Government & Politics

El Dorado prison staff didn’t secure doors before incident, report says

El Dorado Correctional Facility
El Dorado Correctional Facility File photo

Up to 70 inmates at El Dorado Correctional Facility were able to leave their cell house during a June incident because staff didn’t properly secure the doors, an internal review says.

Several days later, some inmates refused to return to their cells because they were unhappy with new shower schedules.

Those details and others were included in an internal review of the June 24 and June 29 incidents released by the Kansas Department of Corrections on Wednesday. The report was marked confidential.

The incidents drew attention from lawmakers and helped lead Gov. Sam Brownback to raise the pay of corrections officers in August. Kansas’ prison system has been under pressure this year and has experienced unrest at multiple facilities.

El Dorado has taken steps to enhance security and communication since then, Joe Norwood, the corrections secretary, told a corrections oversight committee Wednesday.

The El Dorado prison remains under emergency conditions, with corrections officers working 12-hour shifts in response to staffing shortages.

On June 24, 50 to 70 inmates left their housing unit without permission because of doors that were not secured. The inmates didn’t follow commands to return to their cell house.

"A review of camera footage indicated 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 said. "The main exit door from the building is a swing door and was not secured."

About 50 minutes into the incident, inmates began returning to their cell house. But as they entered, they placed objects into door jambs to prevent them from being secured, the review says. Inmates fashioned mop handles and broom handles into weapons.

Inmates covered their faces to prevent identification and ignited a fire in a laundry cart, filling a hallway with smoke. One inmate attempted to burn a video camera. Another was able to break into an office and steal items.

One officer was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation. No other injuries were reported.

The two cell houses involved in the uprising remained on lockdown until June 29. The report says the warden, James Heimgartner, lifted the lockdown even though the investigation was not completed. The review does not say why. Heimgartner took a new job in the agency the next month working with deputy secretary of corrections Johnnie Goddard.

Almost immediately after the lockdown was lifted, some inmates refused to return to their cells because they were unhappy with new shower schedules, the review says. Several inmates told staff they would not come off the yard until higher-ranking staff spoke with them about the new schedule.

"They were allowed to proceed to the yard, although numerous interviews after this incident indicated 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.

Between 100 and 120 inmates refused to return to their cell houses when the yard was closed. The report emphasizes that the inmates were peaceful until an inmate broke into an office and distributed office and security equipment to other inmates. The warden declared an emergency soon after.

More than an hour later, staff observed fighting in the yard. An investigation showed the fight was a "battery on the inmate responsible for the damage to the offices, as the inmates who had organized the protest wanted a peaceful demonstration."

Officers eventually cleared the yard. After the incident, prison officials recommended that 15 inmates be kept away from the rest of the prisoners.

The report’s conclusions and recommendations are redacted.

Norwood also shared new details about an early September riot at Norton Correctional Facility. Inmates caused about $80,000 in property damage, mostly to windows.

In the wake of the Norton incident, 100 inmates were transferred out of the prison. Norwood said cases for prosecution were being built against inmates involved in the incident.

Staff turnover remains high, Norwood said. Among all uniformed corrections staff in adult facilities, turnover was 32 percent last year. El Dorado had the highest turnover rate at 46 percent.

In August, Brownback approved pay raises for corrections officers – 10 percent at El Dorado, and 5 percent for all other prisons. The starting pay for an entry level corrections officer is now $15.75 at El Dorado and $14.66 elsewhere.

"I’ve heard that the money is not just going to get it – they are concerned about their safety and fatigue," said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita.

She also voiced concern over the presence of competing gangs in the El Dorado prison.

Norwood told lawmakers the efforts to spread maximum security inmates across the state’s three largest prisons – El Dorado, Lansing and Hutchinson – had more evenly dispersed gang members throughout the prisons. Before, gang members were concentrated in Lansing, he said.

"I think it will give us an opportunity to better manage those gang members in smaller numbers," Norwood said.

Norwood did not take questions from reporters after his presentation.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman