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

Donate
The GEO Group’s Lawton Correctional Facility is Oklahoma’s largest private prison. PROVIDED
With the threat it would lock out more than 2,600 Oklahoma prison inmates, the owner of Oklahoma’s largest private prison successfully lobbied the state Legislature for a raise this year.

The GEO Group’s sprawling Lawton Correctional Facility holds about 10 percent of Oklahoma’s prison population.

With Oklahoma’s prisons now operating at 114 percent capacity, the private corrections company has the bargaining power to ask the state for more money.

In June, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections inked a new five-year deal with The GEO Group to house inmates in Lawton that contained a rate increase worth an estimated $2.8 million.

Prison cited for improper use of restraints, late releases
While Oklahoma may be giving it a raise, The GEO Group hasn’t always performed within the terms of its contract with the state’s Department of Corrections.

Records show the private prison operator has a history of contract violations at the Lawton prison, which houses some of the state’s most dangerous offenders.

The GEO Group did not respond to The Frontier’s questions about its contract with the state or contract violations found at the Lawton prison.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has notified GEO Group of multiple violations at the Lawton Correctional Facility in the past year, including the late release of several inmates, the improper use of restraints, missed or improperly recorded inmate counts, and not adhering to medication and nursing protocols, according to records obtained by The Frontier.

Some of the documented contract violations at Lawton contained in DOC records concern the treatment of inmates with acute or chronic mental illness.

In September, the Department of Corrections cited The GEO Group for two instances of improper use of restraints. In April 2017, a Lawton inmate was placed in a restraint chair for three hours, although it is not an approved method of therapeutic restraint for Oklahoma inmates, according to a letter from the Department of Corrections documenting the incidents.

In July 2017, prison staff kept an inmate in restraints for 14 hours. There was no documentation of any mental health staff supervising the situation for 12 of the 14 hours. The inmate was released for periodic bathroom and water breaks.

The DOC also documented two instances in January and February 2017 where GEO Group did not follow state procedures for giving an inmate emergency involuntary psychotropic medication.

According to Department of Corrections procedures, prison staff can forcibly medicate an inmate with mental illness when they pose “an imminent danger to himself/herself or others.”

The Lawton inmate who was forcibly medicated was assessed by a medical doctor, but not a psychiatrist, as the state requires, DOC said in a letter to GEO Group documenting the incident.

“The inmate was also placed in a regular cell with regular hand and leg restraints rather than following policy regarding therapeutic restraints,” the Department of Corrections said.

In June 2017, the Department of Corrections assessed a monetary penalty of $380,000 against GEO Group for releasing an inmate 304 days late from the Lawton prison after his sentence was modified. The state assessed additional damages against The GEO Group in this case because prison staff knew the man’s sentence had been modified, but never followed up with the proper paperwork to document his new release date, according to DOC documents.

The GEO Group has a history of problems with such errant releases at the Lawton prison, said Joe Allbaugh, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

“Private prisons do not run their facilities to our standards, but they are supposed to adhere to our operational protocols,” Allbaugh said. “The only way you can get their attention is financial sanctions.”

Lawton Correctional Facility contains a “Supermax” wing, which makes it capable of holding some of the state’s highest security risk inmates.

“Because they have a Supermax wing, they think they get all the bad guys, but everyone gets their share of bad guys all around,” Allbaugh said.

Brawls, revolts against staff at Lawton prison
With 2,682 beds, The GEO Group’s Lawton Correctional Facility is Oklahoma’s largest private prison.

The GEO Group’s Lawton prison has been the site of multiple large, violent brawl-like incidents and revolts against staff in the past year, records show.

Just after midnight on April 4, 2017, 14 inmates were involved in an incident in which some men broke out the windows of their cell doors and “used electrical outlets to ignite pieces of torn mattress which they tossed into the dayroom in front of their cells.”

The next morning, staff used pepper spray to subdue 27 inmates as they conducted targeted searches for contraband believed to be smuggled in by Irish Mob gang members.

Prison guards used 63.3 ounces of pepper spray — about the equivalent of a six-pack of beer — to subdue inmates during the searches, as well as muzzle blast pepper spray cartridges designed for dispersing crowds.

On July 19, 2017, about 14 inmates assaulted prison staff to prevent the recovery of a cell phone and the facility had to be placed on lockdown.

On Aug. 2, 2017, 15 members of the of the Universal Aryan Brotherhood and Hoover Crips gangs clashed at the Lawton prison, “starting fires” and “breaking out cell door windows,” according to prison incident reports.

