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No inmates have been charged in a 2020 Kansas prison riot. Workers say that puts them in danger

Fences and barbed wire around the Ellsworth Correctional Facility.
Evert Nelson
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas inmates still haven't been charged for a 2020 riot at the Lansing prison.

A Lansing prison riot in 2020 made national headlines. Another riot in 2022 injured corrections officers. No inmates have been charged in either incident.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Angry over what they saw as an inadequate response to the then-young COVID-19 pandemic, inmates in a medium-security section of the Lansing Correctional Facility set fires, broke windows and ransacked offices in April 2020.

It took prison officials roughly 12 hours to regain control of the prison. Gov. Laura Kelly told reporters at the time that her administration would “hold those responsible for the disturbance to account.”

Yet three years later, prosecutors have yet to file any criminal charges for the prison riot that drew national headlines. Another clash with prisoners that injured at least three corrections officers at Lansing last year also has yet to spur any criminal charges.

That has a union representing correctional officers questioning whether the prison system or local prosecutors have their backs. If prisoners can turn violent — trashing a cellblock and threatening the safety of guards without suffering any penalty — the union suggests the lack of penalties makes a treacherous job even more dangerous.

Even before the pandemic, the Kansas prison system suffered from overcrowding and chronic trouble hiring enough corrections officers for jobs that come with physical risk and around-the-clock stress. Now, union officials say, the state seems to let a prison riot pass without consequences.

“It's a really strange mindset to not prosecute and get after people for wrongdoing related to correctional officers,” said Sarah LaFrenz, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees. “It doesn't send a good message to the communities that you serve, as well as the people that are there every day risking their lives to do this work.”

The Lansing prison, which holds both medium- and maximum-security inmates, appears to move slower than other facilities. Prisons in other parts of the state move more quickly in charging prisoners for their roles in riots, for assaulting correctional officers and for other offenses.

Ultimately, the decision to file criminal charges falls to the local prosecutors. For Lansing, that means Leavenworth County District Attorney Todd Thompson.

Given the closed nature of prisons, however, prosecutors rely heavily on the Kansas Department of Corrections for information about potential cases much like they depend on local police departments to investigate cases outside prisons.

Thompson said he has received a synopsis of the riot provided by the state but not any charging documents.

Potential crimes in prisons fall to a special unit within the Kansas Department of Corrections. Prison officials haven’t said why there has been a delay in investigating the case, though county attorneys say looking into riots is often complex.

“There’s not a real determined amount of time for what it takes for a case to get to us,” Thompson said.

In November 2018, inmates at Larned Correctional Facility rioted. By February 2019, 20 inmates were charged.

Prisons have cameras and large outbreaks have dozens of witnesses, but Butler County District Attorney Darrin Devinney — cases at the maximum-security El Dorado prison fall to his office — said trying to figure out which exact inmate is responsible for property damage or battery can be tricky. Inmates are reluctant to cooperate with investigators and camera footage doesn’t always show faces.

“Sometimes the investigations take a long time,” Devinney said.

Prosecutors say prison riot cases don’t always need to move as quickly as other crimes. After all, the potential defendants are locked up. Some inmates may have years or decades left on their prison sentences. Instead, the chief concern can be the statute of limitations — how long can prosecutors wait until the law says a crime happened too long ago.

In the meantime, the Kansas Department of Corrections said it uses internal disciplinary methods, such as moving individuals to a more locked-down part of the prison, that don’t demand the same level of legal proof as criminal prosecution.

“For the more serious offenses, the agency is pursuing all appropriate avenues to hold those responsible to account, including working with the respective local District Attorneys,” KDOC spokesperson David Thompson said in an email.

The department didn’t respond to follow-up questions asking when the investigation on the Lansing incidents would be complete, how many charges could be pending and how many — if any — felony charges are being considered. However, inmates were disciplined internally.

Open records requests for documents related to the investigation have also been denied.

Advocates for corrections officers say that the lag in pressing charges hurts morale at a time when state prisons struggle to fill open jobs.

As of mid-March, KDOC had 400 uniformed position vacancies, or 21% of its jobs. Some prisons, such as Lansing, have even more vacant positions.

Sarah LaFrenz, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, talking to reporters.
Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Sarah LaFrenz, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, talking to reporters.

LaFrenz said that delays in charging inmates predates the Kelly Administration. One former county attorney declined to charge any inmates, she said.

But the corrections officers’ frustrations have grown amid staffing struggles.

“The consistent messaging seems to be, like, ‘Well, you’re going to show up here and we don't really care what happens. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing,’” LaFrenz said. “Do the same things and expect a different result.”

Still, prosecutors say that criminal charges don’t always make sense.

Days after the 2020 events at Lansing, between 125 and 150 inmates rioted at Ellsworth Correctional Facility halfway across the state. The incident was quickly contained, but state officials reported damage to the prison.

Inmates were disciplined internally — and almost immediately. Ellsworth County Attorney Paul Kasper said the incident was serious, but not enough to warrant criminal charges.

If convicted of the misdemeanor offenses involved, inmates would have had to serve up to an additional year in county prison at the conclusion of their state prison sentence.

Kasper said the “more appropriate response” was for KDOC to address the matter immediately.

“Filing an additional misdemeanor charge,” he said, “didn’t seem like it would have been in the interest of justice for what had happened.”

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.