Gene Palmer did not know David Sweat and Richard Matt planned to escape, authorities believe

By Greg Hanlon
Updated March 01, 2016 11:20 AM
Credit: Rob Fountain/The Press-Republican/AP

Gene Palmer, the suspended prison guard at Clinton Correctional Facility who unwittingly aided last June’s escape of convicted killers David Sweat and Richard Matt, accepted a negotiated plea deal on Monday and was sentenced to six months in jail, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie tells PEOPLE.

Palmer, 57, pleaded guilty to three charges: felony and misdemeanor charges of promoting prison contraband and a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct.

Palmer previously admitted to passing prisoners Matt and Sweat a package of frozen hamburger meat containing hacksaw blades used in their escape. Prison guard Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell pleaded guilty last July to aiding their escape and to putting hacksaw blades in the hamburger meat to avoid metal detectors and was sentenced to two to seven years in prison.

Palmer also admitted to supplying Sweat and Matt with pliers and a screwdriver, and also to accepting paintings from Matt.

Authorities believe Palmer was unaware Sweat and Matt planned to escape. Wylie says an investigation “determined that [Palmer], in all likelihood, lacked sufficient knowledge that there were blades in the hamburger meat.”

He added, “I do not believe that Gene Palmer was aware or had any knowledge that Matt and Sweat were attempting to escape.”

According to Wylie, Palmer said that he believed the screwdriver and pliers he gave the pair were being used to “jury rig the electrical system behind their cells so they could wire their cells to use hot plates.”

Wylie added, “That’s the reason he gave and that’s consistent with statements that Sweat and Matt gave.”

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Sweat and Matt escaped last June 6. On June 26, authorities caught up with Matt and fatally shot him. Sweat was captured two days later and later pleaded guilty to charges related to his escape. He faces an additional seven years in prison, though he is already serving life without parole.

Favors in Exchange for Information

Palmer said the favors to Matt and Sweat were part of a barter system in which he would exchange favors with prisoners in exchange for information. Says Wylie, “Gene Palmer would obtain information from certain inmates regarding the daily ongoings or either criminal or improper behavior amongst the inmates. He basically treated them like confidential informants.”

But Wylie added there were no documented instances of Palmer giving information to prison officials obtained through these channels that prevented a crime.

Palmer was a veteran guard who worked at the prison for 27 years. However, in a 2000 interview with North County Public Radio, he expressed cynicism toward the working conditions in the prison.

“With the money that they pay you, you’ll go bald, you’ll have high high blood pressure, you’ll become an alcoholic,” he said. He added, “You’ll divorce, and then you’ll kill yourself.”

New York Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott released a statement Monday saying, “This disgraced corrections officer’s disregard for the laws and rules guiding his profession underscores his criminal culpability in the systemic breakdown of security that led to last summer s escape of two convicted killers.”

The statement added: “His actions made him a key enabler for the convicts’ escape plans and helped illuminate many of the procedural failures throughout Clinton Correctional Facility that I have been thoroughly investigating to help make sure it never happens again.”