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Family of Prisoner Strangled in Oklahoma GEO Private Prison Awarded $6.5 Million

by Matt Clarke

In June 2011, the family members of an Oklahoma state prisoner who was murdered by his cellmate at a privately-operated GEO Group prison in Lawton, Oklahoma received a $6.5 million jury award.

On January 30, 2005, Lawton Correctional Facility prisoner Ronald L. Sites, 48, was strangled to death in his cell by his cellmate, Robert M. Cooper. [See: PLN, June 2005, p.42]. Because Sites was supposed to be housed in isolation without a cell partner, and because prison medical officials knew that Cooper posed a threat to his cellmates before the murder, Sites’ family hired the Tulsa law firm of Richardson Richardson Boudreaux Keesling to file a failure to protect suit against GEO Group, GEO employees and Cooper.

Throughout the week-long trial, the warden and vice president of GEO Group asserted that the company and its staff members had done nothing wrong. However, Cooper had already been sentenced to life in prison for killing Sites, and the judge at that trial had recommended a grand jury investigation into GEO’s role in the murder. In the end, though, the grand jury investigation was blocked by the attorney general’s office.

Sites was a former police officer who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an oil-field accident. The injury rendered Sites incapable of controlling his constant talking, which made him annoying to other prisoners and staff. Thus, he was supposed to be kept in protective custody with no cellmate. Despite that housing restriction, prison officials placed a series of other prisoners in Sites’ cell, none of whom lasted very long due to his incessant talking.

According to Gary Richardson, one of the attorneys who represented Sites’ family, the trial evidence proved that GEO had advance warning and knowledge of Cooper’s violent tendencies toward his cellmates. In prison for murder, Cooper had previously stabbed another prisoner and had twice been caught with homemade knives.

Nine months before he murdered Sites, Cooper was placed in isolation because “he told a counselor he sat on his bunk with a sheet in his hand, fighting off the urge to kill his cellmate.” Richardson’s investigation also revealed that Cooper wanted to return to the maximum-security prison at McAlester and was convinced the only way to obtain a transfer was to kill someone.

What was the prison system’s reaction to Sites’ preventable murder?

“The State of Oklahoma conducted a window-dressing-type investigation,” said Richardson. “They covered it up.”

But the jurors in the civil suit were not so forgiving of GEO’s conduct. On June 22, 2011 they awarded Sites’ family $6 million in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. Additionally, in a Final Journal Entry of Judgment dated August 22, 2011, the state district court awarded “statutory prejudgment interest in the amount of $1,905,493.15 on the compensatory damages award...” for a total award of $8.4 million.
Richardson learned after trial that two jurors had wanted to award the family $25 million.

“It absolutely was a verdict that was given by very conscientious jurors who listened to seven days of testimony of conduct in a prison system that should not be acceptable,” said Richardson. “I think it’s fair to say that the jurors were appalled at the evidence we brought them of inconsistencies among the staff, some applying the rules and procedures of the facility, some not, and seemingly no disciplinary action taken to those that aren’t applying rules and procedures.” See: Sites v. The GEO Group, Inc., District Court for Comanche County (OK), Case No. CJ-2007-84.

This case highlights yet another reason why private prisons are a bad idea. Due to the profit motive of private prison firms, they make more money when they put more prisoners in a cell, thus increasing their available bed space and per diem payments. In this case, that practice by GEO Group had tragic, fatal results.


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Related legal case

Sites v. The GEO Group, Inc., District Court for Comanche County (OK)