Michael Elliot. (Courtesy LaPorte County Sheriff's Dept. Feb. 3, 2014)
LANSING, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) - As Gov. Rick Snyder puts the finishing touches on the budget he'll present to lawmakers on Wednesday, Democrats were fighting back, saying budget decisions made in the past three years have hurt Michiganders in a variety of ways, including: bigger classroom sizes, more financial struggles for vulnerable Michiganders and increased risks to public safety.
The Democrats are now tying a prison escape by a four-time murder convict to budget cuts in the Corrections Department, which led to fewer prison guards and less perimeter security at Michigan prisons.
"I don't know if the escape was the direct result of budget cuts," said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills. "But the governor's most important job is to keep Michiganders safe. And cutting guards does not protect the safety of Michigan residents."
Russ Marlan, spokesman for the Michgian Department of Corrections said it was too early to be pointing fingers at budget cuts as contributor to the escape.
"We've already started a complete and thorough investigation. We're going to be looking at everything," he said. "It's a little premature to say had something been different in one specific area that this wouldn't have occurred."
Michael David Elliot escaped from the Ionia Correctional Facility on Sunday evening, after putting on a white kitchen uniform and cutting a hole in the prison's fence. He was recaptured Monday after taking a woman hostage, who managed to break free and call police. He is being lodged in the LaPorte County Jail in Indiana and is fighting extradition back to Michigan. The MDOC is securing a Governor's warrant from Gov. Rick Snyder to get Elliot brought back to Michigan, a process which could take 2-3 weeks.
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Marlan said it took about an hour for him to get through two sets of fences and that a security vehicle passed within 20 feet of him twice during his escape. He also was caught on video that is supposed to be monitored by prison guards.
"The Director (MDOC Director Dan Heyns) has a lot of questions that need to be answered," he added.
Gov. Rick Snyder released a statement Monday night praising law enforcement for the swift apprehension of Elliot and added: "Now that we are assured the public is safe, we will turn our attention to thoroughly reviewing the situation that led to the prisoner's escape. We will demand an exhaustive assessment of the incident and take whatever appropriate action is needed to prevent future incidents."
During the 2012 budget debate, Senate Democrats offered an amendment to restore cuts made to security vehicles that patrolled the perimeter of prisons, which would have provided 24-hour-a-day monitoring rather than random spot checks. The amendment was not approved. The gun towers at the prisons also have only been periodically staffed 24/7 since 2005.
"During the budget process, we knew the inherent risks with these cuts to Corrections were not worth the short-term savings, and the escape from Ionia Correctional Facility is a painful example of that," said Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland. "This isn't some romanticized escape out of a movie - this is a desperate killer on the loose.
"As Snyder and Republicans prepare to delve into another budget, I hope they keep in mind the real people their rushed and uninformed decisions affect and, in this case, endanger."
Nick Ciaramitaro, legislative director of AFSCME Council 25, said he wants to get more information before making any allegations about whether administration policies on privatization and reducing the budget of the Department of Corrections had an impact on the escape.
But he said he's concerned by the circumstances of the escape and the fact Elliot was wearing a kitchen uniform.
Ciaramitaro said he also thought department Director Dan Heyns was too quick to dismiss the idea that the recent Aramark Correctional Services food contract could have been a factor in the escape, before the department has conducted its investigation.
Tom Tylutki, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization union representing state corrections officers, said Monday there was no immediate evidence Elliot's escape in a kitchen uniform was linked to the December privatization of prison food service. But he said he was seeking more information.
Ari Adler, spokesman for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, pointed out that no escapes occurred in budget years 2010 and 2011 when the Corrections budget dropped significantly.
"There is no excuse for an escaped murderer to be on the loose, nor should anyone play politics with public safety," he said.
The prison cuts is just one of the areas targeted by Democrats for the upcoming budget fight. They want more money put into schools, the tax on senior pensions repealed and other tax deductions restored for Michigan families.
"The governor sent kids to private schools, and that's fine," said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing. "But as a mom with kids in public schools, we have not seen increases to schools. Class sizes are up and our school buildings are crumbling."
Snyder is expect to present his budget to the House and Senate Appropriations Committee at 11 a.m. Wednesday.