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TIPPING POINT: Prison riots likely any day now, warn prison and law-enforcement insiders

Oct 10, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

The OSR officer said, “It’s not going to be isolated. It will all be on the same day within an hour or two apart at the most. The inmates want the federal government to step in and the only way to do that is for massive amounts of damage statewide simultaneously. This is what the inmates are telling me. We’re (officers) hearing that at least one unit is starting to arm themselves.” He further said that inmates are hoarding toiletries, hygiene products like soap, and that contraband is down in spite of easier access to drugs due to fewer officers manning posts. When inmates store up and sober up, it is a clear sign they are preparing for violence.

Mindy Ragan Wood | October 8, 2014

 

OKLAHOMA CITY — For the last six months Red Dirt Report has been investigating the prison crisis, talking with officers, staff, and organizations who receive reports regarding the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

 

Our sources confirm that coordinated statewide riots are likely any day.

 

An officer at the Oklahoma State Reformitory, who spoke with Red Dirt Report on condition of anonymity, said inmates have told him riots are unavoidable. He said other fellow officers have also overhead inmates talking about the coming riot.

 

Just this morning, Red Dirt Report received a tip from a former Oklahoma City police officer who has contacts within ODOC, said that inmates are arming for a riot. “I got a tip from a ODOC guard that inmates are arming all across the state. He says a riot is imminent. Bad food, poor supervision (and) abuse of solitary confinement are among the issues,” the former cop said.

 

Abuse of solitary confinement was also an issue in the Arizona Department of Corrections from where the current ODOC Director Richard Patton was recruited.

 

The OSR officer said, “It’s not going to be isolated. It will all be on the same day within an hour or two apart at the most. The inmates want the federal government to step in and the only way to do that is for massive amounts of damage statewide simultaneously. This is what the inmates are telling me. We’re (officers) hearing that at least one unit is starting to arm themselves.”

 

He further said that inmates are hoarding toiletries, hygiene products like soap, and that contraband is down in spite of easier access to drugs due to fewer officers manning posts. When inmates store up and sober up, it is a clear sign they are preparing for violence.

 

Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said she has not heard anything about a riot or inmates preparing for a riot. She said, if the administration had heard about it, she “would normally have gotten an email about it.”

 

If a riot does occur at any point, it does not appear officers can do much to stop it. According to Sean Wallace, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, officers are simply outmanned.

 

Wallace routinely hears from officers and staff and said the staffing crisis keeps getting worse.

 

“An officer from Crabtree said, ‘The inmates run this place now.’ He was on a floor with 350 offenders. ‘If they decide they want to take the place over, they can. It’s up to them. There’s too many of them and not enough of us.’ That’s what he thinks,” said Wallace.

 

Oklahoma has the worst offender-to-officer ratio in the country, a fact which both Gov. Mary Fallin and ODOC Director Patton have all but ignored. After a small raise amounting to less than a $1 an hour failed to attract enough new hires to ease the staffing problems, even more officers quit in July than were hired.

 

In June we reported that ODOC prisons are ripe for riots because of poor or inadequate food, overcrowding, and understaffing as key triggers for massive prison violence. In April, after Director Patton emptied county jails into crowded state prisons, questions rose about the lack of resource to feed, clothe, and provide medical care for those inmates.

 

Brady Henderson of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said that offenders are getting more desperate. While he said they always get complaints from prisoners, he said it’s now far worse.

 

“We see a shift from prisoners complaining about not getting the right protein for their kosher meal to, ‘we don’t have enough food, we’re starving, there’s too much violence, there’s no toilet paper, and we’re all getting sick because there’s no hygiene,’” said Henderson. “We can feel more desperation in the tone of complaints. People feeling this…almost foreboding that bad things are going to happen.”

 

Henderson said it also seems that Wallace is hearing the same types of concerns from officers that the ACLU hears from inmates. “I don’t think he’s (Wallace) a boy crying wolf. He’s getting his information mostly from staff who are on the ground. That’s as reliable source (of information) as you’re ever going to find.”

 

The ACLU of Oklahoma sent a letter to Director Patton dated Aug. 29, 2014, which Red Dirt Report confirmed Patton received. The letter detailed their concerns about these increasing complaints regarding medical neglect, lack of food, hygiene supplies and more. Jerry Massie, Public Information Officer for ODOC said the director had no comment about the letter. Patton also never replied to the ACLU’s concerns.

 

When the Feds Come Marchin’ In

 

According to Henderson, and when we spoke to former Speaker of the House Kris Steele in May, if the federal government steps in with a consent decree it will likely mean more prisons instead of judicial and corrections reform.

 

Henderson said Oklahoma simply built more prisons in the 1980’s after the Oklahoma State Prison riot and subsequent class action lawsuit brought the supervision of the federal government. “The solution the feds had, they didn’t have the power to change how we did sentencing in our state, they didn’t have the power to change our laws; all they could basically do was to solve the capacity problem which meant we built a ton of prisons,” said Henderson.

 

The high cost of tough on crime laws means more offenses are punishable by prison and offenders are serving longer sentences for their crimes, in particular non-violent offenders.

 

Although legislators passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2012, it has remained largely unfunded in spite of the solid predictions that it would eventually save the state millions of dollars and slash the prison population.

 

While advocates warn about the human and fiscal disaster regarding the judicial and corrections system, the problem of overcrowded and understaffed prisons threatens the immediate safety of inmates, officers, and staff.

 

We will continue to report on this story as we get more information. Watch for updates here at Red Dirt Report.

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