Previously unreleased report says Tecumseh State Prison was primed for rebellion in 2015

Previously unreleased report says Tecumseh State Prison was primed for rebellion in 2015
Scattered debris and other damage is shown in Housing Unit 2 at the Tecumseh State Prison after a May 2015 riot. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — A state prison was “primed” for a rebellion due to stricter rules, understaffing and other factors, according to a previously unreleased report on the 2015 Mother’s Day riot at the Tecumseh State Prison.

The report — unlike a previous study of the riot that was released to the public — was more critical of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, and suggested that the Tecumseh facility hold less-dangerous inmates because of its rural location and less-experienced staff.

The existence of the report came to light earlier this week, during testimony at a trial concerning the Mother’s Day riot, which left two inmates dead and more than $2 million in damage.

It was not immediately clear why the report hadn’t been released to the public back in 2015. Also unclear was why it hadn’t been shared as part of the discovery process prior to this week’s trial concerning the 2015 riot. The trial involved claims by a Tecumseh inmate, John Wizinsky, that the state was negligent in not protecting inmates during the melee.

During the riot, inmates took over large areas of the prison for 10 hours, setting fires, assaulting other inmates and trapping prison staff in four locations. A staff “hit list” was written on a prison wall during the riot. Armed riot response teams eventually rescued the trapped staff and took control.

The newly released report was done by Dan Pacholke of the Washington State Department of Corrections and Bert Useem, a national authority on prison riots from Purdue University. It said that the prison was understaffed by four positions on the day of the 2015 riot. When the riot broke out in the yard, the report said, the staff was quickly overwhelmed, allowing a single incident to grow into a prison-wide riot.

While a previous report said the riot occurred as “a matter of chance,” Pacholke and Useem attributed it to several pre-riot conditions.

“In our view, a conjuncture of several conditions primed the institution for rebellion,” the 12-page report stated. “The prison was under stress; inmates were unsettled; the ‘barometric pressure’ was high and rising. When the initial resistance took place, this stress permitted small acts of resistance to expand rapidly …”

The report cited several pre-riot conditions for fomenting the violence:

» The co-location of protective custody inmates (who are supposed to be kept separate from other inmates) next to maximum-security offenders.

» An estimated 47 percent of the prison’s population were gang members, and during the riot it appeared that the Bloods and Surenos gangs worked in coordination to take over portions of the facility. Better management of gangs was recommended.

» Inmates were upset over perceived “tightening of the screws” on their time in recreational yards, and felt that a “wellness league” that was formed as a reward for good behavior was unfairly administered.

» An ideology of “rebellion” had formed among inmates, in part due to recent demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, over shootings by police, and because of a belief that a riot would result in resignations of “bad” staff.

» A day before the riot, a disturbance involving several fights had broken out at another Nebraska prison, the State Penitentiary in Lincoln. Some of those inmates were transferred to Tecumseh. “Defiance was in the air,” the report said. In addition, inmates were upset because of revelations, first reported by The World-Herald, that dozens of inmate sentences had been miscalculated. Some inmates had to be returned to prison to finish their rightful sentences, which “damaged the credibility” of the agency among inmates, the report said.

Among the recommendations by Pacholke and Useem were that Tecumseh increase activities and programs, to decrease idle time among inmates, and make a greater commitment to establishing relationships between inmates and caseworkers. The facility, they suggested, should house lower-custody inmates — rather than its mix of maximum- and medium-security inmates — because its staff is less experienced. Higher pay and other incentives should be provided to hire and retain staff at the rural prison, they also recommended.

A month after the riot, a report headed up by Tomas Fithian, a security manager with the Washington state prison system, concluded that too many inmates had been let out of their housing units to obtain medications on the day of the riot, and staff were out-numbered and ill-equipped to maintain control.

When the initial assault occurred, 14 corrections officers were trying to manage 350-plus inmates. The inmates refused orders despite two warning shots from an armed guard in a tower.

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