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New York Prison Break: Former Inmates Are Shocked Over Inside Job Possibility

by Erik Ortiz /  / Updated 

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As a civilian worker who may have helped two convicted killers escape from an upstate New York prison was being interrogated Wednesday, one question loomed:

How close are civilians who work behind bars and prisoners allowed to get?

While authorities would only say prison seamstress Joyce Mitchell "befriended" inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat, the notion that she may have had a willing hand in Saturday's elaborate escape is shocking former prisoners who spoke with NBC News.

Roles between inmates and workers at the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security lockup in the remote town of Dannemora, are well-defined, they said.

Personal relationships, including intimate ones, are barred.

"Are they possible in prison? Yes," said Marty Tankleff, who spent a decade at Clinton before he was exonerated in 2007 in the murder of his parents 19 years earlier.

"But I never saw anything in Clinton like that," Tankleff said. "Would I think it'd take place? Not in Clinton. There's too much of a risk there."

Ex-inmate Jeremy Getman said life in prison is routine and rigorous, and much of the time guards and workers keep a cool distance rather than be overtly personal.

"There's instances when things become so routine, you do tend to let your guard down and you get to talking," said Getman, who served time in Clinton for a 2001 conviction on weapons charges. "The worker might mention something about their life, like how their wife does this or their husband does that."

Over stretches of months and years, the dynamic can shift into friendlier territory. Workers might offer an extra cigarette to an inmate. Tankleff recalled one Thanksgiving when guards brought in pumpkin and apple pies to share with the prisoners.

"You never really cross the border, but the mutual respect increases."

"I never saw an officer cross the line where they would really risk losing their job. Never heard about one bringing in a weapon, a cellphone or drugs," Tankleff said. "It can happen — I'm sure it has happened. But no one’s going to lose their jobs because they brought in an apple pie."

Photos: An Inside Look at Killers' Escape Route

Amid a tense manhunt, law enforcement beefed up police presence this week in Dannemora, near the Vermont and Canadian borders, in an effort to find Matt and Sweat. The men got access to power tools to slice through their cell walls, climbing through pipes and tunnels before maneuvering out of a manhole a block away to freedom, police said.

At an afternoon news conference Wednesday, authorities said they've sifted through more than 500 tips and have interviewed staff at Clinton. They also confirmed they're still interviewing the female worker identified in media reports. But Mitchell has not been charged.

The married mom is an industrial instructor in the prison's tailor shop, where Matt and Sweat — considered model inmates — worked. She went to the hospital complaining of a panic attack on the same day the men escaped.

Mitchell's son, Tobey, told NBC News on Tuesday that his mother is "not the kind of person that's going to risk her life or other people's lives to let these guys escape from prison."

Whether Mitchell could have supplied the power tools as part of an inside job remained unclear Wednesday.

Tankleff said that when he was at Clinton, civilian staffers were routinely teamed up with corrections officers while prisoners were put to work, so there wasn't much opportunity for the staffer to conspire with an inmate.

Touching, he added, is frowned upon — even a handshake and most definitely a hug. Guards who knew his history, however, would congratulate him when he had good news on his case.

"There's a sense that if you work around someone, that usually encompasses some sort of mutual respect, understanding," Tankleff said. "You never really cross the border, but the mutual respect increases."

Getman said he never recalled civilian workers carrying around cellphones. And if any of them would have offered an inmate one to use, that would have been snuffed out on the spot.

He added: "The higher-ups would view that as if you handed me a grappling hook with a piece of rope."

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