An investigation by the Tulsa World newspaper revealed that more than 130 disciplinary actions were taken against Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) employees at men's prisons from 2009 through mid-2011. Most of the disciplined employees received a few days suspension without pay, though for 40 the misconduct was serious enough to justify termination.
The newspaper had previously reported 23 disciplinary actions involving staff members at the DOC's three women's facilities. In addition, a number of prison doctors and other medical employees were found to have disciplinary records.
The investigation was triggered by a 2011 fire near the dog kennels at the Howard McLeod Correctional Center (HMCC), which revealed a more serious problem. The fire damage did not concern DOC officials so much as the coolers full of wild hog meat, stores of salt and flour, and knives and other tools which were evidence of feral hogs being trapped and butchered by prisoners at the minimum-security facility.
"These guys I guess just took it upon themselves to hunt these wild hogs," said HMCC Warden Bruce Howard. "How they were planning to cook it, I really don't know."
They were probably planning to use a barbecue grill that was discovered by fire crews near the kennels. Howard stated there was no danger to public safety, but that ignored the fact that prisoners were able to trap hogs and cook them with at least the tacit approval of DOC employees. One guard was disciplined and suspended without pay for one day for having knowledge about the hog trapping and butchering.
"The officer should have stopped them," said Howard, adding that the unit was under closer supervision.
DOC guards have been suspended for other minor violations such as bringing a fork into the prison in their lunch sacks, failing to place their food items in clear baggies and accidentally bringing their own cell phones into the prison.
But some DOC employees have been involved in much more serious incidents. For example, prisoner Paul Duran, Jr. was murdered at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in March 2009 after guards moved him into a cell with another prisoner he had testified against in a murder trial. This violated orders to keep the two separated. According to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by Duran's sister, her brother was intentionally placed in the cell as part of a "gladiator system" used to punish prisoners and provide entertainment for guards. [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.33].
The DOC fired unit security manager Leroy Henry and suspended prison employee Darrell Wilson for five days without pay in connection with Duran's murder. Wilson was later terminated for unrelated violations, including failing to report contraband and asking a subordinate for a loan.
In another incident, a DOC sergeant was demoted to corporal for having sexual relations with the girlfriend of another guard. In that case the relationship had become common knowledge among prisoners, who were making fun of the guard. The Merit Protection Commission, in upholding the demotion, found that the sergeant had failed "to afford respect due a fellow corrections officer," noting that "trust is everything in a correctional facility and using good judgment is critical for a sergeant because it is a leadership position."
A DOC transportation guard was suspended without pay for eight days after he stopped at a McDonald's while transporting community work center prisoners from medical appointments at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center back to their community work centers. The guard left the prisoners unattended while he went inside to order food and use the restroom. The prisoners left the transport van and used the opportunity to smoke and go inside the McDonald's and place food orders. Customers complained about the prisoners being at the eatery without apparent supervision.
One guard was suspended for 8 days without pay for sending sexually-explicit texts to a female co-worker, then later terminated for sending another co-worker a racially-offensive text. Another DOC employee, at the Madill Work Center, was suspended without pay for failing to notice a prisoner had placed a dummy in his bunk during an escape attempt.
A maintenance employee was suspended for failing to timely install security cameras which sat unused at the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center for almost two months, while other DOC employees were disciplined for using prison computers to surf websites such as Facebook and Craigslist.
One guard was fired for punching a prisoner and then kicking him in the face while he was on the ground, breaking his eye socket. Yet another guard was fired for pepper spraying a prisoner he was handcuffing and then punching the prisoner multiple times after he was cuffed.
More recently, four DOC guards were fired after prisoner Julius Parker set fire to the mattress in his cell at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on July 28, 2012 and died due to smoke inhalation. The guards had noticed smoke coming from Parker's cell but failed to take action for over an hour. According to DOC spokesman Jerry Massie, they "did not recognize the magnitude of the situation."
Additionally, 23 employees at the DOC's women's facilities – the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center and Altus Work Center – were disciplined between January 2009 and June 2011, according to the Tulsa World. Twelve of those employees were fired.
The misconduct which resulted in discipline ranged from inappropriate relationships with prisoners and arguing with other staff members to conducting an unauthorized bomb drill – the latter resulting in a 10-day suspension.
The chaplain at Mabel Bassett, Stephen D. Billingslea, was terminated in 2009 following his arrest at a park for lewd behavior; he had previously been disciplined, including for once bringing knives into a prison.
Other disciplinary actions involving employees at the DOC's women's facilities were due to misconduct that included failing to report missing keys, DUI arrests and falling asleep while on perimeter patrol.
Mabel Bassett corporal David Heath Juber, 38, was charged in February 2012 with second-degree rape and forcible sodomy; additional charges were filed in June 2012 related to sex acts involving a different female prisoner. The two prisoners involved knew details about Juber's body, including that he had a tattoo on his chest and pierced nipples. He previously had been suspended for having inappropriate contact with prisoners.
In November 2012, former Mabel Bassett guard Jamie Baker, 43, was charged with 9 counts of second degree rape, 4 courts of sexual battery and one count each of forcible sodomy and first degree rape by force and fear – all felonies – for engaging in sexual misconduct with female prisoners. District Attorney Richard Smotherman said Baker had "used his position of absolute power to force himself on multiple women." Following his arrest he was released on $10,000 bond.
Another former guard at Mabel Bassett, Richard DeHaven, 56, was charged with one count of sexual battery for "groping a female inmate." DeHaven and Baker were both fired in September 2012.
A number of DOC physicians and medical employees have disciplinary histories too, according to an October 6, 2012 investigative report by The Oklahoman. Sometimes the discipline was due to incidents that predated their DOC employment, and sometimes it was for prison-related incidents.
For example, Dr. Joel B. McCurdy at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center has a history of alcohol abuse dating back to 2005, which caused him to lose his medical license for three years prior to his employment with the DOC. Ross Lane Fisher, a physician at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, has a record of two DUI arrests and was placed on probation for five years.
Dr. Jospeh Balogh, employed at Joseph Harp, admitted to an addiction to pain medications and cocaine use; the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs noted that Dr. Balogh said he was "diverting drugs of patients by requiring patients to bring all medications to an appointment, then taking 'handfuls' of the drugs for himself." He was fined $10,000 by the Bureau and is currently on probation.
The DOC's excuse for employee misconduct resulting in discipline was that prison staff members have been simultaneously stressed by budget cuts and understaffing. DOC employees were facing involuntary furloughs and hiring freezes in 2011 while the department was staffed at only 65%, which resulted in high staff turnover that added stress to the remaining employees.
"People have to stay when someone doesn't show up for their shift, and over time, that's going to wear you down," said Massie. "We end up burning people out." Concurrently, it is hard to find people interested in working for the DOC, often at prisons located in remote areas.
But even if true, such circumstances hardly excuse DOC employees' misconduct with respect to physically and sexually abusing prisoners, smuggling contraband or sexually harassing fellow staff members – or colluding with prisoners to hunt, butcher and cook feral hogs on prison grounds.
The DOC's staffing problem has since improved, with an end to unpaid furloughs and increased recruiting efforts to address understaffing. Presumably, based on the excuses provided by prison officials, this will result in less employee misconduct.
Sources: Tulsa World, Washington Examiner, The Oklahoman, www.newson6.com, www.kjrh.com
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