The Kansas Department of Corrections has moved 100 inmates out of Norton Correctional Facility after a late-night disturbance that included a fire, smashed windows and two officers’ injuries, a spokesman said.
KDOC spokesman Samir Arif said Wednesday that 50 inmates were transferred to Lansing Correctional Facility and another 50 were being scattered between other correctional facilities. He said the 100 inmates were initially identified as instigators in the uprising that started around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Arif said the department had not yet proven those inmates started the disturbance and that an investigation into the event was underway at the prison that houses primarily medium-and minimum-security inmates.
Arif said the uprising started when inmates lit a mattress on fire and a dormitory was evacuated, leaving 250 inmates in the prison yard in the dark. He said some broke into a supply closet and got shovels and rakes and broke windows, but the department did not yet know exactly who caused the problem and why.
“It’s difficult to tell exactly who was doing what and for what reason,” Arif said.
Two staff members were injured but did not require medical attention during the incident, which ended just after midnight, according to KDOC. The Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents corrections officers, called the disturbance a “huge riot” in a tweet Tuesday evening.
The disturbance was the latest in a period of prison unrest that also sparked a riot at El Dorado Correctional Facility in late June. Robert Choromanski, executive director for KOSE, said he thought the unrest stemmed from transfers of inmates between correctional facilities that have been plagued by staffing shortages.
“That virus kind of spread,” Choromanski said.
Inmates were moved earlier this year from Lansing Correctional Facility. The number of inmates housed at El Dorado Correctional Facility also ticked down after a June 29 uprising. On Tuesday, Norton housed 856 inmates at its main unit and another 128 at is satellite unit to the east in Stockton.
Arif said few inmates had been moved from El Dorado to Norton and that the department was still investigating culpability. He said that process would likely take at least one week.
Norton has not seen the staffing shortages that have plagued other correctional facilities. As of Tuesday, 17 of its 196 non-uniformed officer positions were open, Arif said. The larger facilities at El Dorado and Lansing each had more than 80 vacancies on Tuesday, according to KDOC.
Disciplinary incidents spiked in the weeks leading up to the incident, with 396 in August, up 75 percent from 226 reports in July, according to KDOC data. Last year’s peak was 328 reports in June. The number of disciplinary reports each month has been higher all year, with an average of 245 reports each month. Last year’s average was 209 each month.
Norton City Administrator Chad Buckley said all of the town’s fire trucks and his entire police department responded to the scene to assist corrections officials. Norton, with a population of less than 3,000 including the prison, is 12 miles south of the Nebraska state line and about 320 miles west of Kansas City.
Choromanski said he thought moving 50 inmates into Lansing could create problems for state’s largest, oldest prison.
“That will put more pressure on them when they’re already short-staffed,” Choromanski said.
Choromanski said officers at Lansing were frustrated they got a smaller pay raise than officers at El Dorado.
Gov. Sam Brownback announced last month that workers at Kansas state prisons will get pay increases in the wake of inmate disturbances that have drawn public attention to staff shortages at the facilities. Uniformed officers across the state would receive about a 5 percent raise. Officers at El Dorado Correctional Facility will see raises of about 10 percent.
Choromanski said those raises are not large enough and that the Legislature should be called in for a special session and raise officers’ pay by 20 percent.
The department has confirmed three disturbances at the El Dorado facility in May and June involving inmates who refused to return to their cells, as well as two pairs of inmate-on-inmate fights on July 28 that sent one inmate from each altercation to a hospital with stab wounds. Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood has attributed the disturbances to newly arrived inmates transferred from other prisons.
All of the prisons struggle with turnover among corrections officers, but the El Dorado prison, east of Wichita, has the highest annual rate at 46 percent, compared with 33 percent for the entire system.
The Associated Press Contributed to this report.