Subscribe for 33¢ / day

A federal judge has dismissed an inmate's lawsuit against prison officials over the deadly and destructive 2015 riot at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, his 27-page order giving one of the most detailed accounts yet of what happened inside prison walls that day.

Brian Guerry had sued prison officials and staff, alleging they failed to protect him from gangs and fires during the May 10 riot, and that he was exposed to burning plastic and blood in water in his cell for days after the riot.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf ultimately found no evidence that prison staff were deliberately indifferent to Guerry's health and safety, "let alone that they acted 'maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm' while the prison riot was in progress."

He dismissed the lawsuit Friday, first going through a timeline of material facts of what unfolded starting at about 2:30 p.m. that day and a legal analysis of Guerry's claims.

"This disturbance affected virtually every aspect of operations at TSCI and included inmate violence in multiple locations and housing units, widespread inmate refusal to follow staff orders to lock down, the temporary forceful assumption of control of certain areas of the facility by inmates, physical threats to the safety of inmates and staff, actual assaults upon staff, and, ultimately, the deaths of two inmates," Kopf said.

Kopf said inmates in the A and B galleries refused to lock down and fashioned makeshift weapons from mop and broom handles and fire extinguishers to break through a Sheetrock wall separating the galleries and to start fires in the prison.

He said Chelsea Guiffre, a prison caseworker at the time, saw inmates use toilet paper to cover security cameras and sheets to cover the windows of the control station.

Standing on a counter inside the control station, she saw inmates use metal legs off an ironing board to open a hole between the two galleries, start the wall on fire and cross into the other gallery, Kopf said.

After smoke began to fill the control station at about 3:30 p.m., Guiffre and others were given the OK to evacuate, and central control authorized group access to the cells, signaling for inmates to evacuate to outdoor prison yards.

By 4 p.m., Guiffre and her staff group had armed themselves with mop sticks and portable radios to get to the main caseworker office and barricaded the door with desks and filing cabinets, Kopf said.

Under optimal conditions, the judge wrote, normal fire evacuation procedures would have been followed; however, conditions that day were far from optimal, and several factors rendered that impossible.

"Under these difficult circumstances, TSCI staff determined that the concern for acute inmate injury from the smoke and fires took precedence over the potential problem of mixing general population and protective custody inmates," Kopf wrote.

Guerry said prison staff's decision left him faced with a choice: lock himself in his cell to avoid assault from gang members but risk smoke inhalation; or leave his cell to avoid the smoke but risk assault by inmates in general population.

He alleges he wasn't treated for smoke inhalation and suffered numerous other injuries as a result of what happened.

But, Kopf said, any choice was due to the emergency situation created by rioting prisoners and fires "and not due to the sadistic or malicious intent of any of the defendants."

In dismissing Guerry's lawsuit, he said the evidence established that the decision was not motivated by a desire to allow general population inmates to "prey" on protective custody inmates, as Guerry alleged. And that there was no evidence staff intentionally delayed Guerry's rescue for 10 hours.

As for the conditions his cell was left in following the riot, Kopf said they were "caused by extenuating circumstances — the rioting inmates and fires — and not prison staff.

"Although the court does not doubt that the unsanitary conditions of Guerry’s cell were patently offensive to see and to smell and made it difficult to eat and sleep, Guerry cannot carry his burden of proof simply by putting on evidence that he was offended or briefly made uncomfortable by the generally unclean and decidedly unpleasant overall conditions of the cell," the judge said.

In April 2016, a Johnson County grand jury also found no wrongdoing on the part of the state.

Two inmates died and two were injured that day. Nearly 20 prison workers were endangered and stranded in offices and the prison yard tower. And millions of dollars in damage at the maximum-security prison was caused by fires, broken windows and destruction of computers and cameras.

No one has been charged in the beating deaths of Shon Collins and Donald Peacock, but a half-dozen men were charged in the fire and assaults.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

Reporter

Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

Load comments