The Grand Rapids Press. April 4.
Too many questions remain unanswered after Ionia prison escape
One prison escape is one too many. Michigan is fortunate that convicted killer Michael Elliot was caught just one day after he escaped Ionia Correctional Facility, and no one was killed in the process. The Department of Corrections should immediately implement the security action plan developed to prevent another prison break.
Facing life in prison without parole for four killings, Elliot felt he had nothing to lose when he escaped Feb. 2 The prison is filled with others in a similar situation ready to capitalize on a vulnerable system.
The state's prison system has basically one job: keep prisoners in prison. An investigation of the incident showed there was a disturbing lack of oversight that set the stage for Elliot to plan his escape in just four months.
Two months later, two issues have yet to be addressed: Elliot's access to white clothing that allowed him to blend with the snow, and the failure of microwave sensors to detect his movements during his escape. Both have been studied, internally and with a recent review by wardens. But a fix for either has yet to be implemented.
The biggest issue to address is human error. Elliot slipped past laser beams, wire barriers and security cameras like a character in a spy-caper. Prison guards didn't follow protocol in resetting alarms after a previous test or taking an informal headcount. Combined, these failures suggest an overall incompetence. While the state can spend additional millions beefing up the prison's security system, ultimately it is only as good as the staff that uses it.
There was no loss of life, but there was a victim. A Belding woman, whose car was hijacked, and taken hostage by Elliot during a stop in Ionia, for a few terrifying hours feared she might die. Credit is due to the 911 dispatcher who directed her to take refuge in a gas station restroom and lock the door. Who knows how long she will be haunted, or those in the area will be shaken by this escape.
Elliot said he waited until Super Bowl Sunday because he figured guards would be distracted by the big game. The investigation showed guards don't have access to a television or electronics, but it was obvious they weren't closely watching the surveillance video that day. And it wasn't just a lack of attention on that day. In Michigan's most secure prison, Elliot was able to access a hook, hobby craft scissors, belt buckle, white long underwear and white shoes to facilitate his escape.
Two employees, an officer and shift commander, remain suspended as they move through the disciplinary process that could result in termination.
Prison officials and staff should be held accountable, and without a lower-level employee being offered up as a scapegoat. The results of an independent investigation by Attorney General Bill Schuette's office needs to answer many questions. When this review will wrap up is unclear.
Ultimately, there needs to be enough checks and balances to make sure one person's mistake doesn't lead to a crisis that puts the public at risk.