They say that some people look for love in all the wrong places. For Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, one of those places may have been prison. When inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, it was later revealed that Mitchell, supervisor of the prison tailor shop, had provided tools and assistance to the escaped inmates and was romantically involved with Matt. Mitchell’s actions seem shocking, but within prisons, this phenomenon is surprisingly common.
As explained in an article by Slate with a little help from criminologist Stephen C. McGuinn of the sociology department at Quinnipiac University, “absolute rule enforcement [in prison] is probably inappropriate (and unlikely). Context generates situations that warrant departures from codified rule. And autonomy allows prison staff to appear human and reasonable—moved by situational factors.” Just like the average workplace, a prison’s employee rules aren’t strictly enforced; employees have some freedom in how they conduct themselves and with whom they interact.
Slate details research on prison inmate-employee relationships specifically. For female prison employees in male prisons, harassment from inmates and distance from male colleagues are both common, and when a prisoner makes a romantic gesture toward a female staffer, it is occasionally well received. For her part, Mitchell has been arrested for aiding and abetting the prison escape, and, after weeks on the lam, prisoner Richard Matt has been killed by police and David Sweat has been taken into custody as he apparently attempted to make his way to the Canadian border. In the media, Mitchell has been castigated, called everything from foolish and unprofessional to criminal and crazy. Sociologically speaking, though, her actions aren’t isolated.