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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

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.

Evidence issues

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.

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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