joyce mitchell 2

“I don’t understand why she would give it all up for a piece of sh*t killer. He must have played some serious mind games on her.”

~ A relative of Joyce Mitchell


When this story was unfolding in the news, I thought it would turn into a Major Teaching Moment about psychopaths and their powerful manipulative skills. Boy, was I wrong. It seems that moment came and went.

On June 6, brutal murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat carried out an elaborate escape that included cutting through metal, breaking down walls, and traveling through steam pipes before emerging from a manhole cover beyond the confines of a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.

Joyce Mitchell, a civilian employee who worked as an instructor in the prison’s tailor shop, assisted them by providing hacksaw blades and other tools. She was also in love with them, and had been having sex with Richard Matt (and possibly David Sweat as well).  She would be the getaway driver after their escape, and planned to live happily ever after with one of them. There was even a plan in place to kill her husband. Joyce panicked at the last moment, and ended up in the hospital instead of at the designated rendezvous spot. Today she remains locked in prison awaiting trial, and faces up to eight years behind bars.

joyce mitchell before

Many people were perplexed. Why would this hard-working, trustworthy, responsible, churchgoing, proud military mom and wife of a fellow prison employee do such a heinous thing? What could possibly cause her to act so out of character?

I wasn’t perplexed, and I doubt many of you were, either. It’s just another story of psychological and emotional manipulation. It may be an extreme one, with plenty of intrigue, drama and dire consequences, but it’s about manipulation nonetheless.

“I believe Mitchell was manipulated and used as a pawn to help Matt and Sweat complete their escape plan, which is not uncommon in prison settings,” wrote Professor Michael Pittaro, a 27-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. “This often starts with an informal conversation, often about the correctional worker’s personal life. This conversation essentially opens the door to further manipulation and starts the grooming process that often follows. Even after many years on the job, I too fell for this simple, yet effective tactic.”


“Getting to the bottom of what — and, more importantly, who — went so badly wrong is second in urgency only to returning the killers to harsh justice.”

~ NY Daily News, ‘The great worst escape: New York Must Urgently Get to the Bottom of How’

This reporter missed the boat. The WHAT is of much more importance than the WHO.

It seems they’re getting to the bottom of “who.” Twelve prison guards have been suspended, one was arrested and released on bond, and one of them, Joyce, remains incarcerated.

Actually, getting to the bottom of “what” — which they should already be aware of — needs to be the primary concern, or prison escapes will continue, as will the innumerable instances of prison guards smuggling cellphones, money, and other contraband into prisons. Until that time, prison employees will continue putting their jobs, freedom, and lives on the line by falling for the manipulation of the inmates they work with, along with putting the public in jeopardy. Whatever prison officials are doing now to prevent these things from happening isn’t enough.

“One of the common responses to misconduct incidents is to create or strengthen policies or laws in an effort to prevent future misconduct. However, such policies are unlikely to deter someone who falls prey to a prisoner’s manipulative tactics. The majority of correctional facilities do not do enough to educate officers and staff members about personal, professional, ethical, and legal boundaries with inmates.” ~ Michael Pittaro

 Joyce Mitchell is merely a scapegoat in a much bigger debacle of manipulation that occurred at the prison.

How in the world were Matt and Sweat allowed to live on the prison’s “honor block,” which came with privileges of wearing street clothes, cooking meals, greater freedom of movement, and having jobs that brought them into contact with civilian employees like Joyce? They were able to con their way there by diligently playing rule-respecting good guys in order to gain privileges and trust.

I’m all for rehabilitation (and reform of the entire prison system). But looking at the facts of these two inmates makes it obvious they should have been given increased security instead of increased privileges. It’s obvious both were psychopaths. Does that mean anything to prison officials and prison psychologists? Anything at all?

Matt and Sweat were both career criminals with a history of extreme brutality.

David Sweat

David Sweat

David Sweat was in a park unloading stolen guns when a police officer came upon him. Sweat shot the deputy fifteen times, ran over him for good measure (while he was still alive), and then stole the officer’s weapons before fleeing.

matt 1

Richard Matt

Richard Matt had previously escaped from another prison. Most recently, he was incarcerated for kidnapping and then brutally torturing, murdering and dismembering his former boss, William Rickerson. When he was wanted for that crime, he ran to Mexico and murdered again, spending several years behind bars there before being brought back to the US and convicted of his boss’s murder.

During the trial, extraordinary measures were taken to protect people in the courtroom and to prevent his escape: A sniper was stationed outside of the courthouse. Twice the usual number of deputies were stationed in the courtroom. Matt was made to wear an electric stun belt, and the glass that covered the wood counsel tables was removed out of fear that Matt might break the glass and used the shards as weapons.

“You can never have enough security with him,” said Gabriel DiBernardo, a retired captain with the North Tonawanda Police Department who was the chief of detectives leading the investigation into Mr. Rickerson’s death. “You can never trust him. You can never turn your back on him.”

Mr. DiBernardo, who retired in 1998, offered a sentiment echoed by others in law enforcement here:

“He is the most vicious, evil person I’ve ever come across in 38 years as a police officer.”

~ NY Times, Rick Rojas, ‘A Convicted Murderer’s Escape Alarms Investigators From His Past’

Despite the facts, which prison officials were well aware of, Matt and Sweat managed to con their way to the ‘honor block’ and — with seemingly no supervision — were allowed daily access to Joyce Mitchell.

What did they expect? Why was what happened a surprise? I guess I shouldn’t bother to ask. After all, these supposedly knowledgeable officials were conned by two inmates who — after their “brilliant” escape — were caught because of the trail of the dirty socks and prison-issue underpants they carelessly left behind.

What kind of people make such a grandiose escape from prison and then blow it by counting on someone they manipulated to show up and rescue them, and then end up staggering around the woods drunk, eating pop tarts, and leaving behind a trail of dirty underwear while being pursued by 1,200 cops? Psychopaths, that’s what kind.

In a world that made sense, instead of being made a scapegoat, Joyce Mitchell would be suing her employer for putting her at unnecessary risk. The whole fiasco was completely unnecessary. If there’s one place where psychopaths are recognized and people are aware of manipulation tactics, it’s prison. It was a system-wide failure, and simply blaming and punishing Joyce and the others who were manipulated won’t solve the problem. Making the most of a Major Teaching Moment will. It’s an opportunity for education, not for blame.

Learn How Inmates Manipulate:

Downing of a Duck

14 Steps of a Set-Up

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