Overcrowded prisons leave state with few options
This year, Oklahoma overtook Louisiana for the title of highest incarceration rate in the United States, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative.

The state’s incarceration rate of 1,079 per 100,000 people is now believed to be the highest in the world.

Oklahoma ran out of places to keep its rapidly growing prison population long ago. The Department of Corrections says it needs $813 million for two new medium security facilities to ease strain on the system.

The state paid GEO Group about $38.5 million last fiscal year to house medium and maximum inmates at the Lawton prison.

In years past, Oklahoma has paid The GEO Group more for prisoners at the facility — as high as $45.73 per day, per prisoner in 2007. But the Department of Corrections negotiated a lower rate when the state was strapped for cash in 2009.

In June 2017, The GEO Group sent the Department of Corrections a letter, stating it would only be open to extending its contract with the state if the day rate for medium security prisoners was increased from $40.28 to $45.73.

“While this increase may seem dramatic, it will only serve to return the facility to the rate we were receiving in 2007; however, will not completely cover the significant cost increases experienced since the per diem was initially lowered,” the company said.

The company also wanted a much higher, separate rate for maximum security inmates of $57 per day.

“Operational costs have increased significantly over the years to include increases to employee wages/benefits, utility costs, as well as increases in all inmate driven expenses (food, clothing, medical care, etc.),” the company said. “That said if we are to maintain the high quality of service that GEO has provided for the last 19 years, we need your support in securing a fair and equitable per diem increase for the coming year.”

Prison contractor gave campaign contributions to bill’s sponsors
After the Department of Corrections balked at the proposed rate increase, The GEO Group was able to secure a more lucrative deal with the help of state lawmakers.

In May, the Oklahoma Legislature passed and Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill that set the new minimum per diem rate private prison beds in the state at $43.30 cents until July 2019.

Allbaugh believes CoreCivic, the state’s other private prison contractor, will also lobby the Legislature for a rate increase when its contract with the state expires next year.

CoreCivic operates the state’s two other private prisons in Cushing and Holdenville with a combined 3,363 beds.

“They decided to go around us to make this ask and I promise that CoreCivic is going to be doing the same thing next year,” Allbaugh said.

Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellson, the bill’s lead author, said The GEO Group initially wanted a much higher rate. The increase was necessary in order to avert a sudden crisis of where to hold more than 2,000 prison inmates, he said.

Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston

“They (The GEO Group) did not get everything they wanted by a longshot,” Wallace said. “…They wanted the rate set at the high-water mark and they didn’t get anywhere near that.”

After legislation with the rate increase passed, The GEO Group gave the bill’s two primary authors campaign contributions.

Wallace received $2,000 from GEO Group’s political action committee on June 4. Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, who co-sponsored the bill, received $2,500 from the GEO Group political action committee on June 7, on top of a previous $2,500 the company had already contributed to her 2018 reelection campaign.

Wallace said the contribution he received from The GEO Group had nothing to do with the bill.

“Absolutely not — I’m not the only legislator who has gotten contributions from them,” Wallace said. “What it had to do with was sure we had bed space for inmates and that we didn’t have to find a place to put 2,600 inmates.”

David also said contributions from The GEO Group did not influence her decision to sponsor the bill.

“I don’t make these decisions based on who donates to my campaign or who doesn’t,” David said in a text message. “I make them based on what’s right for our state for the current time. Enough members of the Senate and House agreed with this assessment to vote on the increase.”

Sen. Kim David, R-Porter

The GEO Group has long been a heavy contributor to Oklahoma political campaigns. In the first seven months of 2018, The company gave $38,500 in campaign contributions to incumbent state legislators, according to Ethics Commission filings.

Since January 2014, The GEO Group has made $104,000 in political contributions in Oklahoma, including $25,000 to Gov. Mary Fallin’s 2015 inauguration committee.

“It’s not good business for private entities to make end runs around the agency they are contracting with because we have no say,” Allbaugh said.

The Department of Corrections was able to win a few concessions from The GEO Group while negotiating the new contract. The company will now pay a higher portion of inmates’ medical costs from hospital stays.

Another victory was the removal of a controversial clause that required the Department of Corrections to keep the Lawton prison 98 percent full, or pay penalties to The GEO Group for the unused beds.

Oklahoma has never had a problem keeping the Lawton prison full.

Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. To become a Friend of The Frontier, click here.

Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
Donate