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Oklahoma Department of Corrections wants private prison companies to share information, official says

The actions of a private prison company that took months to turn over investigative materials to local agencies after a 2011 riot at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre could lead to a change in Oklahoma law.
by Andrew Knittle Published: December 10, 2012

The actions of a private prison company that took months to turn over investigative materials to local agencies after a violent prison riot last year in Sayre could lead to a change in Oklahoma law.

Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the state Corrections Department, said the agency will propose an amendment to an existing law dealing with private prison companies during the upcoming legislative session.

The change would force private prison companies housing out-of-state inmates in Oklahoma to provide information concerning “a riot, escape or other serious emergency and facility operations upon request of Oklahoma DOC,” agency records show.

It also would allow the state agency to fine companies who don't comply.

Minutes from a recent corrections board meeting show the Oct. 11, 2011, prison riot at the North Fork Correctional Facility — which required a sizable response from local law enforcement agencies — is the impetus of the soon-to-be-proposed law change.

“The riot received much publicity from local sheriff offices talking about the incident, which happened in October 2011,” Corrections Department documents state. “By December 2011, local law enforcement still had not received information on charges to be filed on the offenders involved in the riot nor had they received any reports on the incident.”

The riot, which is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, left 46 prisoners injured.

Sixteen of those were hurt badly enough to be taken to nearby hospitals.

Three prisoners were in critical condition, prison officials said shortly after the melee.

All of the inmates at the facility are from California, which began transferring prisoners out of state years ago to ease overcrowding.

North Fork, which is in the western Oklahoma town of Sayre, is owned by Corrections Corporation of America.

The company owns and operates dozens of prisons across the nation, including three others in Oklahoma.

Massie said the Corrections Department is allowed to review the security plans private prison companies will implement in Oklahoma and also is permitted to screen inmates coming in from out of state.

“We have some oversight responsibilities … even though they're not our inmates,” Massie said. “If they're going to send those inmates to Oklahoma, they ought to be willing to give us information … if they have something happen at one of the prisons.”

When the amendments were discussed at a recent corrections board meeting, Corrections Department Director Justin Jones pointed out that Corrections Corporation of America is not subject to open records laws because it's a private company.

When asked by The Oklahoman whether the amended laws, if passed, would trump open records laws, Massie said he wasn't sure at this point.

“We hope so,” he said. “We certainly think it does.”

Steve Owen, a spokesman for the corrections company, said the company has and will continue to work with local agencies and prosecutors.

“For the past 14 years, CCA has consistently worked closely with local law enforcement agencies and the district attorney's office,” Owen said. “At all times our facility management and staff fully cooperate with and support the investigative processes of law enforcement officials and prosecutors.”

Sayre Police Chief Ronnie Harrold echoed comments made by Owen, although his most recent statement conflicts with what he told The Oklahoman in December 2011 — about two months after the riot.

“I can tell you that my department works closely with CCA and its employees and have no such concerns,” Harrold said in an email statement written Thursday. “We have found CCA to be very responsive and cooperative when the need arises for our department to request information about an incident or to access the facility.”

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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