Two years after a riot sent dozens of California inmates to hospitals all over western Oklahoma, a group of prisoners who lived through the melee is suing the private prison company that owns the sprawling facility.
The inmates, who are black men, claim they were put in harm's way when the former warden allowed them to mix with large groups of Hispanic gang members at North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre.
The suit alleges that poorly trained prison guards and reckless understaffing are to blame for the “severe and permanent physical and mental injuries” suffered by the four inmates, who are identified in court records as Michael Bolton, Jamar Henry, Kevin Hicks and Jabaar Walton.
The men were serving time at the private prison in far western Oklahoma on Oct. 11, 2011, when a massive riot erupted.
Court records show the riot started at 11:37 a.m. after a “one-on-one fight” in the facility's main dining hall.
“Thereafter, fighting spread to the West Yard, Gym A, Bravo North, the expansion dining hall and the Hotel Alpha housing unit,” an attorney for the inmates wrote in the petition, “with Hispanics associated with the Surenos prison gang systematically attacking and beating African-American inmates, including plaintiffs.”
The inmates' attorney specifically blamed Corrections Corporation of America, the owner of North Fork, and Fred Figueroa, the prison's former warden.
The prison company has declined to comment.
“Defendants ... were aware that by concentrating a large number of Hispanics associated with the Surenos prison gang at North Fork, they were putting plaintiffs, African-American inmates, at a significant risk of harm,” the attorney wrote.
The attorney also wrote that understaffing at the prison prevented guards from offering much in the way of assistance.
“Often, they merely watched the attacks from outside the area until the attacks stopped on their own or ... were able to gather enough manpower to try and intervene,” the attorney wrote in the suit.
Reports from the private prison company at the time indicated that nearly 50 inmates were injured. Sixteen required hospitalization at nearby medical centers.
Some inmates required extensive recovery time. Four inmates from North Fork were taken to a nursing home in Midwest City so they could recover in a safe environment.
The inmates, who were guarded by armed men while at the nursing home, included a murderer and rapist, drawing the ire of officials from the state Health Department. The nursing home was fined more than $150,000 for allowing the inmates to live there.
No charges likely
Beckham County District Attorney Dennis Smith said on Friday that it's unlikely any inmates involved in the North Fork riot will be charged with a crime, despite the fact that dozens of inmates were brutally assaulted and some nearly died.
Smith said video evidence is of poor quality and has provided little help to investigators. Other inmates, who no doubt witnessed varying acts of violence the day of the riot, have offered no assistance.
“Even the victims — and we kind of expected this — would say things like, ‘I don't have anything to say,' or ‘I didn't see what happened,'” Smith said.
But it was the investigation itself that presented the biggest issue for prosecutors.
Smith said Corrections Corporation of America prepared a 2,700-page report on the riot and presented it to his office. It was little help. He said the massive document — and its contents — overwhelmed his assistants.
“Just too much information,” Smith said. “And there were evidence issues ... things that weren't sent away to be analyzed when normally they would have been. We just weren't used to dealing with that.”
Smith acknowledged that “mistakes were made” during the riot investigation, but couldn't entirely rule out charges.
“There's just been too much time go by, I think,” Smith said. “We can't say for sure yet, but I'm not optimistic.”