Government & Politics

Inside Kansas prison riot where inmates ‘tried to burn the place down’

Officers compared the Norton Correctional Facility to a “Third World” country after a violent inmate uprising that saw multiple fires set in the prison.
Officers compared the Norton Correctional Facility to a “Third World” country after a violent inmate uprising that saw multiple fires set in the prison.

Correctional officers compared a Kansas prison to “a Third World country” after a violent inmate uprising late Tuesday that saw multiple fires set in the facility.

Inmates smashed windows throughout the Norton Correctional Facility. They took over staff offices and destroyed computers. They broke into the prison’s clinic and stole syringes. And some were wielding homemade weapons when correctional officers from three other prisons arrived at Norton to help restore order, according to multiple correctional officers.

The Kansas Department of Corrections described the incident as an “inmate disturbance,” but a correctional officer said it was a “full-blown riot” that involved 400 or more inmates in the prison in northwestern Kansas that houses roughly 850.

“When a little disturbance is when the inmates take over the facility, I don’t know what a riot is,” said the correctional officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Basically, they tried to burn the place down.”

A second correctional officer, who aided in the effort to restore order, agreed about the details of the incident and accused the state agency of trying to downplay its magnitude.

“They just demolished that place,” he said “That place looked like a Third World country. They’re (Department of Corrections) candy-coating that stuff.”

Samir Arif, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, confirmed that multiple fires were set inside the facility and said the agency was still assessing the damage. He also verified the broken windows and other details’ of the officers’ accounts, but would not specify the number of inmates involved.

“We’re still trying to figure out who was responsible for what,” Arif said.

The incident follows week of unrest in Kansas state prisons at a time when many facilities have been understaffed. Gov. Sam Brownback announced a pay raise for prison employees last month as a way to help address the issue.

A third correctional officer, who works in Norton, said the facility has faced increased tension in recent weeks as inmates from other facilities have been transferred into Norton as the Corrections Department pursues plans to renovate its prison in Lansing.

Single cells have been converted to double cells and doubles to quadruples, the officer said.

“These guys are fighting over toilets,” the officer said. “It was making for high tension from the overcrowding.”

Arif disputed that there was overcrowding at the prison, but Rick Gadbury of Topeka, a friend of an inmate in the facility, also said conditions have deteriorated since the recent transfers.

“Conditions out there are deplorable,” Gadbury said. “No adequate showers, toilets or room for that many people.”

The Norton officer also described strained relations between the guards and the new prisoners at Norton, where most inmates are considered low-medium-security or minimum-security.

“Those inmates (from other facilities) have a different mentality than inmates selected for Norton,” the officer said. “They are hardened criminals. These are inmates who are used to running the facility, but in Norton, officers run the facility.”

That changed Tuesday night. According to one of the officers called from another prison, the word from commanding officers was that the inmates had taken control of the Norton facility.

Four fires were started — three in inmate wings and one in a captain’s area where computers are for inmates’ use, according to the Norton officer. The officer thought about a dozen inmates were the primary instigators of the violence.

State troopers, local police and correctional officers from three prisons in central and western Kansas were called to Norton to help get the inmates back under control, while the local fire department dealt with the fires.

Pepper spray was used to pacify inmates, according to the Norton officer.

The agency has not reported any inmate injuries. Two staff injuries have been reported.

The officer who accused Corrections of “candy-coating” the situation pointed to the motivations of the inmates as one reason for the lack of inmate injuries.

“They weren’t rioting against each other. They were going against the DOC. … They just wanted to make a statement,” he said, noting inmates’ frustration.

On Wednesday the agency transferred 100 inmates to other prisons across the state. About half of them will be going to the Lansing Correctional Facility, a prison 28 miles northwest of Kansas City, he said.

“This is a security practice to break these guys up,” Arif said. “Most of them are going to Lansing, but they’ll be spread throughout the state.”

Arif said the 100 inmates were chosen because they posed a “security challenge.” With the transfers, the number of inmates will decrease to 756. The prison has 196 staff members and 17 vacancies.

Two Lansing employees said that as many as 70 inmates were brought to that facility Wednesday.

One Lansing staff member said security was heightened as Norton inmates arrived on buses.

“I think it could potentially hamper security, especially since so many of the guys who banded together for this riot (at Norton) are being sent to the same place instead of being split up,” the staff member said.

The Lansing staff member said maximum-security inmates were moved to medium-security areas to accommodate the influx.

Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, expressed concern about the transfer of inmates to Lansing considering that facility’s high number of staffing vacancies; it had 109 vacancies as of mid-August, the most of any Kansas prison.

“We have such high staffing vacancies at Lansing,” Choromanski said, “to be absorbing 70 more inmates on top of the already precarious security situation is dangerous and poses a security threat to officers.”

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

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