Former Ionia Prison Guards Explain Inmate’s Possible Escape Route

IONIA, Mich. (Feb. 5, 2014) — We’re learning more about how Michael Elliot may have escaped the Ionia County Correctional Facility, also commonly called the I-Max.

Governor Rick Snyder had called for a full investigation into how Elliot got out of the maximum security prison Sunday evening.

However, two former corrections officers who worked there are shedding more light on what is happening at the prison and what the final investigation might reveal.

“We didn’t have any escapes in the 25 years I worked there,” said Tom Tefft, an Ionia County resident and former guard.

He and friend Tom Ward worked together at the prison as residential unit officers for more than 20 years before retiring.

They were in charge of watching Level II prisoners, just like Elliot, who live in what they call the medium security residential unit called the “pole barn”.

There, the prisoners are allowed more freedoms to work in the nearby prison industries building.

Ward and Tefft say some of the prisoners have set jobs there making clothing and t-shirts.

They also have more free access to a fenced-in yard with recreational opportunities compared to higher level security prisoners. They are allowed to play basketball, volleyball and other sports and have access to a gym and track.

“They like them to have jobs, but on their off hours, they’re free to go in and out whenever they want until we shut them down at night,” said Ward.

The men said they’ve learned that Elliot was allowed to smoke sweet grass, or smudge, in an area near his living quarters.

The men speculate that if he spent a lot of time there, he may have plotted his escape at that time.

“It’s part of a religious ceremony where they can go outside and actually smoke sweet grass,” said Ward. “So he was out during the summer, on the lawn, at this fence, and he’d be smoking the stuff. So, that’s the same fence he went under. So, he’d probably been working on it.”

Tefft showed us on the chain-link fence which he said stands about 12 feet high in front of the living quarters.

He believes that’s the first fence that Elliot got through, allegedly by prying it with his hands.

Tefft explained that if you start picking it apart from the bottom, it may not be hard to create a space to get underneath it.

“Once you start unraveling it, it comes apart very easily,” said Thefft. “Then he made his way down to the sally port and then started unraveling that chain link fence.

They believe after Elliot got through that first fence in front of his living quarters, he headed to the sally port area, about 200 feet from the living quarters where a series of gates can be opened to allow cars to come in and out.

The two former corrections officers believe that’s where he got through his second fence to get to freedom.

“When we was working there, there wasn’t any electric fence in the sally port area,” said Tefft. “Once you get one weave of that open, it kind of opens pretty easily… He wasn’t a very big person anyway, so he could easily scoot through that pretty quick….the Sally Port is probably the weakest part of the facility.”

Ward and Tefft said, in their experience, there is a guard at that sally port only Monday through Friday, not typically on Sunday, when the escape happened.

Once Elliot pried through that fence, Tefft said he could follow the treeline straight to the downtown area where he allegedly abducted a woman from Belding in order to drive to Indiana.

Even though Elliot may not have worked in the kitchen, they said it would have been accessible for him to grab a white kitchen uniform that officials said he used to blend in with the snow.

Ward said, “Anybody that works in food service in the kitchen area has to wear whites. It’s required, pure white pants and a white top. They walk to and from the housing unit to the kitchen. They are supposed to wear them.”

“Up in the housing unit where they live, there are lots of workers who have kitchen whites in their lockers,” said Ward. “It would be pretty easy for him to grab a pair from somebody.”

They say that the box cutter Elliot reportedly used to abduct the woman could have also been hidden in the medium security living quarters without being easily found.

He said even when they do “shake downs” to look for items, there are so many places to look, it can be tough to find items like that.

“In Level II pole barns, they have what they call bays and there are six beds in a bay,” said Ward.  “There are six people living there with all their property. There’s a lot. They have a bed, a desk, a footlocker, a stand-up locker. So, they have lots of property.”

In addition, they say prisoners in Level II wear normal clothes, like those Elliot was spotted wearing in the surveillance photos taken at the gas station he stopped at in Indiana during his escape.

The men say he probably had those clothes on underneath that kitchen uniform, so when he hit downtown Ionia, nobody recognized him as a prisoner.

“You blend right in,” said Tefft.

A problem the two former guards see at the prison, an absence of staff in the guard towers. They say they are sitting empty, no longer manned at all due to budget cuts. The two men feel having a pair of eyes on the ground can be a better fail-safe then the technology prisons now rely on to alert staff to an escape.

“I’m sure a set of eyes in the Sally port or a by level II could have possibly seen something going underneath the fence there,” said Tefft.

