Cost Cutting Versus Public Safety: Should There be a Choice?
By Rob Stallworth
We are charged these days in the criminal justice system to do more with less. Everyone who works in this system faces that reality and is challenged to come up with various strategic ways to do their job. Unfortunately, it may mean risking the public’s safety in order to make ends meet.
For example, a Michigan inmate, Michael David Elliot, recently escaped from Ionia Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, virtually undetected. The Ionia prison perimeter security has two 12-foot fences with razor wire, one which is supposed to shock you with electricity on contact; they also have motion sensors, roving patrols, and even gun towers that were allegedly in good working order.
It was stated by Michigan DOC spokesman, Russ Marlan, in a report by the Associated Press that Elliot wore a white kitchen uniform to avoid security and to blend in with the snow at the prison. Once at the fences, he dug a hole to get through, again undetected, abducted a woman, and stole her SUV. Thankfully, the woman managed to escape and call police once they stopped at a gas station in Indiana.
Information has been forthcoming by the Correctional Officers Union in Michigan. They say Elliot’s escape would have been thwarted if a gun tower just 20 feet away from the escape route would have been manned by a correctional officer, but Michigan’s Department of Corrections ordered the towers to be unstaffed in an effort to cut costs.
Tom Tylutki, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), Local 526M, told a reporter from the Ionia Sentinel-Standard that cost-saving measures have put prison employees and the community at risk and that “inmate supervision should not be a budget-driven decision.”
Michigan DOC officials disagree and don’t believe Elliot’s escape had anything to do with it because surveillance cameras were working, and there was a roving patrol of the fence line by an armed correctional officer at the time of the escape.
Michigan’s Governor Richard Snyder was questioned about Michael Elliot’s escape and asked if the budget, which has had significant cutbacks under his leadership, had anything to do with it? He stated the “investigation needs to take place…it will be very extensive and it will be public.”
All told, the governor didn’t answer the question and he should wait. No one wants to admit, especially during a re-election campaign, that they pulled the wrong plug from an outlet. An investigation is currently underway by the Michigan State Police and Department of Corrections, which may hold the answers to “how” this happened…but that final report may not answer the questions as to “why” it happened.
In public safety, we have been working through budget cuts for years, with various states’ Departments of Corrections being forced to forecast reductions of at least 4% every year, for the next three years. In Michigan, the governor requires state department heads to continually evaluate efficiency and effectiveness, to see where the fat can be cut, in order to “get Michigan’s fiscal house in order.”
Maybe, just maybe, the gun tower was unstaffed because someone in Michigan DOC felt pressured to reduce costs by thinking, “we probably don’t need anyone in the tower since it’s rare that an inmate escapes” or “that electric fence sure is costing us a lot of money, maybe we should just turn it off for a while.”
Yes, it’s sarcasm, but when safety is threatened by the escape of a quadruple murderer that could have possibly been avoided, you just can’t shrug your shoulders. An unidentified resident who lives in Ionia near the maximum security prison said it best: “If you cut back on security there, that is something that will put the rest of the public in jeopardy…it makes no sense.”
About the Author: Rob Stallworth is a former Deputy Chief Probation and Parole Officer for the Virginia Department of Corrections. His career spans more than 15 years with the department where he has served in various positions such as Gang Specialist and Academy Adjunct Instructor. Rob is currently a member of American Military University’s Public Safety Outreach Team.
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