Woman alleged to have helped two killers escape US prison back in court

Joyce Mitchell (left), a prison worker who allegedly helped two convicts escape from prison, is lead from Plattsburgh Ciy Court after a hearing on Monday in Plattsburgh, New York. -- PHOTO: AFP
Joyce Mitchell (left), a prison worker who allegedly helped two convicts escape from prison, is lead from Plattsburgh Ciy Court after a hearing on Monday in Plattsburgh, New York. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - A 51-year-old woman was back in court Monday on charges of helping two killers escape a maximum security New York jail, as the state governor ordered a sweeping investigation.

More than 800 state, local and federal agents backed by K9 units and helicopters were for a tenth day searching a day for Richard Matt, 49, and David Sweat, 35.

The pair had used power tools to cut their way to freedom from the Clinton Correctional Facility in the village of Dannemora.

Joyce Mitchell, who worked at a prison tailoring shop, spent the weekend in jail after pleading not guilty to charges of "promoting prison contraband" and "criminal facilitation".

The married woman looked scared and nervous as she stood, her head of straggly dyed-blonde hair bowed, next to her lawyer at a brief hearing Monday that formally transferred the case to a county court.

Officials say Mitchell was sweet-talked by Matt, who was convicted of dismembering his 76-year-old former boss, and Sweat, who shot dead a sheriff's deputy, into facilitating their escape.

She allegedly smuggled hacksaw blades, drill bits, spectacles with attached lights and gloves behind bars for the convicts.

Clinton County district attorney Andrew Wylie told CNN that Mitchell jad agreed to bring a getaway car to collect the prisoners from a power plant to drive around seven hours away.

The exact location was not known. But at the last minute she changed her mind and checked into a hospital - reportedly suffering from a panic attack - unable to bring herself to leave her husband.

On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered an investigation into every aspect of the escape, looking at prison design, operations and security to determine how the men escaped and to recommend reforms.

"Capturing these killers and returning them to state custody remains our top priority. However, it's critically important to examine the circumstances that enabled these inmates to escape in the first place," Cuomo said.

"Make no mistake: any individual found to have assisted in this escape will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

The governor's office said that more than 800 state police, FBI, forestry rangers and other personnel were taking part in the search that had thrown up more than 900 leads.

Local schools reopened for the first time since last Wednesday, with police deployed on campuses and all outdoor activities suspended until further notice.

"We don't know if they are still in the immediate area or if they are in Mexico by now," Cuomo admitted Sunday.

State police are concentrating the search along highway 374 in the town of Plattsburgh, with a portion of the road closed, and that to date more than 13 square miles had been searched.

Much of the expensive manhunt has focused on dense woodland and swamp close to the jail, where wet weather has complicated efforts.

There is a US$100,000 reward for information leading to the murderers' arrest, and the public has been warned to call 911 immediately if they spot anything suspicious and not to approach either man.

Matt, 1.83 meters tall with multiple tattoos, was serving a sentence of 25 years to life for the 1997 kidnapping and dismembering of his former boss in a 27-hour ordeal.

He fled to Mexico after the murder and killed another American there, before being sentenced to 20 years and extradited back to New York.

Sweat was serving a life sentence without parole for murdering a sheriff's deputy in New York state in 2002 when he was 22.

The pair's escape has been likened to Hollywood movies such as The Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz.