Report gives harrowing detail of Nebraska prison ‘rampage’

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A deadly rampage by several hundred inmates at an understaffed Nebraska maximum security prison in May started when too many prisoners were allowed to leave their cells at once to get medication, according to an investigative report released on Monday.

Multiple inmates at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution were allowed to leave their cells simultaneously on May 10 to get in line for the distribution of over-the-counter medication and the staff were unable to manage them, according the review released by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

The 37-page report is the most detailed public accounting yet of the revolt, and it sets out in harrowing detail how the prison staffed with the minimum number of officers lost control of the situation in less than 20 minutes.

“The uncontrolled inmates assaulted two staff, seemingly ignored warning shots and actual use of deadly force, and essentially entrapped and taunted numerous staff members in buildings overrun by inmates,” the report says. It describes the ordeal as a “destructive 10+ hour rampage.”

There were only 57 staff members at the facility to manage 1,024 inmates when the riot began, the minimum number allowed, and several were working overtime, it said.

The report said the incident began at 2:32 p.m. with release of inmates from their cells to get medicine and within 10 minutes inmates were becoming violent, prompting an officer to fire a warning shot. Seven minutes later the entire facility was ordered to lock down, and inmates began trying to break down doors and windows and move to other parts of the facility.

An inmate kicked an officer on the ground in the head and another officer was assaulted in the back of the head, the report said.

At one point, the report says prisoners became so threatening that staff evacuated substantial parts of the facility.

“Numerous other inmates throughout the courtyard area were beginning to circle around staff, in what appears to be an attempt to purposely block escape routes, effectively trapping staff in the courtyard,” the report said.

An officer in the tower shot one inmate in the leg to try to get the attention of prisoners but was mostly ignored.

Prisoners began chanting “Hands Up - Don’t Shoot,” a slogan that protesters frequently used after unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, setting off nationwide protests over police treatment of African-Americans.

The inmates started fires that filled control centers with smoke, forcing staff hiding there to retreat further.

After more than 10 hours, authorities were able to restore order. But the report says that they had to rescue 19 staff and one volunteer trapped at various locations including the gym, two housing units, the tower and an area where religious services are held.

Two sex offenders serving sentences at the prison were found dead once order was restored. Additional information about the inmate deaths was not released in the report, but the Nebraska State Patrol is expected to issue its own independent investigation.

The rampaging inmates caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the facility.

The report commends the staff, some of whom were injured and trapped for hours in various areas of the prison. One female staffer barricaded herself in the gym office.

“They endured situations that one cannot always prepare for, yet continued to stay alert and aware,” according to the report.

The report makes dozens of recommendation for corrections personnel, including adding more rules for dispensing inmate medication, better organizing to maintain control of inmates and limiting materials that allowed inmates to start destructive fires.

Scott Frakes, the director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said the report provides a realistic assessment.

“In addition to identifying needed improvements, the report also highlights the courageous actions of staff and in the dedication shown since the disturbance,” he said in a statement.

The report was led by an administrator for the Washington state corrections department.

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