State Dept. of Corrections and Officers Union at Odds Over Prison Security

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The convicted killer who escaped from an Ionia prison says he wasn't trying to hurt anyone, he just wanted a second chance. Michael David Elliot made the comment to reporters Tuesday in Indiana, after he refused to waive an extradition hearing that would allow Michigan authorities to bring him back. Elliot is being held on a 1-million dollar bond, on one count of auto theft. Michigan has 30 days to issue a warrant for his return.

Michigan’s Department of Corrections and the Union representing officers inside the state’s prisons are at odds about security measures that failed, ultimately leading to Elliot’s escape. At the center of the debate, are gun towers. The structures allow armed prison guards a birds eye view of the prison yards. Until 9 years ago, the towers were manned 24 hours a day. But budget cuts, and staffing changes have left the towers empty. Prison wardens can choose to man them on a random schedule. When unmanned, union officials say the guard towers can be one less obstacle to overcome for prisoners like Michael David Elliot to escape. Tom Tylutki, President of the Michigan Corrections Organization, SEIU, Local 526M, says union leaders and corrections officers have been worried about the low staffing in gun towers. “No way would this prisoner be able to get through the yard and where he got if those posts were manned, and that's just the harsh reality of it." Russ Marlan, Spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections disagrees. “I would disagree that having an officer in that gun tower would have significantly prevented this escape, because there were a lot of checks, he had to do a lot of things to get to the point where he was."

Elliot was serving 5 life sentences. Corrections officials are now trying to figure out how he managed to get outside prison walls, through alarmed fences and an armed officer in a patrol car. Marlan says surveillance video shows a prison patrol car just 20 feet from Elliot as he made his escape. Says Tylutki, “There's not as good of a vantage point from the vehicle as the gun towers. The gun towers, you're raised, you can look down and see somebody approaching." But Marlan says a prisoner like Elliot should never have been able to walk out the building in the first place. “We install all of these video systems throughout our correctional facilities but human beings are responsible for monitoring what's going on. They need to watch, make sure that no one is getting near fences, that no one is getting through fences."

Elliot’s escape is now at the center of an intense investigation, by Michigan State Police and the Department of Corrections. Officials also wonder if the Super Bowl may have played a role in Elliot’s plan. “Whether he chose that evening and that time, for a reason. It appears he carefully planned this and studied the security measures that we had there. and took advantage of a vulnerable location.”

The Department of Corrections says the investigation will take weeks. Marlan says Director Dan Heyns is very troubled by vulnerabilities in the system, and wants to take a broad view of every aspect of security.