Gather ye round, and hear the story of Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, the woman who said in court that she was “depressed” as a reason for why she helped inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015.
“I was going through depression and I guess they saw my weakness, and that's how it all started,” she said in an interview on The Today Show in 2015.
That’s how it started. What followed was a wild, meticulously plotted escape by two prisoners in a maximum security state prison. Mitchell will soon be immortalized by Patricia Arquette in the Showtimes series Escape at Dannemora, a fictional account of what went down at the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015.
Because the incident is relatively recent, information abounds on Mitchell. She went on The Today Show in 2015 to tell her story. Updates on her parole status are frequent and passionate. Her husband, who was semi-involved in the prison break, has also given interviews. The New York Post not-so-delicately named her “Shaw-skank.” Joyce Mitchell is almost — almost — a celebrity.
A celebrity behind bars, that is. Mitchell is currently in prison, serving up to seven years with possibility for parole. In September of 2015, she plead guilty to promoting prison contraband and facilitating criminal behavior, a plea deal that would protect her from more egregious charges. Sexual assault — because Mitchell made sexual contact with the inmates — and conspiracy to murder — because she and the inmates reportedly plotted to kill Mitchell’s husband Lyle — were also on the table. She cooperated with authorities, though, agreeing to aid in the investigation into the prison break in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
“People need to know that I was only trying to save my family,” Mitchell said on her Today Show appearance. She claimed that Matt, who was killed by a border agent in the manhunt that followed his escape, intimidated her. He had power, she said, so much so that she feared for her life even outside of prison. Though her story has wavered over the years, the myth of Mitchell, Sweat, and Matt begins when she was while working as a supervisor in Clinton Correctional Facility’s sewing shop. Both men worked in her shop. Matt, in particular, courted Mitchell, asking her for favors as they grew closer. Eventually, according to Mitchell, he kissed her.
“It startled me,” she told investigators. “[Matt] kissed me with an open mouth kiss. I didn't say anything because I was scared for my husband, who also works for the facility.” She also admitted to performing oral sex on Matt, and giving nude photos to Matt that he planned to give to Sweat. The “contraband” mentioned in her guilty plea included: hacksaw blades, padded gloves, and a proto-screwdriver. These would all eventually help Sweat and Matt escape. Finally, Matt and Sweat gave Mitchell pills that she was supposed to use to put her husband to sleep. She didn’t follow through with the plan, though. The night the escape happened, she had a panic attack and went to the hospital, where she later received a call from the state police.
These days, Mitchell resides in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, NY. It’s a maximum security prison known for obtaining high-profile women convicted of crimes. In 1996, the facility took in Pamela Ann Smart, a woman made famous by her crime: She’d hired one of her students, a 15-year-old high schooler, to murder her husband.
In February of 2017, Mitchell had her first parole hearing. The parole board denied her appeal, citing Mitchell’s presentation in court. “You present yourself more as a victim than a responsible participant and appear to be emotionally unstable and easily manipulated,” the board wrote, per NBC. The decision was unanimous. Considering her “incompatible” with society, the board decided to keep Mitchell in prison.
Arquette, who plays Mitchell in Escape at Dannemora, has done all the research: She’s read the transcripts of interviews with investigators, and she’s watched the same Today Show interview that the rest of us did back in 2015.
“I watched Tilly trying to emotionally manipulate people in her life,” Arquette said in a behind-the-scenes interview for the show. From Arquette’s point of view, this is a woman who likes to manipulate and is herself easily manipulated. She did, after all, emerge from this plot the least unscathed: Matt (played by Benicio del Toro) died on the scene after being shot by a border agent, and Sweat endured a gunshot, too. Sweat (played by Paul Dano) is at the Five Points correctional facility, where he recently tried in vain to leverage another brilliant escape plan to get more frequent visits from his girlfriend.
Lyle Mitchell, meanwhile, last said that he plans to stay with his wife through this ordeal. Ideally, by 2022, Joyce will have served her seven years (the maximum on her sentence), and she can trod home.