A guard tower stands over fencing at the Ionia Correctional Facility on Feb. 3. (Chris Clark / The Grand Rapids Press)
Lansing — Michigan’s prison chief said Thursday that staff “complacency” and equipment failure, not budget cuts, allowed the Super Bowl Sunday escape of a convicted murder from the state prison at Ionia.
Corrections Director Dan Heyns shared the conclusion Thursday before the Senate subcommittee on corrections appropriations.
He said if monitoring equipment had been properly maintained and procedures properly followed, convicted killer Michael Elliot would have been stopped before he could leave the prison.
At the same time, he said the department is going through a system-wide technology upgrade — security cameras, lighting and detectors — costing about $1 million per institution.
Heyns told the subcommittee the prison was properly equipped, the inmate was appropriately classified within the prison system and the prison was properly staffed. But, he added, “if people don’t do their jobs, it does you no good.”
“Complacency” he said, had developed at the Ionia facility. “I don’t know when it set in ... (but) I own that problem,” Heyns said.
Two Ionia prison staff members have been suspended for failure to follow corrections work rules, said Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan. Both were working the evening of Feb. 2, he said.
“Had they followed the rules and procedures, the escape wouldn’t have happened,” Marlan said.
While he refused to get into specifics with two investigations under way, Heyns countered criticism that the escape may have been aided by reduced security caused by state budget cuts.
“There were lots of people who were pretty quick to jump out of the shoot and point fingers,” Heyns said. But, he said, none of his department’s cost-saving measures “have been done at the expense of public safety.”
The Snyder administration asked for an independent investigation of the prison escape by Attorney General Bill Schuette, a fellow Republican.
Legislative Democrats have argued an independent probe should include the involvement of prison staffers, the Michigan Corrections Organization, the Department of Corrections, people who live near state prisons and other professional experts not connected to state government.
Democrats say they want the broader participation because GOP leaders may discount the impact of reduced funding for prison perimeter security as lawmakers try to clamp a tighter lid on the $2-billion state corrections budget.
Speculation especially has focused on the abandonment of 24-hour, seven-day prison perimeter patrols in favor of randomized patrols. But Heyns said there was a perimeter patrol the evening of the escape. The patrol vehicle may have driven by Elliot without seeing him, he said.
The Michigan Corrections Organization, which for years has protested a department decision to end most gun tower staffing and the more-recent cut in perimeter patrols, said Elliot apparently crawled under a fence 20 to 30 feet from an unstaffed tower. The labor organization represents corrections officers.
“If the patrol vehicle didn’t see him, that gun tower would have,” said MCO Executive Director Mel Grieshaber. “Everything is about layers of security, and we don’t just want to see heads roll because of political expediencies.”
Heyns argued that modern detection equipment is a better, less-costly way to spot would-be escapees than around-the-clock patrolling and tower watches. The old methods, he said, are very costly without adding to security.
Grieshaber said while he understands the need to save money, tower watches and perimeter patrols not only are an added layer of protection but deter prisoners from attempting escapes. He said union members also have been pointing out unaddressed glitches in security and lighting systems, such as the faulty detection setup at Ionia.
“I know this is a political year with an election coming up, but we’ve been raising hell about this under Democratic and Republican regimes,” Grieshaber said. “At the end of the day, even if a staff member gets burned, there are legitimate issues about towers and vehicles and lighting.”
Elliot got through two fences around 6:30 p.m. Feb. 2 and escaped Ionia Correctional Facility for 24 hours. Corrections officials have said motion sensors failed to trigger an alarm that would have led to Elliot’s detection before he escaped.
He carjacked a local woman and forced her to drive him to northern Indiana before he was recaptured.
Elliot has said he wore two layers of white thermals so it would be easier to hide in the snow. He told a reporter the escape took a fair amount of time but wasn’t especially difficult.
His absence wasn’t discovered until a prisoner count conducted about three hours after the escape. A request for Elliot’s return to Michigan was sent Wednesday to Indiana’s governor.
Elliot, while 20 years into a life sentence in a case involving multiple murders, was classified as a Level II prisoner, a lower level under which he had considerable freedom of movement, Heyns said.
The corrections director said classification is based on risk, not the crime, and many lifers are model prisoners. He said Elliot’s prison record was almost without a blemish and he was considered a low flight risk.
Heyns said his own investigation of the incident is nearly complete but he’s been asked by Schuette not to share key details until the attorney general finishes his own probe.
The upgrade of surveillance cameras and lighting at the Ionia prison and elsewhere, Heyns said, already was underway before the escape but he is speeding it up.
He said he’s also reviewing an array of policies such as snow removal, the color of inmates’ clothing and the frequency of inmate counts.
Republican Sen. John Proos of St. Joseph, the subcommittee chairman, said while more details must become public when the investigations are complete, Heyns made the case “that budget cuts had nothing to do with this.”
Sen. Glenn Anderson, a subcommittee member, praised Snyder for giving the escape the attention it deserves but said he’d prefer to have an investigation by a neutral agency such as the Michigan State Police and/or state auditor general.
“I find it interesting (Heyns) said (the escape) wasn’t the result of budget cuts, then turned around and said we do have spending constraints,” said Anderson, D-Westland. “I do think there are consequences to some of the budget decisions; he’s been forced to make decisions he probably wouldn’t make otherwise.”
The Associated Press contributed.