Politics & Government

Another Kansas prison rocked by violence; inmates ‘tried to burn the place down’

Norton Correctional Facility
Norton Correctional Facility

Inmate unrest has roiled another Kansas prison, capping a summer of disturbances in the state corrections system.

Law enforcement officers and firefighters swarmed Norton Correctional Facility on Tuesday night to respond to an incident that the union representing corrections officers called a "major riot” – a description echoed by three corrections officers who work at the prison.

“When a little disturbance is when the inmates take over the facility I don’t know what a riot is,” said a corrections officer who spoke on a condition of anonymity. Two other officers on the scene backed up this description of incident.

“Basically, they tried to burn the place down,” he said.

The disturbance at Norton began Tuesday night when an inmate or inmates set fire to a mattress in a housing unit. As many as 250 inmates spilled into the yard as a dormitory was evacuated, said Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Samir Arif. Inmates broke into a tool shed and smashed several prison windows.

Two employees received minor injuries that did not require medical attention. Additionally, part of one cell house was rendered unusable for now.

Pepper spray was used to subdue inmates, according to one Norton officer.

An investigation is under way, Arif said.

KDOC said Wednesday it is moving 100 inmates out of Norton in the wake of the disturbance – more than 10 percent of the prison population. Arif said the movement is standard procedure and is being done to break up the inmates seen as posing the biggest security challenges.

The disturbance took place amid a spike in inmate discipline. The number of disciplinary reports at Norton jumped from 226 to 396 from July to August, an increase of 75 percent, according to figures provided by KDOC.

The previous peak was 328 reports in June 2016, the Associated Press reported. Last year the prison averaged 209 a month, compared with 245 per month from January through August this year.

One corrections 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 KDOC pursues plans to renovate its prison in Lansing.

Single cells have been converted to double cells, 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. Norton had 984 inmates, just below its capacity of 995, according to a Tuesday KDOC population report. It holds primarily medium- to minimum-security inmates, while El Dorado and Lansing house many more maximum-security inmates.

The Norton officer also described strained relations between the guards and the new prisoners.

“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.”

Kansas has been shuffling inmates throughout its prisons this year. The moves have been made to both alleviate pressure at the Lansing prison, which is struggling with high numbers of unfilled staff positions, and to balance the number of maximum-security inmates within the corrections system.

The prison in El Dorado experienced multiple episodes of unrest in May and June, when inmates refused to return to their cells. Fighting at Hutchinson Correctional Facility led to a partial lockdown last month. Federal authorities are also investigating the death of a Lansing inmate in March.

The transfers contributed to unrest at the prison in El Dorado, but Arif said inmate transfers did not play a role in the latest incident.

“Our officers are trained to deal with situations like what happened at Norton last night. It’s not outside the realm of their normal responsibility. The leadership and the staff at the Department of Corrections has hundreds of years of experience inside the facilities,” Arif said.

Only nine of the approximately 100 inmates involved in the Norton incident had been from Lansing originally, Arif said. He added that the disturbance was not the result of a fight between inmates.

The disturbance began around 9:30 p.m., according to KDOC. Norton City Administrator Chad Buckley said all of the town’s firetrucks and his entire police department responded to assist corrections officials.

The sheriff’s office in neighboring Phillips County said on Facebook that it responded to a call for assistance at the prison from the Norton County sheriff at about 9:30 p.m.

KDOC said at 12:30 a.m. that the disturbance was under control.

The union that represents corrections officers, the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said on social media that some inmates had gotten weapons.

Rep. Ken Rahjes, a Republican whose district includes the prison, said incidents like the one at Norton shouldn’t be allowed to become commonplace.

“What I want to make sure is, is regardless of where it happens – El Dorado, Norton or wherever – that this doesn’t become just background noise,” Rahjes said.

Norton, in western Kansas near the Nebraska border, had been untouched by the problems roiling prisons in El Dorado and Lansing this summer. The prison hasn’t experienced high staff vacancies like those prisons and had not experienced high-profile incidents of unrest until now.

Norton had 21 staff vacancies as of Tuesday, compared with 110 at Lansing and 96 at El Dorado.

Gov. Sam Brownback raised the pay of corrections officers by 10 percent at El Dorado last month and by 5 percent at all other prisons. Robert Choromanski, director of the worker union, the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the union is concerned with the unequal pay among officers, but signed off on the raise as a first step.

Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat who sits on the House corrections committee, said even with the recent raises, pay is still below market level.

Choromanski called for a special legislative session to boost corrections pay by 20 percent. There seems to be little support for calling lawmakers back to work this fall, but the Legislature may examine further pay raises during its regular session, which begins in January.

"It’s a systemic problem," Choromanski said. "This is a band-aid solution to a gaping wound."

(FILE VIDEO-- JULY 13, 2017) Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, spoke at El Dorado Correctional Facility about an earlier incident that occurred at the prison.

Contributing: Associated Press

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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