From the desk of

Ryan Coventon

Oklahoma Prison Fight Injures 7 Inmates

Ryan Coventon - Monday, April 17, 2017

Oklahoma's budget failure has tapped state resources across the board. Education is feeling the pinch, with some districts going to four day school weeks or contemplating ending the school year early. The Department of Human Services is forced to cut vital services for Oklahoma children and families. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services must deny people much needed treatment, forced instead to put people with serious mental illness on waiting lists. And of course, lack of resources in all of these areas typically spur a burgeoning inmate population. The state's jails and prisons continue to be overcrowded and understaffed, which leads to an extremely volatile and dangerous environment.

On Friday night, this inadequacy was illustrated through a fight at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Oklahoma. At approximately 7:30 p.m., two groups of inmates got in a verbal altercation that quickly erupted into physical violence. According to prison officials, inmates began using homemade weapons in the fight, leading to serious injury for seven inmates. Six of the inmates were transported to a hospital in Elk City, while the seventh was transported by flight to an Oklahoma City hospital.

Prison officials say staff was quickly able to get the situation under control and the prison on lockdown, but regardless of response time, they were unable to prevent the large-scale fight or the resulting injuries.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh said of the prison fight, "This was a significant incident, and due to the quick actions of our staff the situation was quickly contained." However, he also noted the lack of resources available to the DOC as a catalyst for the incident:

"Our staff members do the best they can when it comes to properly securing our facilities. It's a difficult task we ask of them, because agency wide we have correctional officer staffing shortages. Our (correctional officer) positions don't pay enough to be competitive in the job market and with the current budget crisis we are experiencing the situation isn't going to get any better anytime soon when it comes to filling vacancies."

North Fork Correctional Facility is one of the private prisons operated under contract with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. In the past, there have been notable concerns about the safety at private, "for-profit" prisons. This is certainly not the first incident at North Fork Correctional Facility.

In 2011, a prison riot at the facility injured 46 inmates, 16 of them seriously enough to require hospitalization. And in December 2016, a correctional officer was hurt attempting to break up a fight between inmates.

In September 2015, a two minute gang fight between the United Aryan Brotherhood and the Irish Mob at Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing resulted in the deaths of four inmates.

A federal study released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics late last year indicated that Oklahoma's prisons are the most dangerous prisons in the nation. From 2001 to 2013, the state's prisons had a homicide rate of 13 per 100,000 inmates--more than double the national average, and their accidental death rate was 8 per 100,000 inmates--nearly triple the national average.

These figures shouldn't be surprising to anyone who knows that we combine one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation with the lowest paid correctional officers and the most understaffed prisons in the country.

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