Watchdog

Report on Northpoint riot faults officials, food

FRANKFORT — The warden at Northpoint Training Center did not want to implement the prison yard restrictions that contributed to an August riot that heavily damaged much of the facility, but he was overruled by Department of Corrections officials, according to an investigative report released Wednesday.

The investigation also revealed numerous other problems at Northpoint that occurred before, during and after the riot, including inmate anger about food on the day of the riot and a crucial delay in the formal investigation of how the fiery melee occurred.

After reviewing the report, the House Judiciary Committee voted 9-4 to approve a bill that would cancel the state's $12 million annual contract with Aramark Correctional Services to provide meals at 13 prisons.

The investigative report showed that anger over food contributed to the Aug. 21 riot at the Mercer County prison. The report, which was withheld from the public by state officials until Wednesday, puts more emphasis on food as a contributing cause of the riot than the state Corrections Department's "review" of the investigative report, which was released Nov. 20.

The review concluded that the main cause of the riot was inmate anger about a lockdown and other restrictions imposed after a fight at the prison.

However, the latest report shows that virtually every inmate and employee interviewed by investigators said that Aramark food and its prices at the canteen were among the reasons for the riot. The report lists those issues as the third and fourth factors, respectively, that contributed to the riot.

"Apparently, there had been complaints for years about the quality of the food, the portion sizes and the continual shortage and substitutions for scheduled menu items," the report states.

"Sanitation of the kitchen was also a source of complaints," says the report.

Inmates set fires that destroyed six buildings, including those containing the kitchen, canteen, visitation center, medical services, sanitation department and a multipurpose area. Several dorms were heavily damaged, and eight guards and eight inmates were injured.

'Haphazard' action

According to the report, the riot began 15 minutes after details were posted about new movement restrictions for prisoners in the yard. The restrictions came after an Aug. 18 fight over canteen items that caused prison officials to institute a lockdown.

The investigation found that Northpoint Warden Steve Haney wanted to return the prison yard to normal operations as he typically did after a lockdown, but he was overruled by Al Parke, deputy commissioner of adult institutions and James Erwin, director of operations.

"The implementation of the controlled movement policy at NTC was haphazard and poorly planned at best," says the report.

The report also says the warden never got word that inmates had dumped food from their trays on the floor at breakfast and at lunch on the day of the riot. Aramark officials e-mailed details of the incident to a deputy warden at Northpoint, but the information apparently was not passed along, the report said.

During the riot, "radio communications between all agencies involved was virtually non-existent, causing chaos and a general feeling of disconnect with the various agencies involved," according to the report.

After the riot, there was a "gross lack of coordination of submitting reports," evidence was compromised because most video cameras failed the evening of the riot, and there was a considerable delay in the formal investigation, the report said.

Kentucky State Police immediately tried to begin an investigation to see which inmates were involved in the riot but was advised by the corrections department's operations director that the investigation would be conducted internally. Several days later, the report said, two staff members from the Justice Cabinet determined that state police should conduct the investigation.

"The criminal investigations should have started immediately to preserve evidence, testimony and critical information," the report says. "After a few days, staff thoughts and observations became diluted."

Also, the report notes that the ratio of inmates classification/treatment staff at Northpoint was 200 to 1 before the riot but should have been 100 to 1.

In a statement late Wednesday, Gov. Steve Beshear's office said "proper steps" were taken to investigate the riot. "The governor is confident that the incident was handled well," said spokeswoman Kerri Richardson.

Report withheld

State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, who sponsored the bill to cancel Aramark's contract, said Wednesday that the Justice Cabinet was wrong to withhold from lawmakers for several days the full investigative report, which is much more critical of Department of Correction officials.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Wednesday that he was prepared to sign a subpoena to get the Justice Cabinet to turn over the latest report.

"I wasn't satisfied with their initial response," he said. "I thought it was short and I thought it was improper, and we were going to subpoena their records, and rightfully so."

But Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown said Wednesday that there was no attempt to withhold information and that the Nov. 20 report was clearly labeled a "Commissioner's Review" of the full investigative report.

At a hearing last week, Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson acknowledged that bugs had been found in some food at state prisons but said officials generally were satisfied with the quality of food that Aramark has provided.

Aramark Correctional Services has had the state contract to provide prison food since 2005. It was renewed in 2009 and expires at the end of this year.

Brown said Wednesday that Aramark is fulfilling its contract by feeding each of the state's inmates for $2.63 a day. He said it would cost the state an additional $5.4 million a year to feed inmates.

"Aramark stands behind the quality of service we provide, which has won the accolades of our clients and the national accreditation agencies who monitor the quality of food service," Aramark spokesperson Sarah Jarvis said Wednesday.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the proposal to cancel Aramark's contract must go to the House budget committee because it has fiscal ramifications. He said the state's decision to contract with Aramark might end up being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The state might have to spend up to $10 million to repair Northpoint, even after insurance payments, Stumbo said.

State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, voted against the bill Wednesday. "Inmates might be blaming their conduct on poor food rather than their violent tendencies," he said.

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