As he walked around a busy construction site on a sunny day this week, Northpoint Training Center Warden Steve Haney acknowledged how fresh the memories of the fiery night in 2009 still seem.
"It's hard to believe it's almost been two years, it really is," Haney said during a tour of the rebuilding project.
The scene Wednesday couldn't have been more different than the one Haney, warden at Northpoint since 2006, surveyed on the night of Aug. 21, 2009.
That night flames rising from the crumbling buildings on the grounds of the facility were visible for miles. Emergency response teams fired tear gas to try and subdue a group of about 100 inmates who continued refusing to follow orders well into the night.
According to a subsequent report the primary cause of the riot was tension over a lockdown ordered after a fight between two groups at the medium security prison where inmates customarily moved about more freely.
No serious injuries or deaths were reported, but six buildings, including the kitchen, canteen, and multipurpose buildings burned and had to be razed. There was also significant damage to several of the dorms.
Less than a week until the anniversary of the riot, construction on two new buildings is in full swing. Work that began in Oct. 2010 is scheduled for completion by May 2012, while a fencing project was already completed last September.
The $18 million building project includes a visitation building adjacent to the control center and a massive program structure in the center of the compound. The program building, which will be about 39,000 square feet, will house food services, and education, library, canteen and medical functions.
All dorms have been repaired, but inmates are only currently being housed in dorms 4, 5 and 6, while dorms 1,2, and 3 are being used for some of the services once provided in the razed buildings.
When the buildings are complete, all six dorms will again be used to house inmates. The population at the prison, now at about 650, will return to the same 1,256 capacity at the time of the riot.
As work to rebuild the prison continues, cases of about a dozen inmates charged so far in the riots are slowly working their way through the criminal justice system. Bobby Hoskins Jr., who is charged with arson and rioting, is scheduled to be the first inmate to stand trial on Sept. 19.
The riot led to intense legislative scrutiny of the prison system and questions about the need for Northpoint in the penal system.
Although initial reports released on the riot indicated the main reason was unrest over the unusual lockdown situation, anger over the quality of food provided by Aramark services was acknowledged, which prompted a review of the companies that contract with the prisons.
Those issues and a state budget crunch created uncertainty about whether the legislature would fully fund a rebuild. Some legislators, including judiciary subcommittee member Rep. Jesse Crenshaw of Lexington, actually asked for information about the impact on the prison system if Northpoint were not built back to its previous capacity.
Internal emails to Department of Corrections Commissioner Ladonna Thompson obtained by the Advocate-Messenger at the time showed that information was requested by legislators on scenarios including if no rebuild happened or if only certain part of the facility were built. While the money for the rebuild was continually included in drafts of the state’s two-year spending plan passed in 2010, there was also some language in a budget modification report that indicated money might not be allocated for full bond payments on the project.
Ultimately the legislature heeded the conclusions of corrections officials that rebuilding was actually less expensive than other options that could burden the rest of the prison system and possibly lead to fines if inmates had to be housed in local jails for longer than 45 days.
With the decision made to go ahead with the project, special consideration was given to correcting some of the deficiencies that allowed inmates to breach certain exits during the riot.
Inmates broke through doors and crushed some locks, which were later found to be substandard for a corrections facility. The project includes adding detention grade locks and doors as well as more security cameras in the new buildings and dormitories.
Haney said the layout of the new buildings, along with the security additions would make prison operations run more smoothly. He said consolidating functions once housed in the separate units into the multipurpose building will greatly assist with moving and tracking inmates.
The warden said the open area in the yard will include a softball field and running or walking track. Removing the cluster of buildings from the middle of the grounds will also be a benefit.
"Before when you had all the different buildings, site lines were compromised," Haney said. "Opening that up will make a great central area where there is no obstruction."
Every day since order was restored at the riot has provided a constant reminder of the riots and new challenges for staff. Although there are half the number of inmates, Haney said personnel at Northpoint has not been cut in large part because just as many people are needed to oversee a major building project in the midst of a prison yard.
"You have to coordinate a lot of activities and you are not only moving the inmates around," Haney said. "You also have the security concerns that come with having this many contractors and all the tools and equipment moving in and out of the facility."
Haney, who keeps a picture and plaque in his office commemorating the fact no lives were lost during the riot, said it has been a unique experience maintaining a prison ravaged by fire, all the while planning for a population that will quickly double in the not to distant future.
"It is constantly having to adapt and adjust," Haney said. "Staff has been unbelievable though in understanding where we need to get to. There is a lot of work and planning still to do."