NEW YORK (Reuters) - A woman employee of an upstate New York prison on Friday pleaded not guilty to charges that she helped two inmates stage a daring escape from the maximum security facility.
Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, was arrested on suspicion of having smuggled contraband into the prison, from which convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped last weekend, authorities said.
Mitchell, 51, is charged with promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitation, according to the New York State Police. If convicted, she could face seven years in prison.
Mitchell pleaded not guilty on Friday, according to news network CNN, which broadcast images of the hearing. The judge set a cash bond of $110,000 for Mitchell, who is due to be in court again on Monday.
“This is one large piece of the puzzle in our quest to find these two escaped murderers,” New York State Police Major Charles Guess told a news conference.
In making their escape last Saturday, the convicted murderers slipped through holes cut into steel walls and a steam pipe, and popped out of a manhole in the street.
Authorities have not said what kind of contraband Mitchell allegedly smuggled into the prison, about 20 miles (32 km) south of the Canadian border.
Friday’s manhunt involved more than 800 law enforcement officers, along with sniffer dogs and aviation units.
It was focused just a few miles from the prison, and searchers were scouring wooded areas, going door-to-door and checking on seasonal homes, Guess said.
Authorities do not have any evidence showing the escapees have left the area, Guess said, or whether they were still together or had separated.
Chilly, rainy weather that made the search difficult would also have affected the escapees, Guess said.
“If they have not escaped the area or they have not availed themselves of shelter, you’ve got to assume they’re cold, wet, tired and hungry,” Guess said.
“That makes these individuals even more dangerous and desperate.”
Further charges could be filed against Mitchell, according to Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie.
Wylie earlier said Mitchell had been the subject of a previous investigation into allegations that she had a close relationship with Sweat, who worked at a prison shop Mitchell helped supervise.
He said the investigation turned up insufficient evidence to bring charges, though action had been taken to separate the two for a while.
Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst and Barbara Goldberg; Additional reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Clarence Fernandez