Showtime’s ‘Escape at Dannemora’ has divided this small upstate New York town
Dannemora, NY — Residents of this snowbound corner of the Adirondacks still bristle at the mention of Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell.
And they have a message for the 54-year-old prison employee-turned-prisoner when she’s sprung in a few years: “You’re not welcome here.”
“I’d tell her: ‘You’re no good.’ … With any luck, she’ll pass away in prison and never have to come back,” said a longtime friend of Lyle Mitchell, Tillie’s cuckolded husband.
The pal, like many in this village of 4,616 people and its outskirts near the Canadian border, are angry at the “Shawskank” of the Clinton Correctonal Facility. They were embarrassed and disgusted when the married seamstress supervisor smuggled jailbreak tools to two convicted killers — her secret storeroom lovers David Sweat and Richard Matt — so they could escape the max lockup in 2015. Sweat was captured and Matt killed after a 23-day manhunt.
The hit Showtime series “Escape at Dannemora” has reopened the wound, with Hollywood painting locals as doddering simpletons and corrections officers as crooked and oblivious buffoons.
“It’s insulting — they have everyone look like a bunch of hillbillies,” said Lyle’s pal. Another local was recently asked by an outsider, “Is everybody in that town that dumb?”
The fallout at Clinton, New York state’s largest prison and the area’s biggest employer, also gnaws at the locals. Prison workers, even the 1,000 correction officers, must now enter the facility at the beginning of their shifts carrying belongings in transparent bags.
‘It’s insulting — they have everyone look like a bunch of hillbillies.’
“They call them ‘Tillie bags,’” said Donna Rovito, owner of Serendipity Salon and Day Spa in nearby Malone, whose husband is a career CO. “As soon as that went down, the state bought in clear plastic bags for all employees.” (Rovito and her salon were featured in a scene in the show, in which Tillie, played by Patricia Arquette, treats herself to a manicure.)
“They can see everything — there’s no privacy,” a disgusted correction officer told The Post while holding up a clear bag with a sandwich inside it for display. “It makes people think everyone’s the bad apple. A CO’s life is in danger every day.”
But it is Lyle Mitchell, 52, Tillie’s husband of 17 years, who has the biggest cross to bear, townspeople and friends say.
According to official law enforcement accounts, Tillie confessed to having non-consensual oral sex with Matt and providing nude photos of herself for Sweat. The Hollywood version shows her having intercourse with both men.
“They have Lyle playing a total idiot on TV. Sh-t, they should have gotten Goofy to play his part if they’re gonna do that,” said the pal.
“People laugh at him. He’s got a lot of shame. I would sell my house and go. I would have gotten rid of her on day one,” said a softball-league friend. “I told him to his face: ‘If you love her, shut up about it – don’t tell the whole world. Go see her on the
The friend said Lyle — who’s depicted as an electrician on the show but was actually a prison tailor — no longer works at Clinton and collects disability. He still lives in the couple’s home in Dickinson Center, about an hour from Dannemora. And he is still devoted to Tillie, even taking in her ailing 77-year-old mother, Joyce Clookey.
Besotted Lyle even built his wife, who is eligible for parole in June 2019 after two denials in 2017, a backyard gazebo — something she said she wanted upon her release. “He’s waiting for her to come home,” said Bill, who lives down the road.
“I think he’s nuts for staying with his wife after she tried to kill him,” he added. “If my wife wanted me dead, I sure as hell wouldn’t take her back.”
Clinton County prosecutors said Tillie discussed killing Lyle with the inmates. Sweat told investigators it was actually Tillie who first floated the idea, an allegation she has denied. She was never formally charged with the murder plot. Her 2015 conviction was for promoting prison contraband (a hacksaw and a drill bit) and misdemeanor criminal facilitation.
Lyle is rarely seen around town, and only spends time at the volunteer fire department, friends said.
On Thursday morning, a sad-sack Lyle answered the door in blue jeans and T-shirt with dog at his side. He told a reporter he’s doing “good,” but added, “I’m not saying nothing to nobody.”
His ex-wife, with whom he has two grown children and who lives nearby, has been taking him in and feeding him, and will probably have him over for Christmas, said Lyle’s pal.
“I don’t care what [Tillie] does, but she made my buddy look like a moron,” he said. “I told him, ‘You’re not the first guy to marry a whore.’ He didn’t like that. People laugh at him. We’ve got a lot of town jokes and he’s one of them.”
The friend added that she was always trouble. “She had no friends — nobody liked her.” At a softball game years ago, his wife “gave me orders: ‘Never leave me alone with her again.’”
“He really loved her. He was so nice to her all the time and very loving,” said Mackenzie Bice, a hostess at King’s Wok restaurant in Malone, where Tillie was plotting to slip Lyle a sleeping pill in his drink the night of the escape. “She was just mean to him, so standoffish.”
Nowadays, Lyle returns to the scene of the almost-crime, eating there recently with some male friends at the $10.75 buffet.
Disgraced Corrections Officer Gene Palmer, who was depicted in the show as palling around with the escapees, especially Matt, served four months in jail for official misconduct. His life will never be the same.
Cadyville neighbor Sandy O’Neill, a staunch defender of Palmer, said he is a basket case, shunned by friends. “He cries a lot,” she said. He now does carpentry work in Boston to get by, she said.
She blames Tillie for the escape. “Everybody does the same thing: bring in things the inmates want – that’s the way it used to be, that’s the way it always was,” she said. “Tillie had sex and everything with those guys. She should have been hung. [Palmer] was the scapegoat.”
Some locals don’t mind the spotlight.
“I usually just watch hunting and fishing shows,” said King’s Wok owner Sam Jiang. “Now I watch ‘Escape at Dannemora.’”
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