By Barbara Goldberg and Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A female employee of an upstate New York prison was arrested on Friday on charges that she helped two inmates stage a daring escape from the maximum security facility, authorities said.
Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, is suspected of having smuggled contraband into the prison, where 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.
She was slated to be arraigned later on Friday, authorities said.
"This is one large piece of the puzzle in our quest to find these two escaped murderers," New York State Police Major Charles Guess said at 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 a manhole in the street.
Authorities have not disclosed what kind of contraband Mitchell allegedly smuggled into the prison, located about 20 miles (32 km) south of the Canadian border.
The manhunt on Friday 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 residences, Guess said.
Authorities do not have any evidence that the escapees have left the area, Guess said. He also said there was no evidence indicating whether they were together or had separated.
Chilly, rainy weather has made the search difficult but would have affected the escapees as well, 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," he added.
Further charges could be filed against Mitchell, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said at the same news conference.
Wylie said earlier that 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 that Mitchell helped supervise.
He said the investigations turned up insufficient evidence to bring charges, although action had been taken to separate the two for a period of time.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Lisa Shumaker)