Former inmate sues state for trauma after deadly 2015 riot at Tecumseh State Prison

Former inmate sues state for trauma after deadly 2015 riot at Tecumseh State Prison
John Wizinsky testifies in his suit against the State of Nebraska in Lancaster County District Court on Monday. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Nightmares, panic attacks, an inability to work and a tenfold increase in his post-traumatic stress symptoms.

That is what a former Nebraska prison inmate says he suffered after he lived through a riot three years ago at the Tecumseh State Prison that left two other inmates dead and millions of dollars of damage.

John Wizinsky took the stand Monday in his civil lawsuit, testifying that he feared for his life as other inmates took over a housing unit from prison guards, starting fires and attacking inmates with whom they had scores to settle.

In the chaos, some inmates from general population were allowed into the protective custody wing where Wizinsky and others were housed for protection from other prisoners. Threats of violence, he said, were shouted at him. One protective custody inmate was nearly beaten to death by four inmates because that inmate’s testimony had sent a man to prison, said Wizinsky, who testified that he dragged the bloody inmate away from his attackers and was punched in the back of his head.

“If a riot happens, PC (protective custody) are the first ones to be killed,” he testified Monday. “I was real specific (with other PC inmates) … if we don’t stick together, we’re all going to die.”

A judge began taking testimony Monday in Wizinsky’s civil trial, in which he alleges the state was negligent in failing to provide reasonable protection for inmates during the so-called Mother’s Day riot at the Tecumseh prison in 2015.

An attorney for the state, Assistant Nebraska Attorney General Stephanie Caldwell, disputed that in her opening arguments.

Caldwell said that the rural prison was fully staffed on the day of the riot, and that officials followed correct protocol in responding. Fellow inmates, and not the Nebraska Department of Corrections, were responsible for any injuries Wizinsky might have suffered.

“Even with the best preparation, training and interventions, riots, disturbances and inmate violence does happen,” Caldwell said.

Prison personnel, she said, abandoned their posts only after being attacked by inmates. Some workers were taken hostage, others threatened with makeshift weapons. A warning shot, Caldwell said, only served to incite inmates.

“The field of corrections is a tough business,” she said.

Under cross examination, Wizinsky acknowledged that he had been diagnosed with PTSD prior to the May 2015 riot, but he said his symptoms had increased tenfold since the riot, and that he has nightly nightmares and frequent panic attacks.

The trial, before Lancaster County District Judge John Colborn, is the first civil case to be heard in connection with the Mother’s Day riot, which was followed by another riot at the Tecumseh prison in March of 2017 that also left two inmates dead.

A criminal trial against an inmate accused in the death of one of the prisoners during the 2017 riot ended in a mistrial in August. A new trial date has been set for that inmate, Eric Ramos.

Wizinsky’s lawyer, Joy Shiffermiller of Lincoln, told the judge that Tecumseh prison officials erred when they let too many inmates out of their cells to obtain medications, and should have prevented general population inmates from mixing with those in protective custody.

Wizinsky, who was released from prison in 2016 after serving out a drug sentence, said he asked to be placed in PC because he feared that other inmates would learn that he had testified against two men in a Washington, D.C., murder case. Inmates in the same gang, he feared, would retaliate against him.

But Caldwell said that Wizinsky’s mental health issues were not labeled problematic by prison doctors, and that he spent part of the time during the riot playing cards with other inmates.

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