LINCOLN — A review of a deadly prison riot last month concluded that a small number of corrections officers were “quickly outnumbered and surrounded” by defiant inmates and ill-equipped to defend themselves.
As many as 400 inmates may have been involved in the riot, during which prisoners took control of two housing units, the yard and the gym of the state’s highest-security prison for about 10 hours.
Two inmates were found dead after the riot at the Tecumseh State Prison, a medium-maximum security facility about 50 miles south of Omaha.
Two prison employees were injured, 20 were trapped for up to six hours by rioting inmates, and housing units were ransacked and set ablaze in what was described as the state’s worst prison uprising in decades.
The report, headed up by Tomas Fithian, a security manager with the Washington state prison system, was released on Monday. It concluded that when the riot began, too many inmates had been let out of their housing units to obtain medications and participate in other activities, and staff could not maintain control.
At the outbreak of the riot, 14 corrections officers were trying to manage 350-plus inmates who were out of their cells and refusing orders to disperse or get back in their cells, despite two warning shots from an armed guard in a tower.
“Too many inmates may be out at one time compared to the number of staff available to effectively respond to incidents,” stated the report. “Staff were ill-equipped to safely protect themselves.”
Overall, there were 1,024 inmates at the 960-bed prison at the time of the riot and 57 staff members, the minimum staffing required. Six of the staffers on duty had volunteered to work a second eight-hour shift due to staff shortages, a chronic problem at the rural facility.
A six-member review team, which included five corrections staff members, made several recommendations and observations, including:
» Distribution of over-the-counter medications should be done when more staff can supervise the activity and should be done inside housing units, instead of in the yard.
» Staff without sufficient resources tried to control a crowd in the prison yard that refused to disperse.
» Rather than attempting to control one unruly leader, staff needed to evaluate the totality of the disturbance, which spread to the gym and two housing units.
» There was a 20-minute gap between the firing of a warning shot and when one of the disturbance leaders, Rashad Washington, was shot in the leg while trying to break into the prison gym with a group of other inmates. Warning shots should be a warning that deadly force is imminent.
» Pepper ball weapons were ineffective; other nonlethal measures should be considered.
» The training of emergency response teams should be evaluated, and the use of chemical agents considered.
» The number of inmate programs should be increased to reduce idle time.
» Prison administrators should look for creative ways to reduce staff vacancies, mandatory overtime and the resulting low morale. About 60 of the prison’s 431 authorized positions were vacant, and 35 percent of the corrections officers had less than two years’ experience.
The review did not delve into the deaths of the two inmates, Donald Peacock and Shon Collins. That, the report said, was being left to the Nebraska State Patrol, which is conducting a criminal investigation into the slayings, presumed to be carried out by fellow inmates.
The report said there was no “pre-incident intelligence” that a riot was imminent, though a couple of staffers noted that inmates were upset by a lack of time allowed in the open yard and favoritism shown in allowing some inmates, and not others, to participate in a walking program called the “Wellness League.”
Several inmates reportedly had been planning to present a list of grievances to prison officials, but that could not be verified, the report stated, and no list of grievances was found.
The report also made no mention of a prison disturbance a day earlier at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln or any connection that it might have had to the Tecumseh riot.
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the report provided “a realistic assessment” of the riot, identified needed improvements and made recommendations that will improve operations “across the agency.”
The report indicated that 20 staff members became trapped during the rioting and had to be rescued by armed emergency response teams.
The first staff member rescued, nearly two hours after the riot began, was a female who barricaded herself inside an office in the prison gym. The last rescued were nine corrections officers who were trapped for about six hours inside a tower in the center of the prison’s yard.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who hired Frakes in February from Washington state to reform Nebraska’s troubled prison system, said in a statement Monday evening that he appreciated the “proactive approach” taken by Frakes in investigating the riot.
State Ombudsman Marshall Lux, whose office investigates complaints by inmates, and State Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, whose district includes the prison, both said they had not yet had time to read the 37-page report.
The report said the riot began at about 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 10 when a group of about 40 inmates gathered in the prison yard outside of a housing unit. Some inmates headed to areas “out of bounds,” seemingly led by Washington, an Omaha inmate serving 70 to 110 years in prison for a gang-related shooting in 2011.
The group refused orders to disperse, and when corrections staff tried to direct Washington to a holding area, two staffers were assaulted and the disturbance began.
That led to a warning shot being fired, which caused a majority of the inmates to lie down, as is required.
But, about 10 minutes later, after inmates in two nearby housing units refused orders to return to their cells for a lockdown, the inmates in the yard stood back up. A group of inmates then tried to break into the prison gym, using a metal sign as an ax, as inmates inside also tried to breach a locked door.
That prompted a second warning shot from the tower, as the female staffer inside the gym took refuge in an office. As rioting escalated, prison staff were ordered to leave the yard and take refuge in the tower, and staff in housing Units 2 and 3 barricaded themselves in offices as inmates took over.
At 3:19 p.m., about 40 minutes after the disturbance began and 10 minutes after the last warning shot, a corrections officer in the tower shot at Washington and hit him in the leg.
In housing Units 2 and 3, inmates vandalized surveillance cameras, burned down walls separating galleries, started fires and armed themselves with homemade weapons and weapons of opportunity, such as mops and brooms.
“This destructive, riotous behavior continued from approximately 1445 hours May 10th through approximately 0100 hours May 11th at which time staff regained control of the facility and began the process of recovery,” the report stated.
At least $500,000 in damage was done to the facility, which continues in a restricted-movement mode of operation, with officers working 12-hour shifts.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.
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