IONIA, Mich. (Feb. 13, 2014) — The Director of Michigan’s Department of Corrections, Dan Heyns, was in the hot seat Thursday as he answered questions in Lansing about the escape Feb. 2 in Ionia.
He said prisoner Michael Elliot had been planning to escape during the Super Bowl, hoping it would be enough of a distraction to get away.
“In an interview with the escapee, he clearly was banking on some distraction. I don’t believe it was a main part of it,” said Heyns.
Although the DOC Director stated that cost cutting was not a factor in Micheal Elliot’s escape from the Ionia Correctional Facility, budget issues also kept coming up during the hearing before the Senate Appropriations Sub-committee on Corrections.
“I think it`s safe to say that the root causes of this escape have nothing to do with budget cuts,” said Heyns.
However, he did admit that it was a big part of his job description.
“When I took this job, there was a lot of frustration with the high cost of corrections,” said Heyns. “We have been doing a lot of things to contain that cost.”
One of those cost-cutting safety questions had to do with the guard towers that now sit empty.
The president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, Tom Tylutki, said they were gutted at the expense of public safety.
“This prisoner got through a fence that was 20 feet from a tower,” said Tylutki. “If that tower was manned with a corrections officer he wouldn`t have touched the fence let alone cut through it.”
However, Thursday Heyns told senators during the hearing that a guard posted in those towers wouldn’t, “lend much benefit.”
“The towers, I think what we always do when we are evaluating positions, is ‘What`s the cost and what`s the benefit?’ And, there are an awful lot of those procedures that were very costly but they didn`t lend much benefit to the security of the institution.
However, lawmakers pushed further.
Senator Charles Anderson asked, “How would you determine that not having security guards in towers would not have had any impact on preventing this escape? I`m just curious about that.”
Heyns answered, “Well, the purpose of those towers, and we do man them when the gates are active. But, we haven`t, since 1987, manned those towers in inactive periods. So, this is not something recent where we`ve pulled those tower officers. But, we believe that we had the technology in place to circumvent that escape.”
Heyns said that equipment should have detected the escape but did not answer specifically why it failed for Elliot.
“There are lots of devices that I don’t want to go into for obvious reasons,” said Heyns. “But, all of that equipment should have detected this escapee long before he got to that gate and it didn’t. So, we are reviewing that.”
There was another mention about the two employees that were suspended.
The DOC previously reported that Elliot pried open two fences in full view of cameras that are supposed to be under constant surveillance.
Lawmakers pressed Heyns to try to discover if staff members were watching the Superbowl, distracted, when Elliot launched his escape at 6:30, the exact time of the kickoff.
“Did this prisoner look at this as a possible factor in his escape?’, asked Sen. John Proos (R) 21st District St. Joseph.
“Well, I think it`s safe to say it was a factor in his planning of the escape. I don` t believe it was a critical element,” said Heyns. “Certainly the whole country was paying attention to that football game. But, I am reassured that that wasn`t a key root cause of this case. It`s clear that there were no televisions that the staff, in staffing areas, that their attention was drawn away.”
Heyns did state that he had developed an action plan within 24 hours of the escape.
The plan involves meeting personally with the wardens at each facility, meeting with the Department of Technology Management and Budget to speed up the installation of new cameras and lighting that’s already been funded for Ionia.
He also wants to create a warden peer review process and asked the wardens to submit their list again of the top five security needs in their facilities with a focus on what happened at Ionia.
Heyns is calling for a review of gates, fences, sally ports and entrances as well as a review of their “shake down procedures.”
Elliot escaped through the sally port area of the Ionia Correctional Facility.
Heyns said he is also looking at changing the colors of uniforms that are distributed to the prisoners.
Former Ionia County Correctional facility officers told us that the prisoners in Elliot’s medium security building were allowed to wear what looked like normal clothes.
He was caught on security video in an Indiana gas station wearing what looked like a normal outfit of jeans, a white shirt and a jacket.
“We are looking at the colors of uniforms and clothing that are distributed,” said Heyns. “This was a factor in the escape and I want to make sure that we have a recognizable and visible color to all clothing issued to inmates.”
Hyens also said that it was reported that Elliot was wearing “kitchen whites” to blend in with the snow. Thursday he said that wasn’t correct, he said Elliot was wearing long underwear during the escape to blend in with the snow.
“There was some misinformation that got out that this white uniform was a kitchen uniform,” said Heyns. “Turns out he was using some white long underwear.”
Heyns said that they also need to review their snow removal procedures.
“We need to go back and review the snow removal policies,” said Heyns. “This has been an unusual year as you know for snow. I think our counterparts in the U.P. are more familiar with how to handle snow in an institution and we need to pool our resources in a cumulative knowledge to make sure that is not a problem in the future.”