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TECUMSEH -- Driveways to the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution were blocked late Sunday night, and red and blue flashing patrol-car lights were visible from 2 miles away as an uprising that started at mid-afternoon continued to unfold inside.

A law enforcement officer blocked entrances to the prison and said inmates had been in control "for a while."

Smoke rose from two housing units, and at least two inmates, perhaps three, were shot, and at least two guards were assaulted.

Inmate Jeffry Frank said dozens of officers in full riot gear stood outside a housing unit at the maximum-security prison just before 11 p.m.

"They're standing out in front of our unit with automatic weapons and riot gear," Frank said in a phone call from a case manager's office in one of the prison's three housing units. "They haven't moved in yet; we don't know if they're going to."

At midnight, Tecumseh public information officer Jessica Houseman said staff was making progress in regaining control.

"We still have some areas of concern, but it's looking up," she said.

In his phone call, Frank said no prison employees were inside the housing unit.

"I am looking out a window; there are maybe 60 or 70 blue suits in riot gear and automatic weapons. Maybe National Guard. Some are wearing camo."

He said Nebraska State Patrol troopers were on the perimeter of the prison.

"The ceilings are fallen. There's drywall on fire. There's cameras torn down."

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services said what it called an "institutional incident" started at 2:30 p.m.

"Staff at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution noticed a large gathering of inmates in front of a housing unit," corrections spokesman James Foster wrote in an email. "As staff reported to the area to break up the gathering, two staff members were assaulted, and one inmate was injured. ... Following this incident, there were several other incidents which took place in multiple housing units, resulting in small fires and damage to property.

"The Crisis Negotiation Team, Correctional Emergency Response Team and Special Operations Response Teams are currently on site at TSCI working with staff to further control the situation."

Foster said all staff were accounted for.

"We've pretty much taken the whole prison," Frank said in a phone call to the Journal Star at about 9 p.m. "Guards have already shot three guys for no reason."

Inmate Daryl Eskridge said the disturbance broke out after repeated attempts to get prison officials to address grievances.

"This is not a white thing, a black thing," Eskridge said in the phone call from the housing unit. "This is a people thing.

"We understand this is a prison, but we have been subjected to a lot of things the department doesn't want people to see."

He said inmates intended to give Corrections Director Scott Frakes a copy of a petition, and then things went wrong.

"They came with the force," he said. "Nobody (inmates) had any weapons."

Foster said the two inmates who were shot were in Lincoln hospitals, but he didn't know their conditions Sunday night. One was shot during the initial disturbance and one was injured by a rubber projectile, he said in an earlier email.

Houseman said one inmate was shot on the yard early in the fracas and the other in the evening.

She said both prison guards were released after treatment for their injuries.

Frank said three, not two, inmates were shot from a prison guard tower.

"There was a lot of blood," he said.

The Tecumseh prison opened in late 2001 to house 960 men, including those on death row. As of April 30, it was home to 1,008, or at 105 percent of capacity.

Foster said two of the prison's three general-population housing units were involved in the uprising. He said the unit that houses death row inmates was not involved.

Frank said one of the reasons for the uprising was inadequate access to the prison yard and jobs.

"We wanted the yard open," he said. "Lots of the lifers aren't happy they can't get jobs. We're harassed by staff. The living conditions are terrible. There's one whole wing that is absolutely unlivable."

The prison has been on modified lockdown for some time, meaning limited access to exercise time on the yard. Foster said that's because of past behavior.

"We just want fairness," Frank said. "We've got guards who don't know how to treat a person. We're in a prison, but we're human beings, too. ... They dog us out. The jobs. We want more jobs."

It was the second day of prison disturbances.

Officials locked down the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln early Saturday after several fights, acting Warden Robert Madsen said Saturday.

The lockdown stemmed from a series of inmate-on-inmate altercations, Madsen said. Staff immediately intervened, and medical care was provided to the inmates involved, he said.

Two prison-staff members were treated at a local hospital for minor injuries and released back to work.

The prison canceled all public activities, including visits and volunteer events, at least through the weekend, Madsen said. Appropriate officials were notified of the incident, and an investigation is in progress.

The state penitentiary is among the more crowded of Nebraska's prisons. It was designed for 718 inmates but had a population of 1,309 -- 182 percent of capacity -- as of April 30.

In February, Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash said volatility occurs when inmates are crowded together. Corrections officers told him, he said, that it was only a matter of time before unrest among inmates would break out, possibly involving injuries.

Mike Marvin, executive director of the state's employee union, said Tecumseh is one of the least crowded prisons, but it is one of the most understaffed. It's hard to get staff hired because of its location, he said.

"I'm just hoping everybody stays safe until they get this settled," Marvin said Sunday night. "But I've been expecting this for the longest time."

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Reach Catharine Huddle at 402-473-7222 or chuddle@journalstar.com. Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. Casey Welsch and Lori Pilger contributed to this story.

State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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