(IWOC) - In the late hours of Sunday, May 20th, Kansas Department of Corrections officials sent a special operations team, known in Kansas prisons as the "black suits," to the prison cell of Eric Sims, imprisoned in El Dorado Correctional Facility. They placed him in handcuffs and escorted him to a holding cell in another part of the institution, along with all his property. About an hour later, another special operations team arrived from Hutchinson Correctional Facility, removed Sims from the isolation cell, placed him in belly-chains and leg-irons, and then put him in a cage in the back of a van.
The two officers drove Eric through the middle of the night, for two days, stopping only long enough to place Eric in another isolation cell in a remote county somewhere in Mississippi. He remained in an isolation cell, with no windows, and reeking of death. Eric said it took nearly two days for that smell to leave him. After the officers had rested in a local motel, they placed Eric back in the cage, in the back of the van, and drove him to a prison facility in Orlando, Florida. Upon arriving in Florida, Eric was again, placed in another isolation cell, in 103 degree heat, with no fan, no cup to drink water, with only his Bible and a few legal papers.
In the days following, it was discovered who ordered the involuntary transfer. On April 18, 2018, Doug Burris, a correctional manager whose core function is described as "risk management" for the Department, authored a memorandum to Florida officials requesting Sims be transferred to their state. In that written document, Burris made reference to Eric "misleading" legislators as one of the reasons to justify his extraordinary retaliatory actions against Eric.
The only legislator Eric has had contact with was Senator Laura Kelly, now running for Governor of Kansas. On April 4th, Eric prepared a packet of information for Sen. Kelly that shared numerous published articles that detailed the dangers of outsourcing basic healthcare services for prisoners to predatory HMOs, and the tactics used by correctional officials to protect them. Sen. Kelly's office signed for this packet of information on April 9th.
Additionally, in the April 18 memo, Burris explicitly listed Eric’s formal complaint filed with the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts against a Corizon Site Director at Norton Correctional Facility. Corizon Health Services is the prison healthcare provider contracted by the Kansas Department of Corrections. The medical care provided by Corizon to Kansas inmates ranges from rude and dismissive to criminal negligence. This manifested most tragically in the early spring of 2016 when a young Black inmate, Marques Davis, died in Hutchinson Correctional Facility from a fungus that ate his brain. For months, he pleaded for help as his vision blurred, his speech slurred, and he became so disoriented he drank his own urine. True to form, the Tennessee-based, for-profit HMO that the KDOC pays nearly $80 million dollars of taxpayer dollars every year to outsource their essential responsibility of basic healthcare for the inmates in its charge, blamed Marques. The KDOC did nothing, other than attempt to defend their contractor and control the narrative.
However, all the gruesome details of Marques' needless and shameful death caught the attention of several Kansas lawmakers. The word spread quickly throughout Kansas prisons, that there were actual elected officials in Topeka who were looking into the practices of just not the predatory HMO in charge of their healthcare, but the other actions of KDOC officials in recent months that created unsafe living and working conditions for inmates and staff in Kansas prisons.
It is clear from the April 18 Burris memo that speaking out against these injustices in Kansas prisons is the reason for transferring Eric to Florida.
Eric entered the system at the age of 23. He just turned 50 years old last month. During those nearly three decades in the Kansas prison system, Eric has dedicated his life to being an advocate for those less fortunate around him; those inmates who lack the resources and education that too many times fall victim to an overwhelming system, the large bureaucracy that runs it, and the corporations its most essential functions are outsourced to each year. For his advocacy, Eric has a paid tremendous price - personally and financially. For his work, he has been targeted for over thirteen different retaliatory moves in his tenure in the KDOC; when others who entered the system the same time as he did, have only been moved two or three times at the most. When program dollars shrank in the early part of Eric's sentence in the KDOC, both he and his family spent thousands of dollars of their own money to provide Eric the resources he needed to develop peer-directed educational and character-based program models to provide access to such basic needs like literacy and personal development. Many of these flagship programs are still in use in several Kansas facilities today. Eric’s ground-breaking work was foundational in establishing peer-directed inmate civic organizations for the first time in many Kansas prisons; who, over the past decades since their creation, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help some of the most disadvantaged and poverty-stricken families in communities all across the state.
In spite of the retaliation, Eric has remained true to the core principles he has based his life on; having maintained the lowest custody level, and highest incentive level possible over three decades. During that entire period, he has received less than a handful of minor rule infractions, with his institutional record being described by many staff as exceptional, and himself being described as a model inmate. One of the officers who escorted Eric to the isolation cell the night of May 20th commented to the other: "Mr. Sims is the most respectful and well-behaved inmate we have, why are they messing with him?" It wasn't just the comments of this officer, but the numerous written references from both uniformed and non-uniform staff in almost every facility that Eric has been housed that all testify to both his character and conduct, day-in and day-out, over a long period of time. Just last year he received heart-felt thanks from staff for placing his own life in jeopardy to protect a female officer from assault. These are the correctional officials who have direct and personal knowledge of who Eric really is, and their written references are evidence that the narrative used by Mr. Burris and other officials is not in line with the truth. In addition to the staff that see him every day, there is a volume of personal written testimonies from his fellow inmates, who Eric has had a positive transformational impact on their lives - many, he taught to read and write for the first time. His daily choices over 26 years have been a model that has encouraged and inspired other inmates to change their lives.
There are over 10,000 inmates in Kansas prisons. There are inmates who have killed and brutally assaulted both staff and other inmates. There are gang leaders who have set-up and financed illicit organized criminal activity, whose members extort, steal, and intimidate staff and inmates. There are inmates who have trafficked contraband, drugs and illegal materials in every institution they are housed - again and again. Out of all of these 10,000 inmates, why did Mr. Burris choose Eric - someone who many staff describe as a "model inmate" with the above track record?
The retaliatory transfer of Eric Sims is one example of the negligence, malfeasance, and corruption in Kansas prisons and throughout the prison system. The prison-industrial complex and the neoliberal policies it supports drives prisons to privatize basic services, pack prisons full, and exploit a prison labor force. The mistreatment of these prisoners is not the result of cutting costs to save tax dollars; it is the result of a system that serves to maximize profits for those who make their money locking up and exploiting the largest prison population in the world.
For Eric, he just wants to be transferred back to Kansas, where he can at least be close to his family and church. But he also wants accountability for the prison officials behind this. The effort to silence and punish him is chilling. If a well-educated white man with social support can be effectively subdued, what of other inmates who are more vulnerable? And what other abuses are being swept under the rug? The KDOC needs to, at minimum, start with increased transparency and oversight on these issues.
Contact KS legislators to demand Eric’s return to Kansas and an investigation into the Department of Corrections’ abuse of involuntary transfers:
Laura Kelly, candidate for Governor (D): 785-357-5304; email@example.com
Boog Highberger, House Correctional Oversight Committee: 785-424-3262; firstname.lastname@example.org
[Cover photo: Amanda Priebe, Justseeds Artists' Cooperative]
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