“When the governor takes our budget and reduces our staff, it makes it harder for everybody, and to be truthful, more dangerous for everybody,” said Ward.

26 comments

  • wolvie

    oh, ok, it was so well orchestrated by Elliot, that he made a SuperMax look like a dog pen. i didn't expect tearing a fence apart with your bare hands was so easy. i don't care about the funding excuse, it's just that. when the investigation is complete, heads will roll, guaranteed. and what is the smoking "sweet grass" all about? and civilian clothes? and incompetence? if a guard was in the tower and he still escaped, what does that change? he probably would have been watching TV anyway…….

    • muskieman

      Well wolvie it is not a Supermax. he escaped from the Level 2 section of a Ionia Max which was a Supermax level 6 when it was built. Level 6 was eliminated in the state completely. There is a level five facility at Ionia but tthe four time murder/ arsonist was housed in the level 2. he should have been in a level 5 like Standish Correctional facility which is located 18 miles from where he killed 4 people but after only 19 years of operation it was closed down as well for budget reasons. your TV comment makes you sound like a bitter ex-felon.!!

  • Joe Joe

    I think this whole thing was done so it would upset people enough to demand the state spend more money on securing prisoners. This individual had a good 20 year record, was a trusty, and they made a deal with him to make a break and when he was recaptured they would give special privileges. The guards probably heard of another round of layoffs and this solved all their problems.

  • guest

    Were the guards watching the Super Bowl? Just saying:) seems like it's getting a bit too complicated…….you know the drawn out lengthy theory……… CYA….just my theory

    • muskieman

      Hey Joe Joe; where did you do your time.. inmate lover from experience or upbringing..like anyone would risk their job and a prison sentence to deliberately let a convict loose.

  • todd

    Bull-Sh*t! This the MDOC guard's union's response to EVERYTHING! "Budget Cuts" are NOT the issue!! The issue is MDOC policy and procedure which allowed a 4-time convicted killer-with 4-L-I-F-E sentences to be placed in this custody/security level!!
    Was the policy/procedure followed? If NOT who signed the transfer order?
    If it was, is this policy/procedure appropriate for prisoners serving L-I-F-E sentences?? A full media review of ALL MDOC policies, made public by the media (like Fox 17), with FULL DETAILS about those policies/procedures detailed and told to the public!! This alleged "News Report" by Fox 17 news is pure BS!!

    • Pamela D.

      FYI=NOT ALL policies are allowed to public, the exempt policies which this falls under will be denied access as its a security issue. THEREFORE, your only going to get told what the MDOC wants you to know which is THEIR propaganda. The only bull here is that you are back seat quarterbacking something that you obviously have no clue about, which is the reality of working inside a prison with 2252 plus inmates to about 60 to 80 officers. KNOWLEDGE is a weapon….get some before attempting to disrespect someone who works inside those walls everyday, all day long, all year long with criminals doing crimes from checking cashing to rape to child molestation to drugs to assaults to murder. The people to blame are the people in LANSING making those decisions who have been told the dangers if they made these cuts. They knew, they should have known and chose not to listen or pay attention. PUT the BLAME on the right people instead of the ones on the front line doing the job. MDOC is hiring if you think you can do it better….know though that most of us carry a radio, cuffs and keys….and deal with masses of inmates by ourselves….come join us….i dare you.

      • wreckdiver

        I've made the same suggestion to people being critical of us before. I usually get a rant about having a domestic violence or 2 DUis ect.. In the end their just pissed off because the department wont hire them.

    • muskie man

      So tell me smart guys.. why is it that across the rest of the world prisons have been built with manned gun towers for very obvious reasons but Snyder is so smart that here in Michigan they are closed down to save dollars. Any deer hunter would pick a tree stand over a ground blind for better visibility and clearer shooting but Snyder know more about scuba than prisons, get a grip.

      • Dave

        The tower guards were removed under Granholm….Sure, Snyder hasn't placed them back up there, but lets not make this a political thing because I think you will be sorely mistaken if you think the current administration is the root of all evil.

  • Darrin

    For years, prisons have been built with Guard towers for a reason. They work!!! But this Governor and his cronies comes in and think they know best, and cut these positions. They are the ones to blame. That is who people should be upset at and blaming!!!

    • Dave

      Again…..The tower guards were removed under Granholm….Sure, Snyder hasn't placed them back up there, but lets not make this a political thing because I think you will be sorely mistaken if you think the current administration is the root of all evil.

