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46 California Prisoners Injured in Disturbance at CCA-run Oklahoma Facility

Widespread fighting among black and Hispanic California prisoners at the privately-operated North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Oklahoma last year left dozens of prisoners injured.

The disturbance began shortly before noon on October 11, 2011 and was described by some news reports as a riot and by others as a series of random, uncoordinated brawls. Six local police units responded, and order was restored after police and prison employees used chemical irritants and pepperball rounds to quell the fighting. The facility is man-aged by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

At least 46 prisoners suffered injuries – 57 according to one news report; of those, 8 were removed by helicopter, four were hospitalized for weeks and one lapsed into a coma.
There were no fatalities, and no staff members or law enforcement officers were hurt.

The Associated Press reported that some Hispanic prisoners had barricaded themselves in a dining hall; another news source put the number of prisoners who participated in the riot at 600. Although some of the prisoners involved were affiliated with the Surenos prison gang, it was unknown whether the fighting was gang-related.

“My considered opinion is that it looks like they had way too many inmates out of their cells way too early so that when the situation kicked off they couldn’t control it,” stated retired California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Lt. Bob Walsh. “Also, it seems that their physical security was not so great. They should have been able to lock down the dining rooms and the gym. They either did not do so or could not do so.”

Opened in 1999, over the past decade North Fork has housed prisoners from Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Vermont. It currently holds over 2,000 California prisoners.

The CDCR houses about 9,300 of its prisoners in out-of-state facilities. In addition to those in North Fork, about 4,600 are held in two Arizona prisons and another 2,600 in Mississippi. All of the out-of-state facilities are operated by CCA.

The CDCR began transferring prisoners to other states in 2007 in an effort to alleviate severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. At that time, California housed around 172,000 prisoners in in-state facilities in a space designed for approximately half that number.

In December 2010, the California Inspector General’s office raised concerns about security deficiencies and other problems at the CCA prisons housing California prisoners, including North Fork. [See: PLN, Oct. 2011, p.24].

Under a recent “realignment” program by California officials following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Plata v. Brown litigation, the state plans to return all of its prisoners held in out-of-state facilities by 2016. [See: PLN, July 2012, p.28]. That depends on several factors, however, including obtaining permission from the three-judge federal court overseeing the Plata case for the state to miss its deadline to reduce California’s prison population to 137.5% of its capacity.

Regardless, CDCR officials have already started returning prisoners held in out-of-state facilities, including North Fork. In July 2012, California announced that it was removing some of its prisoners from the CCA-run Oklahoma prison. Officials in Sayre were not pleased.

“It’ll be a [loss of a] couple hundred thousand easy in utilities. It doesn’t help your budget any,” stated City Manager Guy Hylton. “It would hurt us here, in Sayre, to be sure,” added Mayor Eddie Tom Lakey.

Meanwhile, at least one California prisoner has filed a federal lawsuit related to the October 11, 2011 disturbance at North Fork. Melvin Fisher wrote in his complaint that he was badly injured when CCA staff failed to protect him from other prisoners; he alleges that a CCA guard held a door to the gym shut when he was trying to get “out of harms way into safety.” See: Fisher v. Figueroa, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:12-cv-00231.

So who will have to pay the long-term costs associated with the violent disturbance at North Fork, including the prosecution of prisoners involved in the incident, who face charges ranging from assault to attempted murder? Local Oklahoma taxpayers.

“Now, this riot will create substantial costs to us,” said Beckham County district attorney Dennis Smith. “A lot of that is going to depend on how many cases we actually file. It’s already added a strain. So, for me to be able to expound exactly how much it costs – there are so many factors that go into that. How many people are prosecuted? How many are convicted? How many are actually going to serve time.”

Following the May 2012 release of a 2,700-page report concerning the North Fork riot, Smith stated that California prisoners convicted of crimes related to the disturbance would have to serve time in Oklahoma’s prison system.

“When we prosecute someone, say it’s for assaulting a guard or assaulting a fellow inmate, and we assign them some length of sentence, they’re not going to serve it in CCA. They’ve suddenly become the property of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections when it’s time to serve their sentence. That’s an additional cost to the citizens, taxpayers of Oklahoma,” he noted.

Which is one of the undisclosed, oft-overlooked costs of prison privatization.

Sources: World Capitol Bureau, Associated Press, Oklahoman, San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, KFOR-TV,,

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Related legal case

Fisher v. Figueroa