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Lawsuit Claims CoreCivic Allowed Corruption and Gangs to Flourish at Oklahoma Prison

by Matt Clarke

The family of a prisoner who was maced by guards as he bled to death at an Oklahoma prison operated by CoreCivic--then known as Corrections Corporation of America--has filed a lawsuit alleging prison officials allowed corruption and gangs to flourish at the facility, resulting in conditions that led to four murders. Several prisoners involved in the deadly melee have since been charged with participating in a riot.

At 4:39 p.m. on September 12, 2015, at the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma, a battle erupted in the Charlie North Unit between rival prison gangs identified as the Irish Mob and the United (sometimes reported as Universal) Aryan Brotherhood.

After a two-minute battle--using weapons that included shanks made from the prison’s light fixtures--our prisoners lay dying and three others had wounds that required hospitalization. Due to a CoreCivic policy in effect at the time, prisoners were locked out of their cells and thus could not retreat and lock themselves in for protection when the fight broke out.

In April 2017, seven prisoners – all allegedly members of the Irish Mob – were charged with participating in the riot: Gage Broom, 25; Phillip Wayne Jordan, Jr., 34; Korey L. Kruta, 28; James A. Placker, 31; Jordan James Scott, 25; Steven Ray Thompson, 32; and Johnathan R. Whittington, 27. If convicted, they face the same punishment as they would for second-degree murder – life imprisonment.

In announcing the charges, Payne County District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas said the riot charges would be easier to prosecute than murder charges, as her office would simply have to show the prisoners involved in the fight had demonstrated “clear disregard” for the four men who were killed. Her investigators interviewed over 120 prisoners, but she said “no one wants to say they’ve seen anything.”

The prisoners slain during the September 2015 incident included Anthony Fulwilder, 31, Michael E. Mayden, Jr., 26, Kyle Glenn Tiffee, 23, and Christopher Tignor, 29.

Tiffee’s family filed a lawsuit in October 2016 alleging that CoreCivic turned a blind eye toward gang activity at Cimarron. Among other things, the suit claims that prison officials knew prisoners were using light fixtures to make weapons but failed to address that problem due to the expense involved, making the fatal fight “highly predictable.” [See: PLN, April 2017, p.63].

The complaint specifies that guard Terrance Lockett was “nothing more than a spectator” during the melee, and that when he belatedly reported the gathering of rival gang members, his supervisor told him to “call back when [the fight] happens.” He also reportedly identified the wrong unit when he initially radioed for help.

An incident report made public by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) stated that after the fight, Lockett and a nurse arrived on the scene to help a badly-wounded prisoner. Soon afterwards, the riot squad came in and maced Tiffee, a member of the Irish Mob, as he lay dying. Two members of each gang were killed during the melee. An after-action report cited policy violations by CoreCivic staff, including the deletion of video from a handheld camera. The video footage from two other cameras was not recorded or was recorded over, according to a news report.

Another wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Mayden’s family, while one of the prisoners injured during the fight, Cordell Johnson, has also sued. In September 2017, CoreCivic filed a third-party petition against the seven prisoners charged with participating in a riot, and against Tiffee’s estate, in an apparent move to shift liability should the company face damages in the lawsuits. See: Mayden v. CCA, District Court of Payne County (OK), Case No. CJ-2017-92.

Meanwhile, CoreCivic has refused to release video recordings of the riot, claiming it is exempt from the state’s Open Records Act as a law enforcement agency – despite not being registered as a law enforcement agency with the Oklahoma Council on Law Enforcement Training and Education.

Since the fatal fight, Lockett and another guard have been indicted for bringing phones and drugs into the prison. They were not the first CoreCivic employees caught smuggling contraband, and the fight was not the first involving large numbers of gang members or resulting in serious injuries.

On February 25, 2015, ten prisoners were involved in a fight that left five with stab wounds. The following month, eight more were involved in another stabbing incident.

On June 12, 2015, thirty-three Native American and black gang members fought with weapons, and both pepper spray and a CS (or tear gas) grenade had to be deployed to break up the disturbance. Eleven prisoners were sent to a hospital.

All the incidents involved gang members who, according to prisoners, were being allowed to “run” the facility without interference. Yet CoreCivic rarely files probable cause affidavits with the local prosecutor requesting that prisoners involved in assaults be criminally charged.

On February 28, 2015, seven packages containing drugs, cell phones and tobacco were discovered at Cimarron – each marked for delivery to a specific gang. Also in 2015, two guards and eight visitors were caught trying to smuggle contraband into the facility, and 84 sharpened metal knives were recovered. That year there were 45 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and 21 assaults by prisoners on staff. Of the prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, 13 were rapes. Another seven prisoners reported being sexually abused by employees. And in May 2017, five guards at Cimarron were injured during a fight with prisoners.

“That’s a scary prison,” said District Attorney Thomas. “Maybe all of them are scary, but that one is a scary prison.”

Oklahoma paid private prison companies $92,675,632 to incarcerate nearly 6,000 offenders in six facilities between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015. DOC officials have continued to defend CoreCivic, even though Oklahoma has the highest rate of prisoner homicides in the nation with nearly 14 killings per 100,000 prisoners – numbers that have been boosted by murders at privately-operated prisons. Between 2012 and 2016, one-third of all homicides in Oklahoma prisons occurred at two CoreCivic facilities, though they held just over 10 percent of the state’s prison population. 


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