      Know your shit before you spew it.

  • wreckdiver

    Looks to me like we got a bunch here got there information from watching Shawshank Redemption. The reason a guy serving 4 life sentences is in level 2 is over the last few years they have closed level 5 prisons and reverted others to lower level facilities. So there aren't enough level 5 beds to go around. also they've eliminated 2 security levels altogether level 6 and level 3 because the higher the security level the more money it costs to house them. So to save money they moved prisoners to lower security levels. They "waive" prisoners down in level. The two officers they interviewed were Resident Unit officers (RUO) RUOs were assigned to a specific housing unit their job was to know the prisoners in their unit. Know things like who's assigned to work in food service. RUOs made about a dollar an hour more because they had more responsibility . But to save money that classification of officer was done away with. Now for the most part there are different officers assigned to these units every day. Add to that the elimination of the security positions and the fact that watching the camera was a duty added to a position that has other duties.(watching the camera is not they're only job) Remember the current director is a political appointee with 0 experience in corrections. Any one who knows anything about corrections saw this coming a long time ago.

    • wheatie

      Monday morning QB’s who have never played the game will always speak out….grab an app. and get a job with the corrections department…then and only then…when its just you and your 1 partner….have to watch over 200 inmates and to know what all of them are doing…it is only at that time you should make your comment…I bet you will change your tune then

  • Pamela D

    WOW, obviously those of you speaking out absolutely have no clue. The budget cuts were a direct reason why this issue took place. There was one attempt prior, which failed and then this escape in all the years that this facility was open. The 1981 riots were evaluated by a committee assigned by Governor Milliken, they wrote a report that told the MDOC the necessities needed for keeping a prison secure. One of those was an academy to train officers(which made us 1 of the top 3 in the country)…that is gone, they are planning on training with college courses. Another one was separating the large facilities in smaller facilities as to not have over populated prisons, that is gone. Another was to set a disciplinary system that sets security classification based on their crime and behavior in prison. That system has been tampered with to the point that HIGH security prisoners are being declassified to LOWER security levels with a swipe of the pen…pushing them onto the streets faster. Step into our shoes for one day, heck MDOC is hiring if you think you are better at it. FACT: a minimum security level has 160 prisoners to 2 officers in a unit, 1 officer is pulled most of the time for other duties outside the unit or their own chow relief leaving 1 officer with 160 prisoners. FACT: medium security prisoners are housed at 240 prisoners, that housing unit has 3 officers but, 1 officer is out of unit most of the time doing other responsibilities like chow hall. FACT: the recreations yards have 2 officers however 1 is pulled on minimum level to do other responsibilities, leaving 1 officer to anywhere from 1 inmate to 100 to 200 to 300 plus convicts on the recreations yard. On the higher side, it is 2 officers to the same ratio if not more depending on which level medium or higher is on the yard. Now take into consideration that during all of this, there is medical lines running (where they go to health care to get their medicines that are restricted or to see a health care professional), school is running, food service is running, yard is open, yard workers are working, inmate store is running, inmate laundry is running, Then during the times visiting hours are in motion then visiting is running. IT IS LIKE A CITY WITHIN A CITY…you have police officers=that is corrections officers; you have firefighter=corrections officers, apartment managers/security=corrections officers; they have a store, school, church, recreation yard, food service(where they go to eat), work, counselors, health care. ALL of which is watched over by CUSTODY OFFICER=corrections officers. The department has filled administrative positions while cutting line staff. The department is responsible for all these budget driven cuts that affect everyones safety, inmate, staff, public. SO before you attempt to discredit and officer or attempt to disrespect corrections officers, I suggest you learn, educate yourself. I blame the lack of knowledge on MDOC because the public only gets the propaganda spewed out by them and not the reality of what goes on inside…See most of them leaders in Lansing have never stepped foot inside a correctional facility, those that have only tour when the facility is on lock down and yet they make decisions everyday that affect those insides safety and security of the facilities as well as the publics. KNOWLEDGE IS A WEAPON, you the public need to wake up and stop buying the propaganda the department and leaders are handing you……..

