TOPEKA, Kan. – Kansas has transferred 90 inmates out of a low-security prison in its rural northwest following a disturbance that started when one or more prisoners set a mattress on fire and as many as 250 inmates spilled into the yard, the state Department of Corrections said Wednesday.
Department spokesman Samir Arif said inmates smashed windows in multiple buildings at the Norton Correctional Facility, and inmates broke into a shed to steal tools. He said two staff members suffered minor injuries in Tuesday night's disturbance, but they didn't require treatment.
The Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents corrections officers, called the disturbance a "major riot" in a tweet Tuesday night. The disturbance at the Norton prison, about 320 miles (515 kilometers) west of Kansas City, followed multiple disturbances in recent months at another, maximum-security prison in southern Kansas.
Arif said department officials are still trying to determine what led to the disturbance at Norton and how many of the dozens of inmates who spilled into the yard were involved. He said inmates set small fires, and local law enforcement officers and firefighters were called to the prison.
"There was mass confusion out there," Arif said Wednesday. "Pretty much everybody was out in the yard."
Norton City Administrator Chad Buckley said all of the town's firetrucks 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 (19 kilometers) south of the Nebraska state line.
The Norton prison seemed an unlikely place for a disturbance, but the department did not immediately have an explanation.
As of Tuesday, Norton housed 848 inmates, with another 125 at a satellite unit in Stockton, to the east. Almost all of them are "low" medium-security inmates or minimum-security inmates, either close to finishing their sentences or sentenced to short prison terms.
Also, the Norton prison has a low employee turnover rate. As of Tuesday, 17 of its 196 uniformed-officer positions were open, or 8.7 percent, as compared with a 33 percent annual turnover rate among uniformed officers in the state prison system in general.
Yet the number of disciplinary reports on inmates at the Norton prison spiked in August at 396, up 75 percent from the 226 reports in July, according to figures released by the department to The Associated Press on Tuesday, before the disturbance. The previous peak was 328 reports in June 2016, and last year the prison averaged 209 a month, compared to 245 per month from January through August of this year.
The department previously confirmed three disturbances in May and June at its maximum-security El Dorado prison, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Wichita, 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. The annual turnover among uniformed officers at that facility is 46 percent.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood attributed the disturbances to newly arrived inmates who were transferred from other prisons. But they raised concerns among legislators about staffing shortages in the prison system.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback announced last month that workers at Kansas state prisons will get pay hikes in the wake of the El Dorado disturbances. Uniformed officers across the state are receiving about a 5 percent raise, and officers at El Dorado will see raises of about 10 percent.
Also contributing was Associated Press Writer Roxana Hegeman in Wichita.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna