The GEO Group’s Lawton Correctional Facility is Oklahoma’s largest private prison. PROVIDED

One evening in April, a massive brawl involving 24 members of the Savage Boys and Sureños gangs broke out at the privately operated Lawton Correctional Facility.

The Sureños, a small but powerful gang that operates inside the Oklahoma prison system, instigated the fight, according to an Oklahoma Department of Corrections incident report. The altercation began when a Sureño approached a Savage Boy on the floor of a prison pod and punched him in the face.

The punch touched off multiple fights between rival gang members on the pod. As correctional officers used pepper spray in an attempt to break up the brawl, some of the Sureños began throwing meal trays at members of the Savage Boys, according to a prison incident report.

Nine prisoners were injured, including six who had to be treated at a local hospital.

Joe Allbaugh, former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said in an interview with The Frontier in May that the two Latino gangs were fighting to control contraband and money inside and outside the prison.

Allbaugh announced his resignation from the Department of Corrections in June, one month after he spoke to The Frontier about gang violence and conditions at Lawton Correctional Facility.

“What’s happening out there is just ugly,” Allbaugh said. “There’s no other way to describe it. Each time I bring it up, people see dollar signs. They don’t want to hear about money issues.”

The Oklahoma prison system has about 100 identified gangs. Many gang members are sent to Lawton Correctional Facility because of its high level of security.

Gang members sometimes threaten to attack their enemies inside the Lawton prison unless family members deposit money on their inmate trust accounts — effectively demanding ransom in exchange for not hurting their loved ones, Allbaugh said.

With 2,682 beds, the sprawling Lawton Correctional Facility is the largest of Oklahoma’s three state-contracted private prisons. It is operated by The Geo Group Inc., a Florida based corporation that trades its shares on the New York Stock Exchange. The Geo Group has a contract with the state of Oklahoma worth an estimated $40 million a year to house prisoners at the Lawton prison.

The April fight was one of several recent incidents of gang violence at Lawton Correctional Facility, according to records and interviews. The prison is frequently on lockdown and has had problems in the past with maintaining adequate staffing levels, records show.

On June 29, a group of prisoners attacked two other prisoners inside their cells at Lawton Correctional Facility, according to information the Department of Corrections has released about the incident. An ambulance transported both victims to a local hospital, where they were treated for stab wounds.

One week earlier, on June 27, six prisoners were involved in a fight at Lawton involving crude and improvised weapons including “mops and sharpened things,” said Matt Elliott, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

The Frontier sent The GEO Group a list of questions about how the company handles gang violence at the Lawton prison and about its procedures for lockdowns. The company did not answer any of the questions, but did provide a brief written statement.

“The Lawton Correctional Facility adheres to strict contractual requirements as stipulated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and is accredited by the American Correctional Association,” the statement said. “Members of our team are proud of our long-standing record in providing high-quality correctional services in a safe, secure, and humane environment on behalf of the State of Oklahoma.”

Staffing shortages and a lack of recreation time

Four women who have partners or sons incarcerated at Lawton Correctional Facility and a former correctional officer told The Frontier that the prisoners there are frequently locked down and do not get adequate recreation time.

“I’ve never seen a prison locked down so much,” one of the women said in a Facebook message.

The women and the former guard did not want their names published because of general privacy concerns, or they expressed fear that the prison would revoke visitation privileges or otherwise retaliate against their loved ones for speaking out.

Depending on the housing unit and security status, some prisoners at Lawton Correctional Facility may be locked down in a cell for most of the day, Allbaugh said.

Lawton Correctional Facility also contains a “Supermax” wing that makes it capable of holding some of the state’s highest security risk prisoners.

“Depending on what unit they are in there or if they are in a unit that is misbehaving then, yes, they may be locked down,” Allbaugh said. “If they are in a protective custody unit, or depending on their classification they may be locked down 23 hours a day.”

The former correctional officer, who worked at Lawton Correctional Facility in 2018, said the prison sometimes lacked adequate staffing to give the prisoners recreation time.

The starting pay for correctional officers at the Lawton prison is $13 an hour.

In July 2018, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections sent a letter to The GEO Group documenting staffing shortages at the Lawton prison. The Frontier obtained the letter from an open records request. 

The Department of Corrections sent the letter just one month after signing a new five-year contract with The GEO Group in June 2018 to operate the Lawton prison that contained a rate increase worth an estimated $2.8 million.

