Prison seamstress Joyce Mitchell says she was giving into fear, not following her heart, when she helped two dangerous murderers bust out of a maximum-security lockup this summer, putting a swath of upstate New York on high alert for nearly three weeks.
In an exclusive jailhouse interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer, Joyce Mitchell admitted she flirted with Richard Matt and David Sweat but denied she was in love and said that any sexual contact with Matt was against her will.
“It started out as a flirtation thing, but that’s all it ever was,” she said. “There was never any love between myself and Mr. Matt.”
Although prosecutors have said they considered pressing rape charges against Mitchell for sexual contact with an inmate, she said Matt forced himself on her.
“There was never any actual sexual intercourse,” Mitchell said in a shaky voice.
“Mr. Matt had grabbed me a couple of times and kissed me. And then there was one point where he…wanted me to perform oral sex on him. And I said no. And when I said no, he grabbed my head and pushed me down.”
One day, she said, Matt told her, “You know, Joyce, I do love you.” She said she replied, “I love my husband.”
While Mitchell confessed in signed statements to police that she took X-rated selfies for Sweat, she told TODAY that “there was never any sexual contact between us whatsoever,” contradicting prison rumors.
Mitchell, 51, has pleaded guilty to providing tools for Matt and Sweat’s audacious June 6 escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility. She faces up to seven years in prison when she is sentenced later this month.
“I deserve to be punished,” she told Lauer. “But, you know, people need to know that I was only trying to save my family.”
The mother of three worked in the tailor shop at the prison in Dannemora, near the Canadian border, for seven years. That’s where she met Matt, who was serving life for dismembering his boss, and Sweat, also doing life for pumping 15 bullets into a sheriff’s deputy.
At the time, her marriage to Lyle Mitchell, another prison worker, seemed to be foundering and she was vulnerable to the charms of two criminals who viewed her as their ticket out of prison.
“I got a little too comfortable,” Mitchell told TODAY.
“I was going through a time where I didn’t feel like my husband loved me anymore,” she said. “I was going through a depression, and I guess they saw my weakness. And that’s how it all started.
“Their attention made me feel good.”
Correction experts say it’s not uncommon for inmates to “groom” prison staff in the hopes of getting special treatment or contraband, but Matt and Sweat had their eye on a much bigger prize: freedom.
They started small, asking the seamstress to bring them cookies and brownies. She said she was worried she would get caught, but no one checked her bags.
Eventually, the duo had more alarming requests: a star-shaped drill bit, a chisel, and hacksaw blades. Mitchell claims that she didn’t know in the beginning the men planned to use the items for a breakout so elaborate and brazen it would be compared to the Hollywood movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.”
And by the time she found out, she felt like she was in too deep to do anything about it.
Matt and Sweat had learned where her mother and her older son lived and they had also cozied up to other prison workers.
“Who could I tell?” she said. “Who could I trust?”
So, as Matt and Sweat worked by night to cut holes in their cells and explore the maze behind the walls, Mitchell got progress reports and got in even deeper.
“[Matt] actually had told me at one point in one spot they had found a toolbox. And Mr. Sweat picked the lock and they found power tools in it,” she said.
Those were the tools the duo used to slice through wall, pipes and chains to make their way to a sewer pipe and a manhole a block outside the prison walls.
Mitchell told police she was supposed to meet the escapees and run away with them – after they killed Lyle. But, according to her statements, she loved her husband too much to go through with the plan and stood up the prisoners.
Matt and Sweat spent nearly three weeks on the run in the woods before police caught up with them. A Border Patrol agent shot an armed Matt dead on June 26, and Sweat was wounded and captured two days later.
In a trembling voice, Mitchell told Lauer that she feels terrible about her role in the nerve-racking ordeal.
“I am so sorry for everything that everyone went through because of me. I never, never wanted this to ever happen. Never. I would take it all back, if I could. But I can't,” she said.
“But I'm not the monster that everybody thinks I am. I'm really not.”
In fact, Mitchell said, it’s just the opposite.
“Everybody tells me I’m way too nice.”
Watch more from Matt Lauer's exclusive interview in a special two-hour Dateline Friday, September 18 at 9 p.m. ET, where Mitchell shares why she didn't show up the night the inmates escaped.