State report shows ‘riot’ shook control of U.P. prison

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — An Upper Peninsula prison deputy warden admitted state officials briefly lost control of the facility before the state’s prison director authorized armed squadrons to remove prison protest leaders and quash the inmate rebellion with pepper spray, wrist ties and the threat of live ammunition.

The Michigan Department of Corrections previously denied a riot happened in September at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Chippewa County, but a 262-page incident report revealed that senior officials referred to the event as a “riot” and admitted to having lost control of the prison for an unspecified amount of time.

The second page of the report plainly marks the incident as a “riot/strike/demonstration” in which more than 240 staff members were involved. Prison officials sent in squads armed with guns, pepper spray and dogs to round up leaders of a peaceful protest after inmates returned to their units, according to the document and Michigan prison spokesman Chris Gautz.

Gautz said corrections officers do not typically carry guns or live ammunition in state prisons.

But inmates destroyed about $900,000 worth of state property after Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington authorized squads of armed officers to round up leaders of what was a peaceful protest in the prison yard, he said.

Gautz denied that officials lost control of the entire facility. But he acknowledged they lost control of some housing units while prisoners destroyed windows, barricaded doors and started a fire in one unit as armed officials attempted to capture protest leaders and transport them to other facilities.

“It’s a very scary thing to see hundreds of prisoners moving as one body when, already in a prison setting, you are very outnumbered,” Gautz said. “You can’t allow a scenario for prisoners to move as one and act as once voice.”

Hundreds of inmates surrounded the prison “control center” after refusing to return to their units, broke windows in the lobby, barricaded doors and destroyed other prison property, the report said. About 150-200 prisoners in the “yard” were circling and chanting “no justice, no peace” as officials urged them to leave and began blaring sirens when they did not, according to the document.

“A plan was developed to regain control of the facility,” wrote Kinross Deputy Warden Jerry Harwood in the incident report that was first obtained by the Michigan Information & Information Service under an open records request.

The protest and property damage occurred during a national wave of prison protests on the anniversary of the Attica riot of Sept. 9, 1971, when inmates took control of a New York prison and dozens of hostages. At least 39 people were killed after then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to regain control of the Attica Correctional Facility.

Michigan prisoners had a list of demands on Sept. 9, 2016, including better pay for kitchen workers, a faster commutation period and better food.

Harwood said Washington approved the use of an Emergency Response Team to “remove prisoners that had been identified as leaders of the prisoner population” as armed squads tied prisoners’ wrists together with zip ties.

The report said “no ERT members used any force against any prisoners other than restraint and escort and deployment of chemical agents.”

But multiple health care workers said in the report that some inmates “were evaluated and treated by medical providers on site,” and that one prisoner was transported by ambulance about 22 miles away to the War Memorial Hospital emergency room in Sault Ste. Marie.

The injuries were not described in the report, and prison spokesman Gautz said no one was injured.

About 200 prisoners were taken to other facilities following a 12-day prison lockdown, according to the Michigan prisoner rights advocacy group Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity. About 900 prisoners tried to communicate grievances to the deputy warden in a protest the remained peaceful until the armed squads were sent in, the group argues.

Some prison officials said inmates were yelling death threats and shanks were found. Other prisoners used shanks to slice open pumpkins or smashed them in addition to other property damage within the prison, according to the report.

“ERT and integrated squads continued to remove and restrain prisoners from all units,” the incident report said. “While clearing housing units and restraining prisoners, ERT deployed chemical agents through aerosol and Pepper ball launchers in Units D, E, F, G and H.”

Inmates had blocked entry doors to units with desks, chairs and lockers.

The “chemical agents were used to clear the common areas of prisoners to stop them from actively barricading while entering the unit and to keep prisoners from approaching the team. No injuries resulted from the use of chemical agents,” according to the report.

Some inmates questioned corrections worker William Bonnee about why “their spiritual leader” was being held in a “segregation cell,” according to Bonnee's recollection in the report.

Gautz said he did not know who the “spiritual leader” was but suggested he may have been one of the protest leaders.