LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Michigan’s top corrections official said Thursday a convicted quadruple killer managed to escape from prison for 24 hours because security procedures were not followed and surveillance equipment was not properly maintained or monitored.
But State Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns denied that budget cuts were a factor in the Feb. 2 escape and said Michael Elliot timing 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 state Senate’s corrections budget subcommittee.
Two prison employees have been suspended over the incident, but Heyns took ultimate responsibility.
“I own this escape. It’s my responsibility. It’s my responsibility to correct it,” he 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 Corrections Department.
The fences are equipped with motion sensors and carry electric current, but officials say Elliot, who was serving life in prison without parole, used his hands to loosen and pull back portions that do not carry an electric charge. Guards apparently did not see him on security cameras.
Heyns said he knows the full circumstances and cause of the escape but declined to give many details until two separate investigations are complete, one internal and the other an independent review by the Michigan attorney general’s office.
He pledged to speed up already planned upgrades of surveillance cameras and lighting at the Ionia Correctional Facility while reviewing snow-removal policies, the color of inmates’ clothing and shakedown procedures. He also said he is particularly focused on double-checking fences, gates, entrances and physical plants at Michigan’s 31 prisons.
Heyns also defended Elliot’s classification as a lower security risk inside a unit of 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 convicted of 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 claims to be innocent of the murders, and a co-defendant says he pulled the trigger and Elliot played no part.
Democrats have questioned whether Republican-backed cuts to perimeter patrols and manned gun towers factored into the escape.
“Are we not taking some steps because of pushback that you’ve seen to the cost of your budget?” said Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland.
Heyns said the towers had not been staffed on weekends in many years and a patrol vehicle passed in the vicinity of Elliot during his escape.
Officials say that after 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.
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.
Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph and chairman of the budget panel, said he would have loved to have seen a full report Thursday because how Elliot got free is a “great story” deserving scrutiny. Lawmakers should know more in a few weeks, Proos said.
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