Riot or reined-in? Prison officials disagree on U.P. skirmish

LANSING - A Sept. 10 uprising at Kinross Correctional Facility was much more serious than initially described: The Department of Corrections lost control of the prison before retaking it with armed force after inmates did their best to wreck the place, says the president of the Michigan Corrections Organization.

“It was a riot,” Tom Tylutki told the Free Press on Tuesday. “For anybody to describe it as anything other than that is just amazing to us.”

Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz has rejected suggestions that the disturbances at Kinross, near Kincheloe in the Upper Peninsula, should be described as a riot.

"It was a very serious situation," but "there was no loss of control of the facility whatsoever," and "this was not a riot," Gautz said. The incident resulted in major damage but no injuries.

Inmates set at least one fire, smashed numerous windows — one with a clothes dryer thrown through it — destroyed sinks and other fixtures, and left at least one unit temporarily unlivable, said Tylutki, head of the corrections officer union, after meeting with both the Kinross administration and corrections officers who helped quell the disturbance.

Gautz doesn't dispute that damage assessment, but couldn't put a dollar estimate on it. On the night of the disturbance, the Corrections Department put out a news release that led with "about 400 prisoners marched peacefully as a form of protest," and did not mention until the sixth paragraph that "some prisoners caused damage to their housing unit."

Gautz said Tuesday that officials made a calculated decision to remove corrections officers from the eight housing units as more than 100 officers in emergency response teams, armed with shotguns and pepper guns, rushed into the prison and moved from unit to unit, binding the wrists of all prisoners with zip ties before moving to the next unit. The time it took for the team to move from unit to unit allowed some inmates to damage common areas in their housing units before the emergency response teams arrived. But that does not equate to a loss of control, and "I'll take a broken window over something happening to a staff member," he said.

It was the first time armed officers were sent into housing units since the Michigan prison riots of 1981, Tylutki said. Gautz could not confirm that but did not dispute it.

The prison has returned to normal in recent days, with a lockdown lifted and privileges such as telephone calls and visits restored, Gautz said. About 250 inmates were moved to higher-security prisons as a result of the disturbance.

Rep. Henry Yanez, D- Sterling Heights, a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections, said Tuesday that he will request oversight hearings on what led to the disturbance, whether it could have been prevented, how future similar events can be avoided, and how much the damage that resulted is going to cost the state.

Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, who chairs the subcommittee, said through a spokesman that he doesn't want to comment until he receives a briefing about the disturbance from the Corrections Department at a meeting Thursday.

Tylutki said the emergency response teams had to force their way into housing units where prisoners were barricaded — in some cases, firing pepper guns that discharge pool-ball-size projectiles that discharge a type of pepper spray upon impact. Gautz confirmed that officers fired pepper guns during the disturbance and that some inmates tried to block the doors to their units with large objects. But he said the fact those doors all opened outward made those efforts ineffective.

Tylutki said it was a miracle and a credit to corrections officers that nobody was seriously hurt. "They kept their cool," but don't feel valued when administration officials give inaccurate accounts of the disturbance that downplay its seriousness, he said.

"The staff did an amazing job," Gautz agreed. But the administration and officers successfully executed a solid plan to end a potentially dangerous situation without injuries or loss of control, he said.

The prison houses about 1,280 mostly Level 2 (a low-security classification) inmates, but many of them are serving life sentences for murder or other serious crimes. They live in dorm-style housing units without bars on the windows and are able to move at will into a yard area, which is ringed by housing units and the administration building. Though some prisons have gun towers — which are frequently not manned — Kinross has no gun tower.

Whether prisoners are given appropriate security classifications is one of the issues corrections officers want to discuss with the administration, Tylutki said. The lower the security classification, the less expensive it is to house the inmate. And officers are concerned that security classifications are being artificially pushed downward to control costs, he said.

Gautz denied that is the case.

Other issues officers want to address are ongoing complaints about the quality and quantity of prison food under the department's private food contractor, staffing levels, training and problems with the physical plant, Tylutki said.

"We'd like to sit down at the table and discuss solutions," he said.

Gautz said a wide range of issues could be examined as part of an internal "after action" investigation into what happened at Kinross.

How it all unfolded

On Saturday, Sept. 10 at about 9 a.m., about 50 inmates entered the yard to protest a variety of prison conditions, including food and wages paid for prison jobs, Tylutki said. By visiting housing units and urging other inmates to join in, close to 500 inmates eventually gathered and marched in the yard, he said.

They approached the administration building, which contains the control center and is off-limits, asking to meet with the warden, Tylutki said. Some inmates, he said, carried homemade knives and were using them to cut vegetables pulled from a nearby garden as a form of intimidation, he said. The sight of a gun squad inside the door of the administration building may have been all that kept the inmates from trying to bust their way inside, he said.

Gautz could neither confirm nor deny whether some inmates displayed knives. He said there would have been a gun unit inside the administration building, but he couldn't confirm whether the inmates could see the armed officers inside or whether that influenced their behavior.

Both deputy wardens came out to talk to the inmates as officials waited for armed emergency response teams to assemble from across the Upper Peninsula and even the Lower Peninsula, Tylutki said. The inmates, who among other demands wanted assurances that those who participated in the protest would not be disciplined or transferred, were told the administration couldn't do anything about their grievances until they returned to their housing units, he said.

The inmates eventually did return to the housing units, but Tylutki said they remained unruly and that 16 officers — two for each 160-man unit — had an extremely tense two hours until the emergency response teams were ready to enter the prison, and the officers were given an agreed-upon signal to pull out. Corrections officers in some cases carry Tasers and chemical spray, but they don't carry guns.

At least one officer didn't think they "were going to get out alive," Tylutki said.

Tylutki said there were warning signs at Kinross, including a 1,000-prisoner food protest in March and a July incident, believed to be gang-related, involving multiple fights and a stabbing.

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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