Joyce Mitchell pleads guilty to helping New York inmates escape

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NEW YORK — With a barely audible whisper of “guilty,” the prison tailor charged with helping two murderers stage a dramatic escape from an upstate New York prison last month pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges that could bring her up to seven years behind bars.

Joyce Mitchell, 51, was charged with promoting prison contraband, a felony, and criminal facilitation, a misdemeanor.

Mitchell faces a prison sentence ranging from 2⅓ years to seven years.

Mitchell wore a black-and-white jumpsuit to court, where her husband Lyle — who had allegedly been the target of a murder plot as part of escape — attended the hearing. Her handcuffs were removed so she could sign a form to waive a grand jury hearing on her charges.

At various points during the hearing, Mitchell dabbed tears from behind her eyeglasses.

Mitchell’s lawyer, Stephen Johnston, described his client was anxious, depressed and remorseful.

“She got in over her head into something she never should have started, but she did and she is paying the price now and she realizes she made a horrible mistake,” he said.

Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie told reporters that he couldn’t use her word alone to convict Mitchell on a charge of conspiracy to murder her husband. The inmates reportedly planned to kill her husband after the breakout.

The inmate who was recaptured, David Sweat, did not corroborate such a conspiracy, Wylie said. “Because of the facts that we had before us, to prove such a charge beyond a reasonable doubt would have been extremely difficult,” the prosecutor said.

Johnston denied Mitchell’s involvement in a plot to kill Lyle Mitchell and said his client’s husband was sticking by her.

Sentencing will take place in September.

RELATED: Full coverage of the New York Prison Break

Authorities said Mitchell, a tailor at the Clinton Correctional Facility, provided inmates Richard Matt and Sweat with tools they used to cut through cell walls for their escape from the prison in Dannemora, New York.

Mitchell admitted that with the help of another prison employee she smuggled hacksaw blades by hiding them in frozen hamburger meat, a law enforcement official told CNN last month.

The escape was discovered on June 6. A massive manhunt ended in late June after law enforcement officers fatally shot Matt and recaptured Sweat.

She faced up to eight years behind bars if tried and convicted, authorities said.

Officials said Matt and Sweat had originally planned to come out of a manhole and meet Mitchell, who would drive them away. But Mitchell didn’t show up, officials said.

Despite their botched getaway plan, Sweat and Matt managed to elude authorities for about three weeks. They fled through the woods of upstate New York, breaking into a cabin and collecting supplies.

Thought Mitchell was said to have had a relationship with the inmates, Sweat did not confirm that he had sex with her, according to Wylie.

“He did not confirm that whatsoever,” Wylie said.

Mitchell potentially faced additional charges — including allegations of sexual conduct with one of the inmates, and allegations that there was a conspiracy to have her husband killed — but Tuesday’s plea deal precludes that, Wylie said.

“I made a determination it was in the interest of justice” to proceed with the plea on the two counts, Wylie said.

Mitchell, however, could still be charged with other counts if an inspector general’s investigation turns up any new crimes, the prosecutor said.

New York State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott said in a statement that Mitchell’s guilty plea made “clear her culpability in the systemic breakdown that led to the escape of two cold-blooded killers.”

The plea deal includes Mitchell’s continued cooperation in the broader investigation of the prison.

“Nothing short of her full cooperation will be tolerated, and I am confident that when she fulfills this obligation, I will provide a thorough and complete accounting of all the factors contributing to this elaborate breakout, with an eye toward ensuring this never happens again,” the statement said.

Plea negotiations with the lawyer for another prison employee, Gene Palmer, have failed and his case will be presented to a grand jury, Wylie said. Palmer is accused of taking meat that concealed the hacksaw blades to Sweat and Matt, who subsequently escaped.

Palmer was a guard on the honor block where Matt and Sweat were housed. His former attorney has said the guard was unaware of the meat’s contents when he was asked to get it to Matt.

After Sweat’s capture, the inmate told police that he and Matt conducted a practice run of their prison break the night before they disappeared, a state official said.

Three members of Clinton Correctional Facility’s executive team, along with nine security staff employees, have been placed on paid administrative leave as part of the review of the escape, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Superintendent Steven Racette and Deputy Superintendent Stephen Brown are among the executives on leave, a state official said. The other is First Deputy Superintendent Donald Quinn, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

The FBI is investigating possible broader corruption at the prison, law enforcement officials briefed on the case said. Agents are looking into whether drug trafficking or other criminal behavior among employees and inmates took place, officials said.

Some employees who have been questioned told investigators that there was heroin use among prisoners and an alleged drug trade involving employees, the officials said.

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