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Inmates' lawsuits allege prison crowding puts them in danger

Aug 24, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

Inmates' lawsuits allege prison crowding puts them in danger

By BARBARA HOBEROCK World Capitol Bureau | Posted 4 hours ago

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two inmates have filed lawsuits against the state, alleging prison overcrowding has created an unsafe environment for inmates and officers.

Gov. Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections are named as defendants. The separate suits were filed in the past two months in Oklahoma County District Court.

Both offenders are serving sentences at James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena.

“The state of Oklahoma, by and through the governor and Department of Corrections, has exercised its power to grossly understaff and overcrowd correctional facilities throughout the state, including the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, Ok., where petitioner is located,” states the suit filed June 10 by inmate Stephen Craig Burnett. “This has created an unsafe and unhealthy environment. It is not a temporary situation.”

The suit alleges the Legislature has not appropriated enough money to meet the needs of the Department of Corrections.

The increased offender population has taxed toilets, sinks and showers, the suit alleges.

“The correctional officers’ safety is endangered due to the overcrowding and understaffing, because of the increased level of tension and general feeling of anger by the inmates,” the suit alleges. “The inmates’ safety and standard of living has been drastically affected. The overcrowding has overtaxed all areas, including food service, laundry, bathroom conditions, recreation, medical, visitation, telephone availability, etc.”

The suit asks the court to order adequate funding to rent space in private prisons or the release of inmates to come into compliance with the designed capacity of facilities. It also asks the court to issue an order limiting inmate population at each prison and prescribe a ratio of correctional officers to inmates.

Burnett has filed a handful of unsuccessful lawsuits in the past. He is serving a life sentence from Tulsa County for the murder of his wife.

On July 31, Wade E. Edwards filed a similar suit, but alleged part of the problem was the result of a recent decision by Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton to move offenders from county jails into state facilities.

“This was purely an economic decision,” Edwards’ suit states.

The state pays county jails to house offenders waiting for an open bed in a state facility.

“Since these facilities were already at capacity, this immediately caused a very dramatic and serious problem of both understaffing and overcrowding, at all of the DOC operated facilities,” the suit alleges. “This has endangered plaintiff’s safety and created an unhealthy environment for inmates, staff and officers.”

Edwards is serving a life sentence out of Johnson County for second-degree murder.

Jerry Massie, a Department of Corrections spokesman, said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits.

Barbara Hoberock 405-528-2465