Michael Elliott is back in prison after managing an audacious, even incredible, escape last Sunday from a Michigan facility that deeply embarrassed a prison system trying to deal with budget cuts that have reduced the number of personnel manning lookout towers.
“I just seen an opportunity – it was relatively simple,” Mr. Elliott told Detroit Free Press reporter Elisha Anderson, whose story Saturday gives Elliott’s version of events: How he bided his time for four months before using white thermal underwear to hide in snowdrifts as he made his way through fences and prison portals to freedom, however brief.
To be sure, in large part because of better prison design, the number of jailbreaks in the US is down dramatically from the early 1990s, but the country still endures hundreds of maximum security prison escapes each year.
There are five main strategies that an average of 2,000 prisoners a year use to skedaddle from prisons and jails: The cut-and-run, the ruse, the tunnel, the outside accomplice, and the walk-away, which is reserved for low-level prisoners on work detail.
Elliott’s strategy was an amalgam of ruse and cut-and-run, salted with use of snowdrift camouflage, all predicated on careful scoping of the Ionia Correctional Facility’s weaknesses.
“First, he had to decide if he was going to attempt it, knowing that if things didn’t go as planned there would be consequences,” writes Ms. Anderson in her exclusive story. “The key to the brazen escape: blending in with the environment and getting around the obstacles that kept him behind the prison walls.”
Elliott had dressed down to his white thermal skivvies as though he was going outside to exercise when he also grabbed white gloves and a white ski mask (made from the same thermal underwear). When he got outside, he dived into a snow bank, put on his mask, and crawled to a fence, which he passed underneath, according to the Free Press. He then used a leather belt and his hands to unravel another fence. He then slipped through a sally port before spotting a guard driving past. At that point, he again jumped into the snow and lay stock-still, undetected.
After clearing the final prison hurdle, Elliott ran into the woods, and later emerged in the nearby village of Ionia, drenched and cold. He explained that he at first tried to find an unoccupied car, preferably running, that he could steal. But then he jumped into the backseat of a car belonging to a US Census worker. He told her he wouldn’t hurt her as long as she did what he wanted.
I assured her all the way there that I wasn’t going to do her any harm,” he said. “All I wanted to do was just get away.”
After he ditched that ride, the woman called 911, and deputies eventually caught up with Elliott, who had stolen a Jeep, and he was caught after a brief pursuit. H was arrested in Kankakee Township, in neighboring Indiana, where he is now being held, awaiting extradition proceedings that could take weeks. Indiana officials have stepped up security at the low-security prison where he’s being held.
Elliott’s tale of escape – and especially the “relatively easy” remark – is sure to put additional pressure on already embarrassed state officials, who say they’ll conduct two investigations into what happened.
“You can clearly see him leaving his housing unit, going to an area that prisoners are not allowed to be in, go down to the fence line and then spend the better part of an hour going through two perimeter fences,” Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan told a local CBS station in Detroit. Marlan said a system of motion sensors should have detected Elliott, but they did not.
Earlier in the week, Tom Tylutki, the president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, blamed budget cuts, not technological failures, for the escape.
According to press reports, Mr. Tylutki noted that, in a budgetary shift, there’s currently no guard in the Ionia facility’s tower, and jailers only patrol the perimeter when an officer has some extra time.
"This prisoner cut his way 20 feet from the gun tower," Tylutki said. "Had that officer been up there, he wouldn't have touched the fence let alone got through it.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, when asked whether the escape was aided by budget cuts, noted only that “an investigation needs to take place.”
Elliott is set to spend most of his life in prison for his role in a 1993 crime where four people were shot to death and left inside a burning house. Elliott was part of a group of people trying to rob a drug dealer, according to court records.
In his interview with the Free Press, Elliott hoped his escape would refocus attention on his case. He has maintained his innocence, claiming he bought the gun used in the murders after the shootings.
He pointed to the fact that no one was hurt during his escape as evidence that he’s not a dangerous person.
“If I was some kind of crazy lunatic, I’m sure I would have hurt somebody,” he said.