Weird History

The True Story Of The New York Prison Break That Inspired 'Escape At Dannemora' 

Genevieve Carlton
Updated January 31, 2019 6.3k views 14 items

In 2018, Ben Stiller took the story of the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape and turned it into Showtime's Escape at Dannemora. In the limited series, Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano, and Patricia Arquette portray the real-life inmates and prison guard who plotted the escape as part of an alleged love triangle. But the true story behind Escape at Dannemora - including the brutal histories of escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat - is much darker than the typical prison TV show.

How did two inmates break out of a maximum security prison and evade capture for close to a month? For starters, several prison guards were in on the plot to help the men escape. Instead of confiscating contraband from the inmates, guards actually smuggled in art supplies and hacksaws hidden in raw meat for the prisoners. The lack of security allowed Sweat to break out of his cell 85 times without anyone noticing. As he later told police, “Shawshank ain’t got sh*t on me.”

The Escape Itself Took Less Than An Hour
The Escape Itself Took L... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The True Story Of The New York Prison Break That Inspired 'Escape At Dannemora'
Photo: Showtime

On the night of the escape, it took convicted felons Richard Matt and David Sweat under an hour to escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison also known as Dannemora because of its location in Dannemora, NY. They were so quick that they actually arrived at the end of their escape route about 10 minutes earlier than they expected. After his capture, Sweat told investigators, “Shawshank ain’t got sh*t on me."

The prisoners escaped by cutting holes through the walls of their cells with hacksaw blades that a guard smuggled into the prison. On June 5, 2015, the men slipped through the holes and snuck through the prison, traveling between the walls and reaching a steam pipe the pair had to crawl through. Due to Matt's claustrophobia, Sweat had to drag the other inmate through the pipe with a bedsheet. Matt and Sweat then climbed out of a manhole about two blocks away from the prison and went on the run. It would take nearly a month and $23 million for authorities to catch the escaped criminals.

Matt And Sweat Met At The Maximum Security Prison
Matt And Sweat Met At Th... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The True Story Of The New York Prison Break That Inspired 'Escape At Dannemora'
Photo: Showtime

Richard Matt and David Sweat didn't know each other before they were sentenced to the maximum security prison in Dannemora, NY. In an ironic twist, the became friends in 2010 because they earned cells on the "honor block," a privileged part of the prison reserved for inmates who have demonstrated good behavior. 

Matt and Sweat both worked in the prison's tailor shop, where they bonded over shared creative passions. Matt had a reputation at the prison as a skilled artist, and he encouraged Sweat to try his hand at art. They became friends over the years, with Sweat giving Matt the nickname "Hacksaw." In January 2015, the men requested prison cells next to each other. The prison granted the request, and the inmates began planning their escape. 

A Prison Guard Planned To Off Her Husband And Run Off With The Inmates
A Prison Guard Planned T... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The True Story Of The New York Prison Break That Inspired 'Escape At Dannemora'
Photo: Showtime

As early as 2014, rumors spread around the prison that one of the guards, Joyce Mitchell, was having inappropriate relations with prisoners. Both Sweat and Matt flirted with Mitchell to get her help, and she eventually engaged in a physical relationship with Matt. When they were planning their escape, Matt allegedly told Sweat, "She’s f*cking nuts, she’ll bring us whatever we want, just tell me what you need and I’ll get her to bring it in." The inmates convinced Mitchell to bring them hacksaws. They also plotted that Mitchell would dispose of her husband and run away with the escaped prisoners.

Mitchell's account of events diverges from the TV show's depiction. While the show paints a twisted love triangle between her and the two inmates, she claims she never had relations with Sweat. She also says she became intimate with Matt out of fear and that it was Matt's idea to get rid of her husband. She admits she had agreed to off her husband on the night of the escape. She received a two-to-seven-year prison sentence for her role in the escape.

Sweat Used A Dummy To Leave His Cell 85 Times Without Anyone Noticing
Sweat Used A Dummy To Le... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The True Story Of The New York Prison Break That Inspired 'Escape At Dannemora'
Photo: Showtime

After breaking through the wall in his prison cell, David Sweat began exploring the tunnels behind the prison walls on a nightly basis. Sweat would routinely sneak out of his cell after the 11 pm night check. He created a dummy from a sweatshirt and a pair of prison pants. The dummy fooled the guards, even though their instructions required them to look for human flesh during checks. He managed to leave his cell at least 85 times while planning the escape.

The official report from the New York Office of the Inspector General pointed out, “If only one of more than 400 required checks was properly performed during the time Sweat was out of his cell, the escape would have been instantly foiled."