It was a simple plan: Help a couple killers break out of prison, persuade them to kill your husband, then run off to Vermont and live happily ever after. Maybe a cottage by the sea. Just you and two fugitive psychopaths.
In New York today, prison worker Joyce Mitchell stands accused of helping two convicted murderers—Richard Matt, 48, and 35-year-old David Sweat—escape. And authorities now say the 51-year-old woman had sex with both men before they escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora on June 6. They remain at large, and Mitchell is facing several charges.
As weird as it all sounds, this isn’t anything new nor unusual. It’s illegal in all states, but every year hundreds of consensual sexual relationships are documented between inmates and prison staffers (and those are just the ones we know about). More than half of those proven acts of sexual misconduct behind bars are committed by female prison workers, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
As a talk radio host asked me just yesterday: What the hell?
Last week, I spent two days interviewing a triple killer in prison. It was fascinating to watch the interaction and relationships between the inmate, guards, and staffers. It’s a delicate little dance they do, not really as coarse and brutal as Hollywood makes it seem. It’s necessary to the daily functioning of a prison.
But there are flawed souls on both sides of this dance, and it’s delicate enough that it doesn’t take more than a subtle, unseen nudge to throw it out of whack.
What draws some women to prison inmates? What thrills “serial-killer groupies”? Is prison really a good place to look for love?
First, there’s a word for some of this behavior. Hybristophilia is an erotic attraction to people who are dangerous or have committed heinous crimes. Serial killers get lots of fan mail—and marriage proposals. But that’s just one small reason some women are attracted to inmates.
Others are drawn to inmates, first, by moral activism. Maybe they are against the death penalty or want to save a soul for Jesus Christ. But when they reach out to a prison pen-pal, they are often easy prey for superficially charming manipulators for whom almost every interpersonal act is designed to get whatever they want (money, dirty pictures, etc.)
Some of these women fear a cheating spouse who’ll run off with a perkier, younger girlfriend. Some want a boyfriend who can literally devote most hours of every day to her. And because physical relationships are hard behind bars, the intensity of fantasy and emotion can make it all seem like a 35-to-life honeymoon. In short, being in prison can be the best quality in some men.
Are these women intolerably lonely? Are they ugly? Under-educated? Are they disappointed in “outside” love? Are they slightly insane? Maybe all … and maybe none. There is no “profile” for a woman who falls in love with an inmate (even when she should know better). Some are beautiful, educated, and already in “normal” relationships. And they are almost always being played by the inmate for something that looks nothing like love.
Maybe they have a strong capacity for denial, and maybe they are moths drawn to a flame. But they are certainly not easily lumped in one holding cell. It isn’t a perfect love—not even close—but it’s a fact of life.
Ron Franscell is the author of THE DARKEST NIGHT, a true crime bestseller. His classic thrillers THE DEADLINE and THE OBITUARY were recently published by WildBlue Press.