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.