Inmate unrest at Hutchinson Correctional Facility led to a lockdown of part of the facility earlier this week.
The state called the disturbance a small fight. Two workers said objects were thrown at corrections officers.
Also this week, the El Dorado Correctional Facility dropped below a minimum staffing threshold for several hours, according to a log book, illustrating the prison’s continuing staffing shortage.
Lawmakers have called on Gov. Sam Brownback to raise pay for corrections officers. Some also have criticized the state for shuffling inmates among prisons over the past few months – leading to increased tensions – despite staffing shortages.
A worker at the Hutchinson prison who did not want to be identified told The Eagle part of the facility was placed on lockdown Monday after a series of fights. The lockdown continued into the night, he said, with items being thrown at officers.
“All the officers were getting bodily waste thrown on them, the inmates were creating fireballs and throwing them,” he said. “Had a couple officers that were flashed with homemade weapons. It was basically eight hours of what seemed like a war zone in there.”
Another worker also described officers being pelted with items during a lockdown in a message to the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents corrections officers. The union shared the message with The Eagle.
Samir Arif, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said one wing of the prison’s cell houses was secured on Monday afternoon and night. When an area is secured, everyone stays in place. Prisoners can’t move between areas and their normal activities stop.
“There was apparently a small fight, no injuries, between two inmates,” Arif said.
Told of the department’s statement, the worker who spoke to The Eagle said again that multiple fights involving at least inmates had taken place and that objects were thrown at officers that night. He said two maximum security cell houses were on lockdown.
Inmates have access to media and are aware of the situation at other prisons, he said, and some want to create unrest similar to what has taken place in El Dorado. The worker, who has been at the prison for several years, said the lockdown was not normal and that the situation is “very ramped up” compared to what he has previously seen.
“They were both saying that this is like a virus spreading,” said KOSE director Robert Choromanski, who communicated with both workers.
Kansas began shifting prisoners from Lansing Correctional Facility this spring in an effort to alleviate pressure on staff there. El Dorado’s inmate population rose, even as it struggled with its own staffing shortage.
After an incident at El Dorado in late June where inmates refused to return to their cell house for several hours, Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said some prisoners would be transferred out of El Dorado temporarily to reduce the burden on staff. He has also said the state is trying to balance maximum security inmates among Lansing, El Dorado and Hutchinson.
“We’ve more evenly divided them between the three facilities so that we can better manage that population, spread out between more of the facilities,” he said.
El Dorado was housing 474 maximum security inmates as of Thursday. Hutchinson had 313 and Lansing had 370.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she understands why the department doesn’t want to concentrate its maximum security inmates in one facility.
“I just think that given that you’ve got staffing issues at El Dorado and have for a while, that maybe this was not the time to be transferring so many of these harder to handle folks down,” she said.
El Dorado staffing dips below line
The El Dorado prison fell four positions under OMS, or operational minimum staffing, from 10 p.m. Tuesday until 2 a.m. Wednesday, according to a portion of an El Dorado log book sent to The Eagle by KOSE. The Topeka Capital-Journal first reported about the log book.
The agency wouldn’t confirm whether the prison had fallen below operational minimum staffing, but also didn’t dispute that it had.
Arif said that access to some parts of the prison may be reduced or some services may move slower if staffing falls below operational minimum staffing.
Choromanski said the prison is “inviting trouble” any time it falls below minimum staffing levels.
“Anytime you have weak points in the prison security system, inmates can exploit that weak point, create havoc and try to take over,” Choromanski said.
Arif reiterated that security posts have been manned, echoing what Norwood said to lawmakers last week and in interviews.
“We’re going to continue to man the security posts that are critical to the operations and critical to the safety and security of the facility,” Norwood told The Eagle last month.
“So what that means is obviously staff is working more overtime, more hours each day.”