Did Hollywood Fiction Fuel the New York Prison Escape?

Richard Matt, Joyce Mitchell, David Sweat, prison escape, reality based on movie fiction

Murder, romance, and a dame. I prefer my true crime on the silver screen with Diane Keaton, Clint Eastwood, and younger and saner Mel Gibson to the hardened mugs of David Sweat, Richard Matt and a very scared Joyce Mitchell.

When even true crime is unoriginal it’s no wonder there are so many sequels being made in Hollywood.

Two weeks ago two convicted murderers, David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, aided and abetted by a female prison employee, Joyce Mitchell. If you have any doubts about how difficult it is to break out of a high security prison there are a slew of movies you can watch that will show you how to do it successfully. Three movies seem to be the blueprints for the great escape by Sweat and Matt: Escape from Alcatraz, Raising Arizona, and the often overlooked drama Mrs. Soffel.

The story of Sweat, Matt, and Mitchell isn’t just a prison break story; it’s a love story, too.

Joyce Mitchell knew both prisoners well; she is the “Mrs. Soffel” part of this real life drama. The movie Mrs. Soffel is the true story of the famous Pennsylvania prison break of the Biddle Brothers in 1902. The movie centers around the love affair between Mrs. Soffel, the prison warden’s wife, and one of two convicted brothers, Ed Biddle. Inspired by her love for Ed, she helped both brothers escape by smuggling files to them in her boots during her weekly visits to the prison to read bible verses to the death row inmates.

Joyce Mitchell knew both David Sweat and Richard Matt from the tailor shop where she was a supervisor and they were employees. Sweat loved his job a little too much because rumors starting flying that Sweat and Mitchell were having an affair. The two had to be separated.

I’m not sure of Sweat’s romantic tendencies, but I do know his violent ones; he murdered a sheriff’s deputy by running him over and while he lay on the ground his accomplice pumped bullets into his face until he was dead. Few should have been surprised at Sweat’s violent tendencies  — as a child, Sweat threw knives at his mother and once brought a butcher knife to school. His mother wants nothing to do with him now.

After Sweat was removed from the tailor shop for inappropriate behavior with Mitchell she had an affair with Richard Matt who, she said, made her “feel special.” They also had sex “multiple times.”

What was Richard Matt’s crime? He tortured and killed his a 76-year-old man, his employer. Afterwards he dismembered him with a hacksaw and threw the body parts in the Niagara River. As a child Matt was in foster care and later a school for delinquents. One day he escaped by stealing a horse and rode into the sunset.

According to news accounts, at the Clinton Correctional Facility, Mitchell smuggled several tools to Matt including a chisel, a screwdriver drill bit, and hacksaw blades. Whether knowingly or not, the two recreated the escape plan from the movie Escape from Alcatraz, which starred Clint Eastwood, and was based on the true story of three escaped prisoners from Alcatraz Island in 1962.

These tools were used to drill holes through their cell walls and over time the holes became large enough for the men to climb through into the interior walls of the prison through a myriad of interior tunnels that lead, eventually, to the outside world — a la the more recent The Grand Budapest Hotel? Sweat and Matt even copied the idea of fashioning mannequins of their heads to place in their beds so they would pass the bed checks.

Practice makes perfect and the pair took regular trips through their cell walls into the interior of the prison walls in order to finesse their plan that reportedly had been in the works since 2013. When they finally succeeded and emerged, as free men, through a manhole cover one block outside of the prison walls they were expecting to see Matt’s moll Joyce Mitchell behind the wheel of the getaway car. But Mitchell stood him up. She had a panic attack and admitted herself into a hospital. The pair traveled on foot into the woods and they have been on the lam ever since.

It is one of the few times in both their lives that these career criminals have been free.

The romance and symbolism of rebirth in Sweat and Matt’s manhole cover escape has been depicted in the cinematic escapes outside prison walls in both Raising Arizona and The Shawshank Redemption.

Murder, romance, and a dame. I prefer my true crime on the silver screen with Keaton, Eastwood, and younger and saner Mel Gibson to the hardened mugs of Sweat, Matt and a very scared Joyce Mitchell.

Over 600 law enforcement officers are tracking the pair down in a dragnet, but the “trail has run cold.”

Joyce Mitchell is in prison awaiting indictment and her husband Lyle recently spoke with her between glass on telephones. New details have emerged that Sweat and Matt planned to kill Lyle and perhaps Joyce was in on that plan. Like Katie Soffel, life opened up a new door for her with her affair with Matt, enough so that she risked her freedom to be with him. Mitchell’s former husband’s wife said, “…she was married, had a wonderful son, a house, a good job and a decent life and she blew it.”

They could be in New York, Vermont or maybe even another country. New York Governor Cuomo quipped that they could be in Mexico by now. That’s a possibility because Matt, according to his estranged son, has a “genius IQ” and he has a tattoo on his back that reads Mexico Forever.

It’s a reversal of roles and we find Joyce Mitchell is in a jail cell as was Katie Soffel in the last scene of Mrs. Soffel when we watch Diane Keaton being marched to her prison cell after being the sole survivor in the final shoot out of the Biddle Brothers, remembering their moments in a horse drawn sleigh they stole in a romantic snowy escape scene.

Joyce Mitchell is not Diane Keaton sitting prettily in her cell in her Victorian dress with a smile on her face while reading the last love poem Ed Biddle wrote to her. Instead Joyce Mitchell is in prison attire and the deep trouble she finds herself in shows on her face. Bible verses and poetry may be Joyce Mitchell’s last resort at some peace as she faces at least eight years of jail time.

Matt and Sweat are on the outside now and left their pursuers a message in the form of a sticky note attached to one of the pipes in the prison walls that read, Have a Nice Day.

In The Shawshank Redemption the escaped prisoner, Andy Dufresene, played by Tim Robbins, leaves a note for the prison warden inside a bible that reads “Dear Warden, You were right. Salvation lay within.”

Sometimes cliches are a result of life imitating art.

Have a nice day.

Jennifer Hall Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films, including Ghostbusters 2 in visual effects, and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and more public screenings are upcoming! Jennifer was recently named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project. To schedule an interview with Jennifer or book her as a speaker, she can be reached at jennifer@feministstories.com.

Image via themoviesandtvreviews.wordpress.com

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