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.”
In December 2011, however, Harrold said he had received little information about the North Fork riot from Corrections Corporation of America and implied that the company had “been giving us the runaround.”
“It's coming close to the point where we would expect for them to turn it over to us,” the police chief said in early December 2011. “At some point, if they want charges filed, they'll have to turn it over to us.”
The sprawling North Fork Correction Facility is Sayre's largest employer and generates more than $20 million in payroll for the rural area, according to Owen.
The prison, which has its own store where inmates can buy clothing and food items, also is the town's third-largest source of sales tax revenue, Mayor Eddie Tom Lakey said.
Beckham County District Attorney Dennis Smith has been given the task of prosecuting deserving inmates who took part in the October 2011 melee at North Fork.
Smith, who also serves as district attorney for Washita, Roger Mills, Custer and Ellis counties, said Corrections Corporation of America submitted a 2,700-page report on the riot to his office several months after the incident.
The prosecutor called the prison company's investigative report “fine” and “thorough,” but said his office ran into trouble when he thought they were ready to file charges against certain inmates.
Smith said Corrections Corporation of America sent its own investigators to Sayre to conduct the inquiry. He said the evidence was not handled in the manner he is accustomed to as a prosecutor.
“I thought we would be ready to file a case, you know, back in the summer,” Smith said. “But we discovered that some of the evidence that needed to be sent to OSBI had never been submitted and was being stored at another location.
“That was very disconcerting because it was not documented in the report they gave us.”
Smith said evidence from the case was “spread all over the place” at one point and that he still isn't quite sure if it's all together in the same place.
“There were certain items we wanted OSBI to look at for either fingerprints or blood analysis … things of that nature,” Smith said. “And those items, we discovered in July, were sitting in a locker and nobody had ever done anything with them.”
Owen denied that investigators deployed by Corrections Corporation of America mishandled the inquiry in any way.
“CCA representatives have been in regular and direct dialogue with the district attorney and his team,” Owen said in a statement. “No such concerns have ever been expressed to CCA. To the contrary, the DA has expressed satisfaction with CCA's cooperation and responsiveness.”
Smith said his working relationship with the corrections company was fine before the October 2011 riot, but also admitted the case was bigger and more complex than anything he's handled before involving the prison.
Before the riot last year, the prosecutor said the typical case coming out of North Fork was either an individual assault or contraband-related.
“In hindsight, I would have done things differently with this case,” Smith said. “They wanted to do their own investigation and thought they could do it … and the report was fine.”
“The problem came when we got down to the fine tuning and making sure we had Exhibits A, B, C and D.”
In July, it was announced by California prison officials that all of the roughly 2,000 inmates doing time at North Fork would be gone by the end of 2013.
Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the removal of the prisoners had nothing to with the riot.
She said the withdrawal of inmates is part of a larger plan to save California money and reduce the state's prison population.