Government & Politics

Inmate uprising? State’s account, emergency log differ on Kansas prison incident

El Dorado Correctional Facility
El Dorado Correctional Facility The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Department of Corrections may have downplayed the severity of an incident at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.

The incident began about 9 a.m. June 29, according to Robert Choromanski, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union that represents KDOC employees. It did not end until about 5 p.m. A statement released by KDOC said no violence had occurred and no weapons were accessed by offenders.

However, an emergency log book from the incident viewed by The Star indicates violence did occur and at least one inmate had a weapon. In addition, there was at least one fire in the prison during the incident, according to the log.

The incident broke out at a time when the Kansas Department of Corrections is dealing with significant staffing shortages as well as inmate transfers to El Dorado. During the disturbance, prisoners occupied a gym, dining area and the east yard. It came one day before a prisoner escaped from another Kansas prison, in Lansing.

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Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, is a member of the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, a role that deals with KDOC budgeting and facilities. She said the incident at El Dorado was linked to KDOC’s push to build a new prison in Lansing.

“As a result, we’ve been transferring inmates from other facilities down to El Dorado,” she said, “many of whom the El Dorado staff is not equipped to work with.”

According to the log book, there were two fights involving separate groups of inmates at the facility shortly after noon. About two hours later, KDOC spokesman Todd Fertig said “no incidents of violence have occurred.”

At least one inmate obtained a weapon, according to the log, though the entry does not make clear what type of weapon.

Fertig said this week, “No firearms, nor any KDOC weapons, were ever in the possession of the offenders.”

He did not respond to questions about why KDOC said no violence had occurred in its statement the day of the incident.

“I don’t work at the facility,” he said. “I’ve never seen the log.”

On Thursday, Joe Norwood, the secretary of the corrections department, said staff resolved the incident peacefully “without any substantial violence of any nature and without any use of force.” Norwood was speaking from the facility during an event open to media and legislators to discuss the re-entry of inmates after their release.

He added that no injuries were suffered by staff or inmates.

Staffing shortages at El Dorado could contribute to an atmosphere in which a riot could occur, according to Choromanski.

“When they (inmates) see that there’s not enough correctional staff guarding the place, they’ll utilize the weak points and jump on it,” he said.

According to KDOC, there were a total of 94 staff vacancies at El Dorado as of July 5. Choromanski disputed that number, saying vacancies are as high as 125.

The vacancies are a result of budget shortages in the state, Kelly said.

Choromanski, who said he has viewed a portion of the emergency log, said the state downplayed the severity of the incident at El Dorado.

“I find it somewhat disrespectful to the safety of the officers,” he said.

Kelly said she was skeptical from the beginning of KDOC’s account of the incident at El Dorado.

“It’s imperative that we tell the people the truth ... because there may be changes that need to be made, but we’ve got to know what the problems are before we can come up with solutions,” Kelly said. “This is a public safety issue for the general public and for the staff in these facilities.”

Jonathan Shorman of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg