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Seward prisoners erupt, break toilets and flood cells

Lisa Demer
State of Alaska photo

A group of 14 inmates at Alaska's only maximum-security prison yelled, broke toilets and sinks, and flooded their cells in a nightlong spree of destructiveness that began around 11 p.m. Monday and ended nine hours later.

No prisoners at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward were able to get out of their individual locked cells, prison officials said Tuesday. What happened did not amount to a "riot," Kaci Schroeder, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said.

"It was a disturbance," Schroeder said. " I think a riot would be more out of control. Nobody left their cell."

The inmates all were classified as "maximum custody" and were in a segregation unit, which she said is typically done because of prior dangerous behavior. She didn't have the particulars for these individuals or what they were in prison for but said it could range from felony drunken driving to murder.

The disturbance is under investigation by Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Corrections. The department is mobilizing a team that includes the Anchorage-based deputy director institutions, Lee Sherman, Schroeder said. He was reviewing Spring Creek security videos on Tuesday afternoon, Schroeder said.

The damage is still being assessed, she said. Cells flooded from the broken porcelain toilets and were trashed out.

The head of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association said the unit had recently switched from housing the general inmate population to one designated for inmates in segregation -- the ones with dangerous behaviors. Officers had said the cells needed to be equipped with stainless steel toilets, not breakable porcelain ones, but that wasn't done, said Brad Wilson, the union's business manager.

Schroeder didn't know what set the inmates off late Monday or whether correctional officers used pepper spray to try to get control.

Asked about injuries, both Schroeder and trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen first said there were none. But later, the investigating trooper told her that some inmates hurt themselves but he wasn't investigating the extent of the injuries, which he described as self-inflicted and not assaults. Schroeder said "no one required medical treatment."

Not true, Wilson said. Officers said several inmates cut themselves severely on the broken shards and were treated, he said.

Schroeder said she would check further.

The Corrections Department appears to be downplaying a serious incident, Wilson said.

The ruckus is the latest in a string of incidents that the union says relates to chronic understaffing. Just last week at the Anchorage jail, a physician's assistant treating a patient with mental health issues was punched. In October 2012, a correctional officer at Spring Creek was attacked by a group of inmates and fought back by stabbing them with a pocket knife he had sneaked in to protect himself, according to the account of officer Kim Spalding. He was fired and is challenging his termination.

Corrections officials have disputed that prisons are understaffed. Spring Creek was "fully staffed" when the disturbance began, Schroeder said, but she didn't say how many officers were on duty. The staffing has been proportionate for the number of inmates, and the department is trying to hire additional officers for Spring Creek in order to move additional inmates there, she said.

Around 8 a.m. Tuesday, more officers were on duty and they were able to remove the inmates from the trashed cells and place them in a different segregation unit, Schroeder said.

"There's more people on during the day so they waited until then to extract them from their cells," she said. "Just because it started at 11 doesn't mean they were raising a ruckus for seven hours or eight hours."

While 32 inmates were confined in the segregation mod, 14 appear to have participated in the disturbance. Prison officials don't plan to release their names unless they are charged with new crimes, Schroeder said. They also will face discipline from the department.

Spring Creek's acting superintendent, Dean Marshall, sent out an email to all the prison staff Tuesday praising the response to a situation that could have ended much worse.

"Many of you came in on short notice and very little sleep," Marshall wrote. "The calm, professional behavior and demeanor of every one of you was something that is a great source of pride for me and for this facility."

Marshall said the response kept the incident contained and resulted in a successful conclusion.

He also noted the problem inherent in the cells with porcelain fixtures.

"Moreover, I've been assured that the Division of Institutions will spend the funds necessary to correct the identified weaknesses in these cells, to include purchasing metal sink-toilet combinations for each cell in (the area) and generally hardening the cells to prevent future similar incidents."

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

 


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com
Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on