On May 19, 2008, at approximately 12:30 p.m., a fight broke out between Native American and black prisoners at the Oklahoma State Reformatory (OSR) in Granite. When the skirmish ended five minutes later, two prisoners were dead and twelve others injured – three of them critically. No prison employees were hurt.
Three days earlier there had been a spitting incident involving a black prisoner and a Native American at the 800-bed medium-security facility located 144 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. Details of that incident were unclear, but the two prisoners decided to wait until the following Monday to settle their differences so as not to interfere with weekend visitation.
True to their intent, on Monday they met on a recreation yard to fight.
“One fight started in the housing unit,” said Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesman Jerry Massie. “They could be seen by the inmates on the other rec yard, and that triggered a second round of assaults. It looks like two inmates initiated a fight, a couple more jumped in and then it broke out into a larger fight. That’s when it broke down with combatants along racial lines.”
At least some of the prisoners engaged in the brawl used homemade knives and other weapons. As soon as guards ordered them to stop, they complied. No shots were fired and no gas used to quell the disturbance. Which makes one wonder why the guards didn’t order the prisoners to stop fighting sooner.
Larry J. Morris, 24, and Tyrone W. Miller, 23, both black, were stabbed to death during the fight. One of them had been involved in the original spitting incident. Eight other prisoners were transported to area hospitals, and four were treated at the prison.
That same day a fight broke out at the GEO Group-run Lawton Correctional Facility, which houses Oklahoma prisoners. Three prisoners were injured.
There was another surge of violence at three state prisons on June 30, 2008 that resulted in lockdowns. Nine prisoners suffered non-fatal injuries in those incidents, which occurred at OSR, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the Dick Conner Correctional Center. Two days earlier a prisoner was stabbed at the Mack Alford Correctional Center. Again, no prison staff were hurt. Racial motivation may have been involved in two of those fights, according to DOC officials.
The lockdowns were partially lifted in August; 16 prisoners were transferred to out-of-state facilities, while others were sent to a maximum security unit.
Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the nation. The prison population is 54 percent white, 30 percent black and about 9 percent Native American.
The Oklahoma DOC suffers from overcrowding (it operates at 98.5% capacity) and a severe guard shortage, which the prison guards union blames on low pay and a high turnover rate. This makes the prison system unsafe for both prisoners and guards alike.
Scott Barger of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, which represents state prison guards, described DOC facilities as “ticking time bombs.”
Earlier, on April 4, 2008, a sergeant at the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester was assaulted by a prisoner who had been discovered with a cell phone. The prisoner, who injured the guard seriously enough to require emergency room treatment, was shackled and chained at the time of the incident.
Massie was careful to say the deadly May 19 fight at OSR was not a riot because the prisoners didn’t assault staff, destroy property or try to escape.
“I think the term riot implies a lot more dangerous situation than what this was,” he said. “It’s not like they took over the facility and burned the place down or assaulted staff.”
Then again, two prisoners died. It seems that prisoners’ lives must not count for much in Massie’s world.
Sources: Associated Press, www.koco.com, McAlester News-Capital, www.kfor.com
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