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What Went Wrong: Anatomy Of A Prison Break

The secret to escaping prison is less mysterious than you think. Alicia Chinatomby looks at famous prison escapes and explains what usually goes wrong.

aNewDomain — It only took three weeks to take down David Sweat and Richard Matt, the two male prisoners who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. But their escape, police say, was something right out of “Prison Break.”

david sweat and richard matt escaping prison State police eventually caught and shot both men — Matt was pronounced dead after the police opened fire — but the story of how the two prisoners devised their jail break is riveting.

Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said Sweat confided “that he and Matt started planning their escape in January. They cut through steam pipes to get to an underground tunnel system.”

Sweat told police that he and Matt practiced their escape the night before it occurred. During a practice escape, the two convicts apparently reached a manhole that wasn’t isolated enough to actually escape from, so they changed the plan and proceeded to escape the next day.

It was a well thought-out escape plan from the start.

It turns out that Sweat was sleeping with married corrections officer Joyce Mitchell in a stockroom, which later served as the escape route. It wasn’t long before she began sleeping with Matt, as wel, police say. Mitchell became their ally, getting them power tools from her official co-workers.

Mitchell was arrested a few weeks ago, as was Gene Palmer, another corrections officer who police say supplied Sweat and Matt with art supplies and more power tools for their escape.

Escape History

Escape stories often catch the public’s imagination. Consider the story of Sarah Jo Pender, a convict who escaped from prison through the help of a former inmate and a prison guard. Unfortunately for her, she couldn’t hide her face — someone in Chicago recognized her from “America’s Most Wanted.”

Another prisoner, Frank Freshwater, escaped from an Ohio prison in 1959 and was only found in June, 2015. Young Freshwater was originally sentenced to five years probation for charges of vehicle manslaughter — killing a pedestrian while speeding — but after breaching his probation, he was sentenced to twenty years.

frank freshwater escaping prison Freshwater, now 79 years old, spent 56 years on the run, officials say. He jumped from numerous places using a false identity under the name of  William H. Cox before settling in Brevard County for twenty years. There were times when he was caught, but states failed to extradite him and so he was free to continue being the most wanted fugitive in the U.S.

When the authorities showed Freshwater a mugshot of his younger self, he didn’t even dispute the claim.

Brevard County Police officers watched Freshwater for a week before setting off to take him into custody. It took signatures and matching fingerprints to capture the escaped prisoner, and he was still waiting to be extradited as of May, 2015.

These are just two cases of other escaped prisoners that were, in the end, caught.

While the world is wrapping its head around the seriously planned escape in upstate New York, Sweat’s mother still believes Mitchell was the key person in helping them escape.

She told CNN, “I still say to this day if that woman — and whoever else was involved — didn’t give them that stuff, those guys wouldn’t have ever broke out of jail.”

It’s clear from the most recent case, and many others, that prison breaks occur because there’s help from the inside or, at the very least, someone is turning a blind eye to the issue at hand.

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Featured image: Dublin Prison by Tony Hisgett via Flickr

Mugshots: Public Domain

About the author

Alicia Chinatomby