CUSHING — A private prison operator declined to call a four-hour Sunday disturbance at Cushing prison a riot, even though inmates smashed windows, breached security doors and were pepper sprayed after fashioning weapons from destroyed property, records show.
In a written statement, Corrections Corporation of America characterized Sunday’s incident at the Cimarron Correctional Facility as “inmates being disruptive in one of the housing units.” The company emphasized in its statement that there were no reported inmate or staff injuries and “minimal property damage.”
“Facility management and staff isolated the inmates involved and the situation was resolved,” CCA spokesman Mike Machak said in an email to the Tulsa World. He called it a “disruptive event” that involved a single housing unit, which holds prisoners on behalf of the Puerto Rican government that CCA supervises under a contract.
No Oklahoma inmates under the authority of the Department of Corrections were involved, officials said.
The Cushing prison has 1,720 beds, with about one-third reserved for the Puerto Rican prisoners. DOC holds about 18,000 inmates at all security levels and about 5,000 inmates are held in private prisons in the state, records show.
Through an Open Records Act request, the Tulsa World obtained emails and incident reports showing the incident began sometime around 1 p.m. Sunday. It took guards nearly five hours before all offenders were secured and returned to their cells, records show.
An email from the facility’s DOC contract monitor described the aftermath and damage, and said the incident had all the elements “of a major disturbance.”
According to a prison incident report, the disturbance started as a dispute between the Puerto Rican inmates and staff after several inmates refused to go on lockdown for the 2 p.m. inmate count unless they spoke to the unit manager or an assistant warden.
A captain entered the unit and noticed that offenders from all three pods were “congested against the glass windows and pod doors,” the report states.
Around 2 p.m., the inmates breached a door on the unit, and all staff members were removed from the unit.
“The offenders breached in the rotunda area, and began breaking property and equipment located in the rotunda and on the pods,” the report states.
The inmates smashed windows, broke locks and electrical equipment, destroyed computers and telephones, and knocked holes in walls, records show.
“Inmates had fashioned weapons out of destroyed property and were throwing items at staff as they entered the pod,” the report states. “Bean bag rounds and pepper balls were used to gain compliance and protect staff.”
The inmates were secured in their cells by 5:41 p.m., according to the report. During the disturbance, the Cushing Police Department and the Payne County Sheriff’s Office were notified and provided “outside perimeter support,” Machak said.
Incident under review
“The incident is under review at this time, and that review will determine appropriate disciplinary actions, including referral for criminal charges regarding the destruction of property,” he said.
Inmates destroyed desks, computers, printers, telephones, televisions and microwaves, a PlayStation unit and video games, according to an email obtained by the World.
The records did not contain a cost estimate of the damage.
The contract monitor, a DOC employee, wrote in an email that the entire unit had the odor “of OC (pepper) spray and chemical gas lingering in the air, causing staff and this monitor to use tear gas mask to enter unit.”
Staff were using fans to settle the chemical gas dust and pull in fresh air, he said.
The Puerto Rican offenders will remain on lockdown status until further notice, officials said.
Last year, DOC officials proposed an amendment to state law governing operations of private prisons housing out-of-state inmates.
The amendment would have forced companies housing such inmates in Oklahoma to provide information if requested by DOC on riots, escapes or serious incidents. DOC would have been able to fine companies that did not comply, under the proposal.
Currently, CCA and other private prison operators are required to provide information to DOC on incidents involving Oklahoma inmates but not those from other jurisdictions.
A senate bill proposing the change authored by Sen. Don Barrington, R-Lawton, passed a vote of the public safety committee, but the measure has since been pulled, his staff said.
The change was proposed in response to a December 2011 prison riot at CCA’s North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, where 46 inmates were injured and scant information about the riot was released by the company.