Warden at Kansas prison that has seen unrest takes new job

El Dorado Correctional Facility near El Dorado. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The warden of a maximum-security Kansas prison that’s had multiple inmate disturbances in the past three months took a new job within the state Department of Corrections, the department said Saturday.

James Heimgartner stepped down Thursday as warden of the El Dorado prison, department spokesman Todd Fertig said. The warden of another maximum-security prison in southern Kansas will take over the warden’s duties in El Dorado while the department searches for a permanent replacement, he said.

Fertig had no details about Heimgartner’s new position with the department. He did not comment on what prompted Heimgartner to leave the warden’s job in El Dorado or whether it was related to the reported disturbances, the first on May 8 and two in late June.

The Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union representing corrections officers, reported another possible but short-lived incident Friday evening. But Fertig said the department investigated reports of inmates refusing to follow orders and found no evidence of any significant incident.

State Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s budget committee, said she’s concerned about the timing of Heimgartner’s departure. She already had planned to seek a legislative audit of the events at the El Dorado prison.

“It seems odd to me,” Kelly said. “I’m certainly very curious about why that would happen now.”

Choromanski, executive director of the state employees union, said El Dorado prison employees were informed of Heimgartner’s departure in an email, and Choromanski described the change as “basically a promotion” to the department’s “central office.”

As for unrest Friday, Fertig reported that there were two inmate-on-inmate altercations, one in the morning and one in the evening. Each resulted in one inmate being wounded seriously enough to require hospital treatment but no staff injuries, Fertig said.

In a tweet, the union said that about two hours after the second inmate-on-inmate altercation, a special security team was called in because 30 inmates refused to stand down. Choromanski later said the incident appeared to have been resolved within a half-hour.

Choromanski said he obtained his information about the latest incident from an employee monitoring emergency communications. Choromanski late Friday night sent the AP copies of what he said were texts received from an employee of the prison who was monitoring emergency communications. One of the texts said: “SST (Special Security Team) being called in. EMS (Emergency Medical Services) just arrived. Thirty inmates refusing to stand down.”

But Fertig said in an email Saturday: “We made every effort to ascertain all details, and have no knowledge that any such refusal occurred.”

Earlier Friday, Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told The Associated Press in an interview that “instigators” of the disturbances in May and June were relatively new to the prison and were protesting its more restrictive environment. He said the state has been moving offenders to even out the number of maximum-security inmates in its three biggest facilities, which all have a mix of offenders housed in different buildings.

“It’s been an adjustment period for that inmate population moving to El Dorado,” Norwood said. “I look at this in some ways as a kind of a growing pains issue at El Dorado.”

Norwood also said, “I believe it’s under control and the staff have done a great job there of managing the situations.”

Though Heimgartner stepped down the day before, Norwood did not mention the change during his interview, which started with questions about the disturbances at the prison about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Wichita.

Fertig said Saturday that the new acting warden at El Dorado is Dan Schnnvurr. He is warden at the state’s maximum-security prison in Hutchinson, northwest of Wichita and 57 miles (92 kilometers) northwest of El Dorado.

State prisons have faced staffing shortages for years because of relatively low pay for corrections officers, starting at $13.95 an hour. At the start of this week, 73 uniformed-officer positions, or 20 percent, were vacant at El Dorado, and employees were working 12-hour shifts.

But Republican Rep. J.R. Claeys, of Salina, chairman of a House budget subcommittee on public safety, said lawmakers should be held responsible for staffing shortages because they’ve not provided the money necessary for better pay. He has said he’ll push to increase uniformed officers’ pay up to 20 percent, costing as much as $20 million a year.

“I think this all goes back to not having staff available to keep the facility secure and to secure the safety of the officers who are in the facility,” he said Saturday. “The reduction in staff isn’t due to any one person or should reflect poorly on necessarily anyone. I would put all of this back on us.”

In the incidents in May and late June, inmates refused to follow orders and return to their cells.

Incidents on May 8 and June 24 did not become public until after three corrections employees told the AP about them, speaking anonymously out of fear of reprisals. Norwood confirmed them in his interview, although he described them as less serious than the employees did.

A third incident on June 29 became public after inmates obtained a working cellphone during it and called relatives, according to employees. Norwood confirmed that inmates smashed a window in the gym and gained access to a gym office but said they did less than $2,000 worth of damage and there were no serious injuries.

Inmates were reported to have controlled the gym, the yard and a dining area for part of that day, but Norwood told AP: “We deliberately kept them in those areas over a period of time while we had other staff, additional staff, responding.”

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Also contributing was Associated Press writer Jim Suhr in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .