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Former inmates sue Avalon over alleged civil rights violations

Sep 10, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

By CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer | Posted: Tuesday, September 9, 2014 12:00 am

A lawsuit filed in federal court Monday alleges that former employees of the Avalon Tulsa halfway house violated inmates’ civil rights by organizing fight clubs and inmate beatings, selling drugs and charging inmates for falsified clean drug tests.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of former Avalon inmates Samuel Powell, Derek Schell, Codie Shreve, Patrick Harvey and Aaron Jones, seeks more than $75,000 in punitive damages for “severe physical injuries,” being forced to fight and other violations of their civil rights, including the use of corporal punishment.

Court filings allege that former Avalon Tulsa administrator Donnie Coffman had inmates discipline one another through a system they called taking inmates “to court,” extorted residents of the halfway house, organized bets on fights, manipulated urinalysis drug tests and altered misconduct reports to prevent inmates from transferring to other facilities to keep Avalon’s beds full.

Privately operated halfway houses such Avalon are paid by the state of Oklahoma per inmate they house per day.

Avalon has been paid “millions of dollars of taxpayer money,” the suit alleges, while operating a facility “where crime and violence were rampant and inmates were housed in a facility where open drug use and violence were pervasive and managed and controlled by corrupt officials and subjected to corporal punishment.”

Coffman is named as a defendant along with two other Avalon employees who worked there while the inmates served time there, Terry Moore and “Lt. Jones.” Avalon officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

Two of the plaintiffs remain in DOC custody at state prisons; the rest have since been released. The inmates are represented by Tulsa attorneys Scott Graham and Louis Bullock.

In January, Oklahoma corrections officials closed Avalon Tulsa and canceled its contract, transferring more than 200 inmates due to “serious infractions” affecting offender safety.

The investigation began after organized inmate fights were captured on cellphone videos from inside the facility. Inmates were forced to fight, and some received injuries that were never medically treated, according to the lawsuit.

In February, it was announced that federal authorities were investigating potential civil rights violations at the facility.

Avalon officials proposed sweeping changes to the Tulsa facility to persuade corrections officials to renew the company’s contract and begin refilling it with DOC inmates. The halfway house, at 302 W. Archer St., has 390 beds, and the department began returning inmates there in April.

Avalon executives promised improved security measures, including better drug testing and interdiction measures. The Department of Corrections required one of its own monitors to remain onsite in order to reopen the Tulsa facility.

Oklahoma City-based Avalon operates halfway houses in Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming for inmates nearing the end of their sentences as they prepare to reintegrate into society.

Avalon officials initially claimed that the closure was “politically motivated retaliation” by parties opposed to corrections privatization.

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