TOPEKA — One late June disturbance at a Kansas prison resulted in a fire and gang fight and led to another uprising days later when staff again worked to contain inmates who refused to return to their cells, according to an internal Kansas Department of Corrections review released Wednesday.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood presented the review of two uprisings at El Dorado Correctional Facility to the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight. The review shows an uprising began at El Dorado on June 24 when staff members failed to secure a door leading from a cell block to the recreation yard. When a lockdown stemming from that uprising was lifted June 29, inmates again refused to comply with officers orders.
The review showed staff members made key mistakes or judgements that might have contributed to inmates ability to control the prison on two different occasions. The review comes after legislators worried this summer the Kansas prisons were understaffed and overworked, contributing to the unrest. El Dorado has one of the highest turnover rates for any Kansas prison and has struggled to fill vacant staff positions.
“A review of camera footage indicated that the unit staff in L cell house had not properly secured the doors between pods and multiple pod doors that open on to the hallway,” the review says.
Concerns about that staffing led Gov. Sam Brownback to boost pay for corrections officers across the state in an attempt to fill vacancies.
The El Dorado uprising kicked off concerns this summer about how prisons were managed. The uprising took place while the prison’s population was rising and inmates were being double-bunked to keep the population within the prison’s capacity. Norwood has said the prison’s staffing didn’t result in the uprising.
A state of emergency exists at El Dorado, and officers can be required to work 12-hour shifts because of the understaffing. Many officers have limited experience, according to KDOC.
During the initial El Dorado uprising, 50 to 70 inmates took advantage of the unsecured cell door and refused to return to their cell blocks.
Staff called an emergency and attempted to secure the yard. Inmates refused again to return to their cell blocks, and two gang members fought. Others attempted to intimidate staff members in the living unit with mop and broom handles, and several lit a fire in a laundry cart and pushed it into a cell block hall way and then back into the yard.
Officers started locking housing unit doors, isolating several inmates in a hallway. They cleared those halls, securing the cell houses and began moving inmates back inside from the yard. In the meantime, an inmate broke through a wall and damaged property and stole items from an office near the gym.
When the uprising ended, the prison went on lockdown for several days.
Norwood did not take requests for comment after his presentation, but KDOC spokesman Samir Arif said all the prison’s security posts were manned during the uprising and corrective actions were taken. He could not comment on whether staffing shortages could have contributed to officer mistakes.
“Following proper correctional practices is the best way to prevent incidents like this,” Arif said.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, raised concerns during the meeting that officers were worn out and overworked.
Inmates came off lockdown early in the morning June 29 even though the investigation wasn’t complete and none had been interviewed. The report doesn’t say why. A second disturbance began that morning.
Inmates took issue with their new shower schedule following the lockdown and told staff they wanted to talk to someone about the change. Inmates from one cell block were scheduled to be in the yard from 8 to 9:15 a.m., but they wouldn’t be allowed to shower until 6:30 p.m. They told staff before they went into the yard that they wouldn’t leave until they got to speak to someone about the change.
“They were allowed to proceed to the yard, although numerous interviews after this incident indicated that inmates tried to warn staff that this action was going to happen if someone in the administration didn’t talk to them about their complaints,” the review says.
When the yard time was scheduled to end at 9:15, about 100 to 120 inmates refused to go back to their cell house, though remained peaceful.
Around 11 a.m., “the warden ordered staff to exit the gym and activated a plan to secure all other areas of the facility” as support teams traveled to the prison. Inmates started fighting that afternoon. Officers from four correctional facilities eventually cleared the yard and gym and returned inmates to their cells around 5:23 p.m.
The Kansas Department of Corrections has come under scrutiny for the uprisings this summer. It has been working to increase capacity at several prisons and equalize the number of maximum security inmates at each facility while it prepares to rebuild Lansing Correctional Facility and struggles with understaffing.
Some legislators, including Faust-Goudeau, have raised concerns over the combining of competing gangs in prisons.
Rep. Sydney Carlin, a Manhattan Democrat who serves on the committee, said she was concerned about prison staffing. She said having inexperiencied officers was likely also a problem.
“I think absolutely it’s understaffing and not having appropriate staff members probably in those conditions,” Carlin said.
Sen. Rick Wilborn, a McPherson Republican, said he was concerned about the situation but still had faith in Norwood.
Wichita Democrat Rep. Gail Finney said she was glad to see the officers got the uprisings in order in a “reasonable time.” She, too, said she had confidence in Norwood’s leadership.
Norwood also released information about a September uprising at Norton Correctional Facility. He said inmates caused between $70,000 and $80,000 in damage during that event. Inmates broke windows and lit fires, and — according to a log book — corrections officers prepared to use lethal force if necessary. Norwood said the department was building prosecution cases for inmates involved.
After that incident, 100 inmates were moved out of the prison.
That disturbance is still under review, Norwood said.