LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan's top prison official said Thursday a convicted killer managed to escape because security procedures were not followed and surveillance equipment was not properly maintained and monitored. State Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns denied budget cuts were a factor in the Feb. 2 escape and said the fact that Michael Elliot timed his getaway during the Super Bowl was not a "key, root cause" because there were no TVs inside staffed areas of the prison about 30 miles east of Grand Rapids.
"The funding was there. The equipment was there. If it was maintained and monitored properly, it would have detected the escapee before he left the prison grounds," Heyns told members of the Senate corrections budget subcommittee. "However if people don't do their jobs, if people don't utilize equipment as designed, if they don't follow procedure, then it doesn't do you any good. That's when escapes occur."
Two prison employees have been suspended, but Heyns took ultimate responsibility. "I own this escape. It's my responsibility. It's my responsibility to correct it," he said. Heyns pledged to speed up already planned upgrades of surveillance cameras and lighting at the Ionia Correctional Facility while reviewing snow removal policies and the color of inmates' clothing. He also defended Elliot's classification as a lower security risk inside the maximum-security prison, saying he had not shown signs of being a flight risk. With more than 5,000 of the state's 43,500 prisoners serving life sentences, Heyns said it would be "impossible for me to keep all those people in Level 5 security. ... (Elliot's) low-security status allowed him freedom of movement and he exploited that."
Elliot was serving life in prison without parole for fatally shooting four people and burning down their Gladwin County house in 1993 when he was 20 years old. He and his accomplices were trying to steal money from a drug dealer, police said. Elliot, 40, broke through two fences during the escape while wearing white thermals to blend with snow — not a white kitchen uniform, as originally stated by the department. The fences are equipped with motion sensors and carry electric current to shock anyone who touches them, but corrections officials have said Elliot used his hands to loosen and pull back portions that do not carry an electric charge. Guards apparently did not see him with security cameras.
Heyns said corrections officials have particularly focused on fences, gates, sally ports and physical plants at Michigan's 31 prisons since the escape. Officials say that, following the escape, Elliot stole a Jeep in Ionia with a woman inside. She escaped when they stopped for gas in Elkhart County, Ind., more than 100 miles away from the prison. The Jeep was later found abandoned nearby in Shipshewana, Ind. Elliot was captured in another stolen vehicle in LaPorte County on Feb. 3. A request for his return to Michigan was sent Wednesday to Indiana's governor.