No one will be celebrating the anniversary of the Northpoint Training Center prison riot later this month, but officials are pleased the rebuilt facility will soon be back to the same population it had before the fiery incident.
On June 11, the 39,000-square-foot programs facility opened, the most significant sign of a lengthy rebuilding process. The $18.8 million project, begun in October 2010, also includes a new visitation building and numerous security upgrades.
“We have come a long way,” said Northpoint Warden Steve Haney, who has held the position since 2006.
On Aug. 21, 2009, inmates set fire to several buildings, and about 100 prisoners at the medium-security facility took several hours to subdue. Hundreds of corrections, law enforcement and fire personnel from all over the state descended on the prison.
There were no serious injuries, but six buildings, including the kitchen and multipurpose building, were destroyed by fire and all but one of the dormitories were rendered uninhabitable.
A subsequent report identified the primary cause of the riot to be anger over a lockdown order imposed following a fight between two groups of prisoners.
For those who were around the scene the night of the riots, it is impossible to forget what things looked like that night three years ago when flames leapt high into the night sky and heavily armored emergency responders fired tear gas into the yard.
Deputy Warden of Programs Julie Thomas has spent 28 years in corrections, most of them at Northpoint, where she started as an officer. She was working at another facility at the time of the riot but came to the scene early on her home near Perryville.
Thomas has witnessed unrest at corrections facilities in the past, but said nothing compares to the damage and uncertainty she saw at Northpoint. As smoke rose from the charred rubble at Northpoint, Thomas was given the responsibility of visually identifying hundreds of prisoners seated on the sports field in the middle of the night before they were transported to other jails and prisons.
Indelible images like those make the picture now seem more improbable. New sprigs of grass cover the area where the burned structures stood. The just-completed programs building includes functions once housed in the destroyed buildings: a new kitchen and dining areas, the canteen, medical facilities, the library and classrooms.
The current population at Northpoint is 1,098 and is gradually being increased to the pre-riot capacity of 1,256. In the months after the riot, the population had to be shuffled among other facilities across the state. As the state’s corrections system strained from the sudden outflow of inmates, Northpoint faced the challenge of running a prison cobbled together from temporary buildings with an increasingly busy construction site in its midst.
“We’ve had to constantly change and adapt,” said Haney.
After long months of constant demolition, excavation and construction, the only machinery buzzing around the yard Wednesday was finishing up removal of the temporary kitchen.
“It was so overwhelming that night to see those buildings burning to the ground,” Thomas said, after using the go-to “war zone” comparison made by so many who were on the scene that night. “I was really surprised people weren’t killed or seriously injured. It’s amazing to me.”
It didn’t take long following the riot for those in Frankfort — from corrections officials to the governor’s office — to state an intention to rebuild the prison. Haney said he was able to reassure his staff they would still have jobs the night of the riot.
Despite the frequent statements by state officials and advocacy for the rebuilding project, though, some legislators discussed the possibility of not rebuilding the facility, or even closing it, during 2010 budget talks.
The prison, converted from the old state mental hospital in 1983, was opposed by many during the planning stages, but local leaders have long since become advocates for the institution, primarily because of its role in the local economy. With a budget in excess of $16.1 million and a payroll of just over 300 people, Northpoint is one of the Boyle County’s largest employers. After 20 officers were recently hired, there are actually more people employed by the prison than the 285 before the riot.
While the number of personnel has not dramatically increased, one of the most significant differences at the prison is the beefed up security infrastructure. The major security failures identified in a study following the riot were doors and locks in the dorms, which were easily breached, allowing inmates to exit the dorm areas by breaking through them. In addition to installing security-grade exit doors and locks, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said fencing meets higher security standards and new cameras have been installed.
“The facility is more secure, more modern and more energy efficient,” Lamb said in an e-mail. “There is also more room for inmate activities and for benefits such as library, canteen and more room for treatment programs.”
As prisoners have returned and repopulated the prison, one of the most notables changes is the way inmates are able to move within the facility. Whereas prisoners had access to much of the rest of the prison once they left the dorms during the riot, internal fencing now prevents access to certain parts of the yard.
“Before, where you had a totally open yard, you now have these different segregated areas where we can schedule movement,” Haney said.
The removal of the six buildings that burned actually has been beneficial in some respects because a less cluttered yard means better sight lines from multiple vantage points.
Although there are many noticeable changes at Northpoint, most policies and procedures have not been altered. Officials believe plans in place to deal with disturbances worked and would again.
“The response on that night was exemplary, as evidenced by how quickly the disturbance was quelled, and in doing so, there were no serious injuries to either staff or inmates,” Lamb said. “Today, as a result of the security enhancements that we have made, we expect our response would be even better.”
So far, Lamb said there have been no serious incidents at the prison as the population has inched closer to capacity.
Many of those accused of participating in the riot still are awaiting court dates for various charges.
Last year, Newell Stacy was sentenced to 20 years on a rioting charge, but a jury could not reach a verdict on arson. Earlier this month, Aaron Fisk accepted a plea deal to third-degree arson and rioting charges in exchange for a seven-year recommended sentence. Three others charged with arson are still awaiting trial.