Retrial begins in case of inmate suing Nebraska over deadly 2015 riot at Tecumseh State Prison

Retrial begins in case of inmate suing Nebraska over deadly 2015 riot at Tecumseh State Prison
John Wizinsky testifies in November during the first trial in his lawsuit against the State of Nebraska. That trial ended in a mistrial when the judge recused himself due to a conflict of interest. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Soon after a prison riot broke out on Mother’s Day 2015, an inmate nicknamed “Zero” yelled into a protective custody wing of the Tecumseh State Prison: “All you sex offenders are going to die.”

John Wizinsky — even at 6-foot-2, 275 pounds — said he was petrified.

In the code of life behind the bars, sex offenders are at the lowest rung, and Wizinsky was among them after a 1985 conviction for sexual assault in the Phoenix area.

Normally, protective custody inmates are walled off from other prisoners for their protection. But soon after the riot broke out, doors to the unit were flung open to anyone seeking revenge, Wizinsky testified.

“There was something fixin’ to go down,” he told a judge on Tuesday. “A lot of people in protective custody had a contract on them. We gathered up and cliqued together (for protection).”

Wizinsky, now 54, survived the riot that left two other sex offenders dead and a housing unit scorched and trashed. But he sued the State of Nebraska, claiming that prison staff were negligent in failing to take “reasonable care” to protect him from harm, and that the riot had caused frequent nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The former inmate, now living in Grand Island, was back in court Tuesday after an initial trial ended in a mistrial in November when the judge recused himself due to a conflict of interest.

An attorney representing the Nebraska Department of Corrections disputed that Wizinsky had suffered any permanent damage from the riot, and defended the actions of state prison employees as professional and safety driven.

Stephanie Caldwell, an assistant Nebraska Attorney General, presented medical statements and prison records Tuesday showing that Wizinsky complained of those problems months ahead of the May 10, 2015, riot, and had received medication for post-traumatic stress disorder. He was slugged in the head during the riot, but didn’t seek medical attention, she said.

The former inmate responded that he didn’t remember, but often insisted his troubles began after the riot, including an inability to work since his release from prison in 2016.

“Does this refresh your memory?” asked Caldwell, showing him a May 2014 “discharge plan” that said he planned on filing for disability and not working upon his release from prison.

“I don’t even recall doing that,” Wizinsky said.

Wizinsky’s attorney, Joy Shiffermiller of Lincoln, emphasized that her client’s mental health troubles got markedly worse after the riot, and that he now requires weekly counseling sessions.

Wizinsky said that he had a target on his back after the riot because he had fought off an inmate who had cut a fellow sex offender, thus disrupting the enforcement of a contract.

“I dream basically every night about it,” he said. “The fear afterwards … that I was going to get attacked or hurt.”

Wizinsky, who is diabetic and walks with a cane due to back problems, said he went 17 hours without his insulin shot before corrections officers retook the prison from the inmates. He said he borrowed food from a fellow inmate to avoid a diabetic attack.

But Caldwell said that a prison nurse will testify that Wizinsky suffered no long-term issues due to the riot. She said he had experienced three other prison riots during 19 years behind bars for the sexual assault and a 2012 drug distribution charge.

Prison riots, Caldwell said, are “the nature of corrections.” He argued that state prison workers had responded appropriately to protect the safety of inmates and the public.

Testimony before Lancaster County District Judge Kevin McManaman is expected to continue until Thursday or Friday.