The Spring 2015 escape by two worst-of-the-worst prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility (CCF) in Dannemora, N.Y., resulted in the largest manhunt in New York State history and the biggest domestic news story of the year. For three weeks America held its collective breath, as the narrative unfolded to its inevitable, violent conclusion. But even after it did, even after the players were no longer in motion, the tale retained its journalistic legs, largely because of its many angles:
—the brutal and depraved crimes that Richard Matt and David Sweat committed to be caged in a maximum security prison to begin with,
—the complacency and arrogance within the prison that allowed the escapees to gather key intelligence,
—the complementary skills of the prisoners, how they became a two-headed escape monster accomplishing an extraordinary feat,
—tales of the frightened public, who went without sleep, and when they did nod off it was with a shotgun ’cross their laps,
—tales of the 1,200 manhunters, the stalwart members of law enforcement, who scoured the harshest of wilderness for weeks on end in relentlessly inclement weather, praying they would catch the men before innocents were hurt,
—the budget cuts by the State of New York that impacted the case, and
—Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, the sad sack of a woman who allowed herself to be used by the escapees, giving them the tools they would need to cut their way out of the beast’s belly, in exchange for flirtation, fantasy, and a modicum of tawdry prison sex.
Guess which facet of the story became the focus of Lifetime’s TV movie? No surprise. It was Tillie, star of the show, with her Walter Mitty fantasy life and muttonhead excuses. The mother of three was called “Shawskank” on the front page of the New York Post. Her anemic attempts to explain her unexplainable behavior were meant to be damage control, but brought only the wrath of the public.
So here comes the TV movie, New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell, written and directed by Stephen Tolkin, which debuted on April 23 in the crucial Sunday prime-time slot.
The movie gets a lot of things right. We briefly see Matt and Sweat’s brutality, and we feel the relaxed relationship between CCF’s prisoners and corrections officers that blurs their adversarial roles. The tunneling out and escape itself are presented in detail and with surprising accuracy.
It’s made clear that Mitchell’s carnal misadventures with Matt and Sweat were perfectly in character. Life for her was a daytime serial, from her young and restless schooldays to “As the Cell Block Turns” in adulthood. Her husband Lyle (Daniel Roebeck), a painfully dull but affable chatterbox, was the lover-on-the-side that broke up Joyce’s first marriage.
The manhunt and the effect of the escape on the Adirondack area are all but missing in the movie, leaving lots of room for clothes-on sex scenes featuring a lonely and bored fifty-something woman getting hot and bothered over sweet-talking dirtbags. The backroom intimacy portrayed is more than cringe-worthy. It’s crawl-out-of-your-skin worthy. But that’s prison sex in a nutshell, I’m guessing.
Nobody asked me, but I gave New York Prison Break two and a half stars. It’s corny and melodramatic, but has a so-bad-it’s-good appeal—and I liked the movie better than I thought I would. Myk Watford as Matt and Joe Anderson as Sweat capture the superficial charm of these sociopaths, and Penelope Ann Miller gives Tillie an animation that may lack realism but improves watchability.
But I know one fellow certain to give New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell a rave review, two urgent thumbs up: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has to be ecstatic that the Lifetime movie never once touches upon one key factor that made the escape possible. Because of Albany’s penny-wise pound-foolish budget cuts, the superintendents of New York State prisons were not allowed to lockdown their facilities without an okay from an Albany beancounter. Days before the Clinton escape, a gang fight erupted on the prison grounds and the CCF superintendent wanted to declare a lockdown—but Albany said no. Too expensive. The lockdown would have resulted in a thorough search of every cell in the facility, exposing the fact that Sweat and Matt were singing the Credence song: DOO DOO DOO Lookin’ Out My Backdoor about their own self-made rear exits, back doors that would, within the week, lead them to an impressive but temporary freedom.
Michael Benson is the author of ESCAPE FROM DANNEMORA: Richard Matt, David Sweat, and the Great Adirondack Manhunt (ForeEdge), as well as Why the Grateful Dead Matter (ForeEdge) and The Devil at Genesee Junction (Rowman & Littlefield).