CUSHING — A fight that left five correctional officers injured at the privately-owned Cimarron Correctional Facility on Wednesday was the latest violent incident at the prison that has resulted in injury or death.
Around 9 p.m. Tuesday, a prisoner at the facility did not comply with orders, according to an Oklahoma Department of Corrections media release, and a correctional officer deployed pepper spray. Other inmates began to assault the officer as well as other officers who were assisting, and after more pepper spray was deployed the melee quickly ended, according to DOC.
Five correctional officers were taken to a nearby hospital where they were treated and released, the media release stated. No prisoners were injured.
The Cimarron Correctional Facility, which houses around 1,600 prisoners of both medium and maximum security level, is owned by Tennessee-based CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America).
A spokesman for CoreCivic directed all questions about the incident to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Department of Corrections spokesman Mark Myers said the department is investigating what happened, but unless criminal charges are filed it’s unlikely the investigation will be made public. Oklahoma’s Open Records Act exempts law enforcement investigatory files from public release, even after an investigation has been closed.
Myers said that the prison has yet to send a serious incident report to DOC.
In previous years, media reports have indicated the company has failed to submit incident reports to the department in a timely manner.
From 2012 to 2016, a third of all homicides committed in Oklahoma prisons occurred in the two state-contracted CoreCivic facilities, though they held only a little more than 10 percent of the state’s prisoners, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. About 46 percent of all prison homicides from 2012 and 2016 occurred in the state’s three private prisons, the data shows.
The facility has had several violent incidents over the past several years, including a unit-wide riot in 2013 and at least two riots in 2015. In 2016, a video surfaced of another prisoner fight at the facility. The cell phone video, obtained by KWTV, shows a prisoner being picked up by other inmates and thrown from the second floor of the facility.
In July 2015, more than 11 prisoners were injured after a riot at the facility that involved a gang fight between the Indian Brotherhood and the Hoover Crips.
Then, only two months later, the deadliest prison riot in Oklahoma Department of Corrections history occurred at the facility — a gang fight between the Irish Mob and the United Aryan Brotherhood at the facility’s Charlie North unit. That incident left four prisoners dead, according to court records filed in both criminal and civil cases after the incident.
Seven individuals allegedly involved in the fight were charged last month with participating in a riot — a felony that carries a penalty of up to life in prison.
Though two of the prisoners killed in the riot were Irish Mob members, all of the individuals charged in that case are members of the Irish Mob, said Payne County District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas. Video surveillance shows Irish Mob members gathering on the second floor of Charlie North before walking downstairs and starting the fight with members of the United Aryan Brotherhood, she said.
“Here we don’t have any evidence whatsoever that we can find, that there was a UAB group down there waiting and ready to do battle. What you can see is total surprise,” Thomas said.
“They may be really bad people, but in that scenario they found themselves in, they had a right to defend.”
Thomas said the only surveillance video of the fight came from an automatically panning camera in the unit. The quality of the video was poor, and the attack began right as the camera was panning away from where the fight started, she said.
“You can’t do identification based on watching the video,” Thomas said.
Witnesses’ reluctance to testify, contamination of DNA evidence on the murder weapons after the fight, and the subsequent arrest and conviction on unrelated drug charges of the only correctional officer who witnessed the incident, made getting first-degree murder convictions unlikely, Thomas said.
Instead, Thomas said, the charges of participating in a riot that resulted in death, which carries the same penalty as second-degree murder, are what can actually be proven with the available evidence.
Thomas said there had been a riot prior to the September 2015 riot that was not reported to her office, and that she later met with Department of Corrections and private prison officials to inquire why.
“My questions were, ‘Why wasn’t this riot reported to me?’ And their answer was they didn’t consider it a riot. They considered it something else,” she said.
At the time of the September 2015 riot, department officials told media that the incident was not considered a riot, though Oklahoma law defines a riot as three or more people acting together to use force or violence outside the law.
Thomas said prison officials have told her that a new, better camera system has since been installed, but the number of incidents that go on there has been some cause for concern.
“That’s a scary prison,” Thomas said. “Maybe all of them are scary, but that one is a scary prison.”