Kansas prisoners riot over health care, video purports; officials investigate

Tribune Content Agency

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — An hourslong disturbance at a Kansas prison has been resolved, officials said Friday, adding that it has not yet been determined whether any inmates involved will face charges or whether the outburst stemmed from concerns of the new coronavirus.

Kansas prison staff and tactical teams responded to a disturbance at the Lansing Correctional Facility beginning around 3 p.m. Thursday, said Rebecca Witte, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

It was initially reported that about 20 to 30 inmates were scattering linens and paper and setting off fire extinguishers. Witte said they also broke windows and damaged computer equipment, video surveillance equipment and lights.

Authorities entered the cell house, which can hold up to 260 residents but was currently housing about 170, around 11 p.m. Thursday, officials said. A tactical team used tear gas when entering but did not need to use other weapons on hand, including rubber pellets.

Two inmates sustained minor injuries, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said during a news conference Friday afternoon. One inhaled gas and the other required stitches for a cut. Both were treated on site.

The medium-security prison located about 30 miles northwest of Kansas City is the same facility where an outbreak of COVID-19 was reported.

The corrections department said earlier this week that at the Lansing facility, eight inmates and seven staff members tested positive for the virus. The COVID-19 case numbers have since increased to 16 staff members and 12 inmates, according to the KDOC website. Seven additional inmates are also under quarantine for observation, but do not have confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Thursday’s disruption began when a handful of inmates decided to barricade themselves in the unit while heading back from the showers, Kelly said.

A video posted Friday on YouTube claims to be footage from inside the “riot.”

“They aren’t giving us no healthcare for this coronavirus,” one man said, panning the video past broken windows.

The video shows a couple dozen inmates, some with masks, some without, as someone behind the camera continues talking.

“Y’all don’t want to give us no health care? Y’all don’t want to give us no health care? This is what we do,” someone says while showing footage of a trashed office.

Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmundo, who appeared with Kelly at Friday’s news conference, said he has viewed portions of a YouTube video claiming to be taken inside the facility and will investigate further.

He said it’s too soon into the investigation to say what triggered the outbreak or whether it was related to coronavirus.

“Inmates and staff are concerned about the level of care inmates have been receiving from the corrections medical provider, Corizon,” Kelly told reporters before Zmundo took the podium. “I understand the frustrations. In fact, I share them.”

Corizon, the prison’s private health care contractor, has previously been accused of not providing proper care to KDOC inmates.

Kelly, who said she’s previously worked to identify Corizon’s shortcomings and take corrective action when necessary, asked her chief of staff to send a letter elevating their current concerns to Corizon’s CEO, with whom she’s previously sparred with over their contract.

“We have not hesitated to hold Corizon, like all vendors, accountable,” she added, though she didn’t elaborate on those concerns Friday.

KSHB-TV reported Friday morning that a man in the prison told them inmates were angry about the handling of coronavirus cases at the facility.

The C cell house is located about 200 yards from the infirmary where the residents who tested positive for COVID-19 are being housed, said Randy Bowman, a corrections spokesman.

Masks were distributed to all Lansing staff and residents beginning Thursday morning, Witte said.

The KDOC suspended visitation to their facilities on March 13. Around the same time they began ramping up cleaning and sanitation practices and instituted a screening process for both staff and offenders, Zmundo said. They also eliminated the co-pay for medical care.

Beginning April 3, new DOC inmates entering from county jails are taken to an intake isolation unit where their health is monitored for two weeks ahead of their release to their longer-term housing facility, Zmundo added.

KDOC inmates have also been separated into cohorts in an attempt to restrict movement and contact across the prison community, he said. Witte said the residents who had been staying at the C cell house were relocated by 2 a.m. to a different medium security building at the facility.

Kelly said her administration plans to hold accountable those involved in Thursday’s disturbance. KDOC officials it could take up to a few weeks to complete the investigation, which includes numerous inmate interviews.

Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson released a statement Friday morning noting that he will not consider any charges until the investigation is wrapped up.

“Our office is saddened to hear about the riot that occurred at the Lansing Correctional Facility, but we were glad to hear no one was hurt,” Thompson wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas on Thursday asked the state’s Supreme Court to immediately release prisoners who have preexisting medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“Certainly if you have more room and more beds that can ease a little bit on the overcrowding,” Zmundo said Friday in response to a question about the ACLU’s demands. “And, depending on the offender, it could help us with maintaining good order and discipline and safety in the facilities.”


(The Kansas City Star’s Kaitlyn Schwers contributed to this report.)


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