Report: NY prison fails to end inmate-employee romances

A fake identity, a pre-paid cell phone and secret notes describing a kiss.

Those are the elements of a forbidden prison romance that has prompted authorities to recommend more security improvements at a New York facility that was center stage in a bizarre prison break three years ago.

In a report released Friday, the New York state inspector general revealed that changes made at the Clinton Correctional Facility in the wake of a remarkable escape in 2015 did not put an end to illicit relationships between inmates and employees.

In that escape, David Sweat and Richard Matt cut through steel walls and made their way through a maze of tunnels before escaping the Dannemora, New York, prison. Joyce Mitchell, a prison tailor who had personal relationships with the men, had smuggled hacksaw blades for them and had also planned to be the pair’s getaway driver, though she didn’t show up.

Thousands of agents took on a nationwide manhunt for weeks until Matt was killed and Sweat was captured near the Canada border. Mitchell confessed to helping the inmates and was sentenced to up to seven years in state prison for promoting prison contraband.

In the new report, which examines the current security at the facility, authorities describe another relationship between a prisoner and a worker in the same prison’s tailor shop.

The worker, Denise Prell, 39, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to 25 misdemeanor counts, including official misconduct, promoting prison contraband and sexual abuse, authorities said. She was released and will be sentenced November 13.

“Denise and I are both very happy the original felony charge was reduced to the appropriate charge by the Judge,” Justin Herzog, Prell’s attorney, told CNN by email. “Without a felony there is no chance of a prison sentence.”

Herzog said Prell can face a maximum of two consecutive years in county jail, but he noted there are a number of other sentencing possibilities.

Prior to her arrest, Prell had been chosen to be an assistant to actress Patricia Arquette, who was filming a Showtime series about the 2015 prison escape, the report says.

Using a fake name

Prell was hired three months after the first-ever escape in the facility’s 170-year history. She was found to have “engaged in an improper five-month relationship with an inmate” in 2017, the report says.

The inmate, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter for a 2008 killing in Brooklyn, worked in the prison’s tailor shop and trained other inmates. The pair met at the same tailor shop where Mitchell met the prisoners she helped escape.

What began as just personal conversations and notes hidden under a work clipboard turned into nearly a dozen phone calls over the months.

She bought a pre-paid cell phone to receive calls from the prison and used the name “Gwendolyn Freeman” to avoid being discovered.

Her new alias was a combination of her middle name “and the status — a free man — the inmate hoped to attain one day,” the report says.

Authorities said they discovered more than 25 cards or letters addressed to the inmate from Prell’s alias.

Sharing snacks and money transfers

Prell was also found to have made several money and contraband transactions with the inmate.

“Prell introduced contraband into the prison by giving the inmate $100 cash, and the two engaged in an unlawful romantic relationship, which included kissing and fondling on at least three occasions,” the report says.

Authorities said the inmate ultimately used the money to purchase a radio from another inmate.

She also gave the inmate candy and beef jerky, which the inmate didn’t like and ended up giving away to a fellow prisoner.

Prell also made regular deposits to the inmate’s prison account and even paid $180 for a debt the inmate had with a relative.

Preventing illicit behavior

State officials said they have implemented numerous reforms to the Clinton Correctional Facility in the wake of the 2015 escape but more work needs to be done.

“The fact that another similarly situated employee engaged in much of the same sorts of conduct seems unfathomable and reminds us of the need for continued diligence in implementing the new security measures,” said Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott in a statement.

Because Prell’s violations are so similar to Mitchell’s case, the state made more security recommendations part of the report.

The report recommends additional employee training focusing on inmate manipulation, more guards at the tailor shops and installation of more security cameras and monitors.