The letter stated that the Lawton prison had numerous positions that had been vacant for more than 45-60 days, including more than 70 correctional officer jobs. The Department of Corrections warned that the state would begin withholding a portion of contract payments to The GEO Group unless staffing levels at Lawton Correctional Facility improved.

The GEO Group did not respond to questions about staffing and recreation time at the Lawton prison. However, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections said staffing levels had improved somewhat since it sent the warning letter.

The GEO Group has hired 50 new correctional officers for the Lawton prison since last year, DOC said.

Lawton on lockdown

In 2018, Lawton Correctional Facility was on prison-wide lockdown for a total of 75 days, according to Department of Corrections records. The longest lockdown lasted 37-days, spanning all of February and part of March 2018.

The lengthy lockdowns are demoralizing for prisoners, the former correctional officer said.

“It breaks them down because you are not allowed to talk to your loved ones and you’re in this small cell with your cellie, the former officer said. “I can see a lot of them wanting to take their lives.”

In response to The Frontier’s questions, Oklahoma Department of Corrections said the number and length of lockdowns at Lawton Correctional Facility is not unusual or excessive.

After a violent or disruptive incident, prisons lock down to protect inmates and staff, Matt Elliott, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections said in a written response.

Lawton Correctional Facility also goes into lockdown during two prison-wide shakedowns each year.

“This is when staff search every nook and cranny of the facility for contraband, weapons, et cetera,” Elliott said.

Because of the large size of the Lawton prison, the shakedowns can take several weeks to complete, he said.

During lockdowns, prisoners are allowed out of their cells to shower, but access to other out-of-cell activities depends on the type and length of the lockdown, Elliott said.

“If the lockdown is anticipated to be more lengthy, then arrangements will be made to provide some type of recreation time,” he said.

Prisoners in some areas of the prison may be allowed movement outside of their cells during a lockdown, but must remain in their pod.

“This allows them to make phone calls, play games or other activity at the pod level,” he said.

During the most recent long lockdown, the Lawton prison was on facility-wide lockdown for 33 days between March 4 and April 7, according to Department of Corrections records.

Through a review of Department of Corrections incident reports, The Frontier found several incidents of prisoners engaging fights, suicide attempts and self-mutilation during the long lockdown.

On March 12, eight days into the lockdown, one prisoner needed 10 stitches in his left forearm after he admitted to cutting himself with razor blades from the prison commissary to “relieve stress.”

On March 23, 19 days into the lockdown, a prisoner in the medical unit was discovered with deep cuts on his throat and left wrist, according to an incident report. The man refused medical treatment, so prison staff used pepper spray to help extract him from his cell and then transported him to a local hospital.

On March 24, 20 days into the lockdown, a fight broke between two cellmates where one man beat the other with an electric hot pot. The men told correctional officers “they were no longer getting along,” according to an incident report.

On March 26, 22 days into the lockdown, a prisoner scaled a 16-foot fence on the recreation yard with a homemade noose fashioned out of a drawstring from a laundry bag and torn bed sheets. The man placed the noose around his neck and secured the other end to the fence before prison staff talked him down.

On March 28, 24 days into the lockdown, one prisoner refused to remain in a cell and talked about cutting himself. A correctional officer used pepper spray on the man during a subsequent strip search.

On April 2, 28 days into the lockdown, one prisoner stabbed another prisoner in the ear with a piece of wood.

On April 24 — when records show the prison was no longer on facility-wide lockdown — a prisoner placed a razor blade in his mouth and threatened to jump from the railing of the second tier of a pod. It’s unclear if the man was in a locked down housing unit.

The man said he was “mad about the house being locked down” and “mad he was not given a phone call after his uncle passed away,” according to an incident report.

During an hour-long standoff, prison staff staged a 37-millimeter gas grenade launcher and a pepper ball gun aimed at the prisoner. The incident ended after the man grabbed the railing with both hands and vaulted over. When the man landed, he hit his head and the side of his face on the floor. He lost consciousness for 35 seconds and was transported to a hospital for evaluation, according to the report.

The Geo Group did not respond to The Frontier’s questions about the incidents and whether they were related to the long lockdown.

Allbaugh said he would like to see Oklahoma reduce its prison population enough to reduce the state’s reliance on for-profit private prisons.

“They are supposed to adhere to our policies and procedures, but they are for-profit entities,” Allbaugh said. “I don’t like the for-profit entities. I don’t think the taxpayers should pay a premium for leasing a bed.”

Shakedown: Oklahoma's largest private prison wants more money. Or else