  • Pamela D

    WOW, obviously those of you speaking out absolutely have no clue. The budget cuts were a direct reason why this issue took place. There was one attempt prior, which failed and then this escape in all the years that this facility was open. The 1981 riots were evaluated by a committee assigned by Governor Milliken, they wrote a report that told the MDOC the necessities needed for keeping a prison secure. One of those was an academy to train officers(which made us 1 of the top 3 in the country)…that is gone, they are planning on training with college courses. Another one was separating the large facilities in smaller facilities as to not have over populated prisons, that is gone. Another was to set a disciplinary system that sets security classification based on their crime and behavior in prison. That system has been tampered with to the point that HIGH security prisoners are being declassified to LOWER security levels with a swipe of the pen…pushing them onto the streets faster. Step into our shoes for one day, heck MDOC is hiring if you think you are better at it. FACT: a minimum security level has 160 prisoners to 2 officers in a unit, 1 officer is pulled most of the time for other duties outside the unit or their own chow relief leaving 1 officer with 160 prisoners. FACT: medium security prisoners are housed at 240 prisoners, that housing unit has 3 officers but, 1 officer is out of unit most of the time doing other responsibilities like chow hall. FACT: the recreations yards have 2 officers however 1 is pulled on minimum level to do other responsibilities, leaving 1 officer to anywhere from 1 inmate to 100 to 200 to 300 plus convicts on the recreations yard. On the higher side, it is 2 officers to the same ratio if not more depending on which level medium or higher is on the yard. Now take into consideration that during all of this, there is medical lines running (where they go to health care to get their medicines that are restricted or to see a health care professional), school is running, food service is running, yard is open, yard workers are working, inmate store is running, inmate laundry is running, Then during the times visiting hours are in motion then visiting is running. IT IS LIKE A CITY WITHIN A CITY…you have police officers=that is corrections officers; you have firefighter=corrections officers, apartment managers/security=corrections officers; they have a store, school, church, recreation yard, food service(where they go to eat), work, counselors, health care. ALL of which is watched over by CUSTODY OFFICER=corrections officers. The department has filled administrative positions while cutting line staff. The department is responsible for all these budget driven cuts that affect everyones safety, inmate, staff, public. SO before you attempt to discredit and officer or attempt to disrespect corrections officers, I suggest you learn, educate yourself. I blame the lack of knowledge on MDOC because the public only gets the propaganda spewed out by them and not the reality of what goes on inside…See most of them leaders in Lansing have never stepped foot inside a correctional facility, those that have only tour when the facility is on lock down and yet they make decisions everyday that affect those insides safety and security of the facilities as well as the publics. KNOWLEDGE IS A WEAPON, you the public need to wake up and stop buying the propaganda the department and leaders are handing you……..

  • old guard

    I'll say this as a long time supervisor in the mdoc and knowing the men in interview and watching them work at I-max and seeing what they personally endured to make it to retirement I am completely appalled by the comments here, since this happened we have been ridiculed, harrassed at gas stations on the way to work like we are the criminals. Jobs have been cut, security cut, wages cut ,but ultimately what we make is not the issue,when a murderer is allowed to escape we all share some of the blame, the only difference between us and the director and Mr Snyder is that we are willing to admit our role in this thing, are they, why didn't the director mention the prisoner walked right under what once was a manned gun tower? Why was there no mention of 2 escape attempts in the last month, but none in the 25 years we had towers and a vehicle patrolling the prison? I can't comment on your jobs because I don't know what you do, why do you think you know mine. I will say this to the people of Ionia, I'm sorry this happened and we will take steps to try and prevent it from ever happening again, all week we have been doing this while the director and Lansing are looking for a scape goat. Who's betting they take no blame

    • Dave

      A guard vehicle passed by twice, in the immediate area of the convict, in addition to a live feed camera which was pointed directly at the position where the convict was working on the fence. Must have been a union smoke break…

  • Perry Bieber

    Staying anonymous makes it really easy to sound stupid without being held accountable. Feel free to comment with your real name.

    There seems to be a lot of hype about the prisoner escaping from a maximum security facility. Part of the prison, where Elliot was housed, is medium security. Having worked corrections I know what they are. And being the open minded person I am, please describe for me your image of a Maximum Security facility. What should one look like that meets your satisfaction?

    If you cannot describe it, then upon what do you base your opinions of ignorance? You may have the right to freedom of speech, but that right does not extend to making unsubstantiated slanderous remarks about others.

  • trish

    I think its absolute crap that the prisons are taking cuts but the people in Lansing can sit behind their cozy desks looking forward to the next state funded golf outing ..People should be putting blame where its due..not on the guards..there aren’t enough of them anymore ..go to Lansing ..the MDOC OFFICE is on Kalamazoo and the Capital is right down the street ..

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