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Ordeal of an Upstate New York Prison Break, Relived on TV

The New York Times logo The New York Times 2 days ago By RICK ROJAS

Nearly two years ago, two convicted killers escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility and touched off a 23-day manhunt.

Nearly two years ago, two convicted killers escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility and touched off a 23-day manhunt.
© Caleb Kenna for The New York Times

DANNEMORA, N.Y. — Imagine the elevator pitch:

A fortress of a prison in a tiny village besieged by unforgiving wilderness. Two convicted murderers longing for a life outside its walls — plotting an elaborate escape, enlisting prison workers to sneak in tools, sometimes hidden in meat, and painstakingly carving their way out.

Then, one day, they pull it off, emerging from a manhole cover nearby. They leave behind a message written on a sticky note: “Have a nice day!”

The escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility almost two years ago touched off a 23-day manhunt that rattled and riveted this region of upstate New York where many said they had grown accustomed to living in the shadow of a maximum-security prison.

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As investigators fanned out in a vast search and residents started taking the unusual step of locking their doors, conversations often drifted from expressing surprise over an exit that would have once seemed impossible to speculation over how far the inmates had gotten and how the episode would inevitably catch the attention of filmmakers and television producers.

“It was just a given,” said Patricia Light, who grew up in Dannemora and whose home is just a short walk downhill from the prison. “It was quite an ordeal for us, and it was scary because we had no idea where they were.”

Sure enough, idle chatter over the Hollywood treatment has turned into something real. It is not necessarily the big-budget blockbuster that some might have envisioned, but a made-for-TV movie, to be broadcast on Sunday on the Lifetime network. It seems likely to draw an audience of residents here eager to watch — some quite skeptically — a production based on their community’s true story.

The movie, “New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell,” centers on Ms. Mitchell, who worked in the prison tailor shop. Officials said she smuggled in hacksaw blades, chisels and other tools to help the prisoners, Richard Matt and David Sweat, forge a way out. But she failed to show up as planned with a getaway car, forcing the men to scuttle plans to flee far from the area and instead head into the region’s thick woods.

Mr. Matt was fatally shot by a United States Border Patrol agent after he refused to drop a shotgun, and two days later, Mr. Sweat was shot and captured near the Canadian border. Ms. Mitchell, who pleaded guilty to aiding in the escape, was sentenced to up to seven years in prison, describing her actions as “by far the worst mistake I have made in my life.”

In the movie, Ms. Mitchell, portrayed by the actress Penelope Ann Miller, is cast as an easy mark for the men, charmed by their romantic advances. The men talk of running to Mexico, and Ms. Mitchell, who is frustrated by her marriage and listens to recordings of romance novels while doing chores, pictures herself joining them, even losing weight to fit into a bikini. But a panic attack sends her to the hospital when she is supposed to rendezvous with the men.

In one scene, an investigator recounts the (actual) crimes that led to the men’s incarceration. Mr. Sweat was serving life without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy, shooting him before running him over with his car while he was still alive. Mr. Matt was serving 25 years to life for torturing and killing his former boss.

“And you gave them the means to escape from prison into the population?” the investigator said.

“Everybody says I’m too nice,” Ms. Mitchell’s character replied.

“Prison Break” is the latest production by a writer-director and producers who have translated other “true crimes” popular with tabloid readers into television movies, including ones involving the case of three young women held captive for over a decade in Cleveland and the so-called Craigslist killer, a man accused of murdering a woman he met online.

Even as the manhunt was underway in 2015, the escape in Dannemora had caught their attention as a potential next project. “We knew right away,” said Judith Verno, an executive producer.

She said they had been gripped by the story of an apparently ordinary woman who had become manipulated into colluding with killers. “That’s what’s compelling to us,” Ms. Verno said. “How do you find that moment that is both relatable and goes in a direction that’s extraordinary?”

The movie’s script was the product of meticulous research, she said, including Freedom of Information Law requests for documents, reviewing news accounts and getting assistance from a local consultant. Much of the dialogue, she added, had come from the characters’ own words. The line about being “too nice”? That came from an interview Ms. Mitchell conducted with NBC.

“The stories as they play out in real life do not need any dramatic augmentation,” Ms. Verno said. “Truth is better than fiction, and we are strong believers in that.”

Around Dannemora, plenty will be watching closely.

“That time put us on the map, for good or bad,” said Simon Conroy, a Clinton County legislator and an organizer of the Lake Champlain International Film Festival, “and most people are interested to see that it’s been picked up as a story and they want to see how the story is told.”

The episode brought about changes inside the prison, but its legacy has manifested itself in other strange ways. It inspired Halloween costumes, and the “Have a Nice Day!” note (along with an off-color sketch) has been printed on T-shirts.

And when Tina Leduc moved her salon to a new location last year, she said it led her to the perfect name: Escape to a New You.

She described her shop as a social network come to life, where all the talk of the town filters through. And on a recent morning, with a client in the chair and Otis, her Shih Tzu, sprawled on the floor, she could confirm that the coming movie was one such topic of conversation. They would be watching, even if just out of curiosity.

“I want to know how it doesn’t tell the truth,” said Brenda Bingel, who retired after three decades as a civilian employee in the prison and who will be among the more skeptical viewers.

The high walls of the prison loom over Dannemora, a bulwark that consumes one side of the main street in this community of fewer than 5,000 unincarcerated residents in the northeastern corner of the state. It is one of the first things visitors notice, and they often voice concern over the proximity to criminals.

“We would laugh at them,” Ms. Leduc said. “We have nothing to worry about. They’re not going to stay here,’’ she added, referring to the prisoners. “They’re going to leave.”

But the escape changed all of that, upending life for weeks. Helicopters hovered overhead, shaking the walls of houses. State Police officers searched backyards. These days, locking doors has become a habit. Ms. Leduc said she started carrying bear mace.

“The sting is off, but you’re never not looking behind you,” she said. “It changed us.”

She was doubtful that the movie could capture all of that — the fear, the concern over the loved ones, like her son, a corrections officer, working long hours in tough conditions during the search.

“You don’t hear about the broken legs. You don’t hear about the tick bites,” Ms. Leduc said. “You hear about one woman.”

She, for one, said she would not be watching. Living through the ordeal was enough, she said. She also figures that as soon as she opens her shop next week, she will hear all about it.

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