It may have gone under the radar in 2019, but Sky Atlantic’s latest crime miniseries Escape at Dannemora has been a hit among audiences and critics alike. Tackling the real-life 2015 prison escape at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano play real life escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat. But like most ‘true stories’, it got us wondering; how true to the real life events is Ben Stiller’s Escape at Dannemora? We take a look at the True Story of the Clinton Correctional Facility Prison Break.

True Story of the Clinton Correctional Facility Prison Break: Escape at Dannemora

Richard Matt & David Sweat

Richard Matt and David Sweat met at Clinton Correctional Facility in 2007. In 1998, Richard Matt murdered Charles Arnold Perreault in the Mexican city of Matamoros. According to news reports, Matt stabbed Perreault nine times in the back and abdomen in an attempt to rob him of $300. Matt was convicted of the murder in a Mexican court and received a 23-year sentence.

He served nine years (attempting to escape prison at one point) before being extradited to the US to be formally tried for the death of Willian Rickerson. In December 1997, Rickerson was kidnapped, murdered, and, dismembered with a hacksaw by Matt (his former employee) and an accomplice.

On the 4th July 2002, David Sweat burgled a fireworks store in Pennsylvania with two friends. They were confronted by local Deputy Sheriff Kevin Tarsia in nearby Kirkwood, New York. Sweat and one of the other men shot Tarsia 15 times, killing him at the scene. Sweat was sentenced to life without parole and sent to Clinton Correctional.


Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell

Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell had worked as a tailor-shop seamstress at Clinton Correctional Facility since 2008. During her time, it’s alleged that she began having sexual relations with both David Sweat and Richard Matt. Though she has denied a relationship with Sweat, she does admit to being intimate with Matt but claims it was through intimidation.

Whatever her relationship with Matt and Sweat – sexual or otherwise – Mitchell providing the two inmates with hacksaw blades, chisels, and other tools to aid their escape from prison. It was also planned that she would be the duo’s getaway driver once they broke out.

Not only that, it was reported that Mitchell was involved in a plot to kill her husband, Lyle, with the help of Matt and Sweat. It’s reported the inmates saw him a “glitch” to their escape plan. According to her confession, Matt planned to kill Lyle after the escape and gave Mitchell two pills to give to her husband to incapacitate him. Mitchell initially agreed. Later, however, she decided not to go through with the getaway and murder or her husband out of guilt.


Prison Break at Clinton Correctional Facility

On 6th June 2015 at the 5.17am morning count, it was discovered that Matt and Sweat were unaccounted for, having last been seen at 10.30pm the night before. It was soon discovered that the prisoners had tunnelled out of the prison to an “external breach” which was found on a street around 150 metres outside of the prison wall.

According to reports, the escapees had used tools from contractors during the nights to dig the tunnel, before returning them afterwards. The escape has been compared to the break out in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. A note was left behind by Matt and Sweat which read, “Have a nice day,” with a stereotypical ‘Asian smiley face’ wearing a triangular rice hat.


The Manhunt

The manhunt for Richard Matt and David Sweat began immediately and Joyce Mitchell was arrested and charged with aiding the escapees on the 12th June. There were no sightings of the pair for 16 days until DNA was found in a cabin near the prison. Investigators concluded that Matt and Sweat had been there within the previous 24 hours.

On 26th June, Matt was spotted in Franklin County, New York after he shot at the driver of a passing car with a 20-gauge shotgun taken from a hunting camp. A shootout occurred, with Matt being fatally shot by U.S. Border Patrol agents 50 miles west of Clinton Correctional Facility.

Sweat’s location was unknown until 28th June, 22 days after the escape, when State Trooper Sgt. Jay Cook passed Sweat as he walked along the road near Constable, New York – roughly 16 miles north of where Matt had been killed and just 1.5 miles from the Canadian border. As Cook circled back, Sweat began running across a hay field. Cook, a firearms instructor, shot Sweat twice in his abdomen. He had been captured.



With two bullet wounds, Sweat was in critical condition and was transported to the Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone, New York, before being transferred to Albany Medical Center. His condition improved and on 5th July, he was moved to a Special Housing Unit in the maximum security Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, New York.

Sweat pleaded guilty to first-degree escape and promoting prison contraband. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half to seven years, to be served consecutively with his previous life sentence. He was also ordered to pay $79,841 in restitution. Joyce Mitchell pleaded guilty to promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitation. She was sentenced to two-and-a-third to seven years in prison, fined $6,375, and ordered to pay $79,841 in restitution.

A second prison employee, guard Gene Palmer, was also charged with aiding the escape. Palmer admitted to smuggling tools into the prison and doing other favours for Richard Matt in exchange for paintings. Palmer was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $5,375. He served four months.

According to ABC News, the manhunt and investigation of Richard Matt and David Sweat cost around $23 million.


Escape at Dannemora (TV Series)

In 2018, the story of the Clinton Correctional Facility Prison Break was adapted into a 7-part television miniseries for Showtime. Created and written by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, ‘Escape at Dannemora’ was directed by Ben Stiller and starred Benicio del Toro (Richard Matt), Paul Dano (David Sweat) and Patricia Arquette (Joyce Mitchell). The show also featured Bryce Dallas Howard as a narrator.

In a letter from the executive producers, the production team states; “Much of our desire to create this series has been to tell a true story in as real a way as possible […] We interviewed and consulted with many correctional officers, community members, current and former prisoners and witnesses connected to this extraordinary crime and subsequent investigation.”

Take a look at the trailer for Escape at Dannemora below…


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