half was based on conjecture. "I don't want to make something up," Stiller told The New York Times. The final script was constructed using the extremely detailed 150-page report released by the Attorney General's office, interview transcripts, visits to the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, and many movie marathons. “We watched every prison break movie ever made,” screenwriter Brett Johnson told the New York Times.
But David Sweat and Richard Matt, the two convicted murderers whose 2015 escape from New York State's Clinton Correctional Facility is depicted in Escape at Dannemora, didn't have access to prison movies. They just had a detailed understanding of the prison's layout, ample brazenness, and, most importantly, a woman guard who was willing to help break them out — and run away with them.
Sweat (Paul Dano in Escape at Dannemora) and Matt (Benicio del Toro) became friendly while serving their 25-years-to-life sentences, both earned for gristly crimes. Sweat, then 35, had killed a sheriff's deputy in 2003. Matt, then 48, was in prison for the 1997 kidnapping, torture, and dismemberment of his former boss. By 2015, when the duo escaped from Clinton Correctional, Matt was seasoned in hatching escape schemes and had already been involved in multiple escape attempts. In 1986, Matt had climbed a fence at New York's Erie County Correctional Facility and hopped a freight train to his brother's house; years later, he nearly escaped a prison in Mexico by climbing to the roof. "You can never have enough security with him," a police officer said of Matt to The Washington Post in 2015.
This particular attempt worked — at least for a while — thanks to the involvement of Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette in the show), a seamstress in the prison's tailor shops. The 51-year-old Mitchell began a sexual relationship with Sweat, whom she met in the tailor shops. According to the Attorney General's report, such relationships aren't uncommon in the prison's tailor shops. Another worker in the same prison, Denise Prell, was arrested in 2017 for having an unlawful romantic relationship with a prisoner.
When news of Mitchell and Sweat's relationship was leaked to prison authorities, Sweat was transferred out of the tailor shop. Allegedly, Mitchell then began a sexual relationship with Matt. Both affairs occurred in the same prison where Mitchell's husband, Lyle (Eric Lange in Dannemora), worked.
Matt and Sweat enlisted Mitchell into their escape scheme, and she obliged. "I believe I helped Inmate Matt and Inmate Sweat because I was caught up in the fantasy," Mitchell said in a statement obtained by NBC News. "I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me and the thought of a different life." Mitchell smuggled in drill bits, hacksaw blades, chisels and tools tucked into chop meat for the prisoners. Ultimately, Mitchell planned to kill her husband, Lyle, and run away with Sweat and Mitchell to Mexico. However, on the day of the escape she had a panic attack and was unable to follow through with the murder. When Mitchell didn't show up with the getaway car, Sweat and Matt pivoted their final destination from Mexico to Canada.
Another guard, Gene Palmer (David Morse in Dannemora), was caught up in the scheme. Palmer, who was later imprisoned for six months, brought the chopped meat with contraband to Matt and Sweat. He attested he didn't know the meat contained contraband; however, the meat in itself was illegal for prisoners to have, as convicts at Clinton Correction are prohibited from cooking their cells. Palmer did other favors for Matt and Sweat in exchange for Matt's skilled portraits of celebrities.
On June 6, 2015, after 85 days of preparation, Matt and Sweat successfully escaped Clinton Correctional (though they weren't the first in the prison's 170-year history to do so). Matt and Sweat had cut through steel walls and around the air vents in the back of their cots using the smuggled-in power tools. They crawled through the hole and exited the cell. According to Acting State Corrections Commission Anthony Annuci, after leaving their cell, Matt and Sweat "went onto a catwalk, which is about six stories high...[then] climbed down and had power tools and were able to get out the facility through tunnels." They emerged from a manhole, but not before leaving a yellow Post-It note with the words "have a nice day" on one of the pipes.
Matt and Sweat evaded capture for three weeks, surviving in the rugged Adirondacks with minimal supplies. They used pepper spray to erase their scent. According to Sweat's 500-page interview transcript, the two men also found marijuana and moonshine in an abandoned cabin. But on June 26, Matt fired a shotgun at a trailer 27 miles from the prison and was tracked down and killed by a U.S. Border Patrol Team. Two days later, Sweat — who had separated from Matt — was found walking along a road and shot and captured. By then, Palmer and Mitchell had already been arrested.
The escape had repercussions for all involved. The intense media scrutiny drew attention to flaws in the prison system. Following the escape, stricter security measures were instituted at Clinton Correctional, and officials were placed on leave. Sweat was transferred to a different prison, where he's still scheming — in December 2017, his most recent escape plan was foiled. Mitchell and Palmer went to prison themselves (Mitchell is still serving time).
"There were so many grievances against the prisons that were really not talked about until Dannemora. There was so much corruption and complacency that was not being addressed until David Sweat and Richard Matt broke out," Chelsia Rose Marcius, a reporter at the New York Daily News, told Inside Edition.
See it all for yourself in Escape at Dannemora, premiering on Showtime on Sunday, November 18.