Warden left job at prison with inmate disturbances

(KSNT File Photo)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – The warden of a maximum-security Kansas prison that’s had four reported inmate disturbances in the past three months took a new job within the state Department of Corrections a day before the latest incident, the department confirmed 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, two in late June, and another Friday evening.

Fertig also did not comment on the latest instance of inmate unrest, reported on Twitter by the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents prison employees. Fertig did report that earlier in the day, an inmate was wounded in an altercation with another inmate.

Robert Choromanski, the union’s executive director, said that about two hours after that altercation, a special security team was called the prison Friday evening because 30 inmates refused to stand down. He 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. The union leader also said employees at the El Dorado prison were informed of Heimgartner’s departure in an email, and Choromanski described the change as “basically a promotion” to the department’s “central office.”

Hours before Friday’s unrest, 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 Schnurr. 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.

In each of the three previous incidents there prior to Friday’s unrest, 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, though 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.

On Friday, Fertig confirmed that the inmate-on-inmate altercation sent one of them to a local hospital for further treatment. He said there no employees were injured.

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