New Hampshire State Prison experienced what union officials called a riot on Saturday, an event downplayed by state corrections officials but highlighted by the corrections officers union as the result of under-staffing and a lack of pay raises for some officers.

Two groups of inmates lit small fires and attempted to flood the cell block in Concord about 12:30 p.m. Saturday, according to a statement issued by the State Employees Association of New Hampshire. One prisoner and one corrections staff member were slightly injured, the corrections department said.

In a statement issued late Monday afternoon, state corrections officials called the matter a disturbance and said it was quelled safely.

The statement said that inmates in the Close Custody Unit — the second-most restricted unit after maximum security — initially refused to return to their cells after eating lunch. But they did so after discussions with unit officers, the statement reads.

A smaller group lit small fires and attempted to flood the unit. The fires and flooding were quickly addressed and mitigated, the statement said.

As of Monday afternoon, the Close Custody Unit, which was already at peak capacity, was in a “relative state of lock down with limited movement by residents,” the statement said. All other state prison units are under normal operation.

The SEA’s version was similar, except to report that the incident lasted for hours. The union referred to it as a riot and rebellion, and at another point a rapidly escalating situation. The SEA said it involved about 70 inmates.

“Short staffing and overcrowding at the prison have been major concerns of ours for more than a year, and I believe that the prison was running two below the minimum staffing level, as they have for quite some time,” said Rich Gulla, president of the union.

“It is a tinderbox in the middle of Concord with no relief from the state in sight,” he said.

Corrections officials said the Special Emergency Response Team was activated to help remove inmates who “continued attempts to escalate the situation.”

The quick response of all staff quelled the situation and precluded the need for outside help, corrections officials said. The SEA said first-shift staff members who had not already worked 16 hours straight were required to stay on.

“The root cause of the disturbance remains unknown at this time and the situation remains under investigation by the (Corrections) Department,” the department said.

But the SEA said that Gov. Chris Sununu has refused to grant raises to corrections officers with the rank of sergeant and above, meaning that lower-ranked, less experienced corrections officers are mostly at work on weekends when incidents are more likely to occur. Those lower-ranking corrections officers — corporals and officer ranks — are receiving raises of 4% this year and next.

Corrections supervisors have been asking for parity with the lower-ranked officers and have offered to change their agreement to line up with officers and corporals, the SEA said.

The SEA also said that the low staffing exacerbates the impact of the loss of staff to exhaustion and coronavirus quarantines.

Sununu’s office referred a reporter to the Corrections Department.

As of Friday, the Department of Corrections reported that seven staff members at the state prison for men have tested positive in the past. None currently has a positive COVID-19 status. One state prison inmate has also tested positive.

Thursday, February 25, 2021