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Oklahoma Prisoners, Advocacy Group File Short-lived Lawsuit Alleging Corruption

by Matt Clarke

In August 2017, Oklahoma state prisoners and the non-profit All In One Project filed a federal civil rights suit arguing political contributions made by private prison firms to state officials led to contracts with those companies that included a 98 percent occupancy rate at private prisons. The contracts allegedly caused Oklahoma to have a very low (10 percent) parole grant rate and unconstitutional conditions of confinement in its prisons, such as overcrowding and excessive levels of violence.

According to court documents, the All In One Project’s “membership consists of individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, including, among others, individuals serving life sentences, family members of these individuals, ‘lifers groups’ made up of individuals serving life sentences at various Oklahoma prisons, and individuals serving the parole terms equivalent to life sentences.”

The lawsuit accused Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, high-ranking government officials and legislative leaders of engaging in an “incarceration-for-profit scheme,” noting they received over $175,000 in campaign contributions from CoreCivic during the previous election cycle alone. The company was previously known as Corrections Corporation of America.

Those and similar donations by private prison firm GEO Group were allegedly in exchange for contracts guaranteeing a 98 percent occupancy rate at privately-run prisons, which led to overcrowding in Oklahoma’s prison system in order to maintain high occupancy rates.

Essentially, the lawsuit claimed that Governor Fallin and other government officials conspired to reduce the parole grant rate from around 40 percent to 10 percent to ensure high profits for the private prison companies that donated to their political campaigns. It argued that the resulting overcrowding, in turn, led to excessive violence that drove the homicide rate in Oklahoma prisons to three times the national average.

The suit also alleged that Fallin’s former General Counsel, Jennifer Chance, and her husband, defense attorney Derek Chance, ran a pay-for-parole scheme “whereby prisoners seeking parole paid Derek Chance $25,000 for three minutes of representation at a parole hearing.” Jennifer Chance resigned on March 8, 2017 after taking a leave of absence.

The complaint further alleged prisoners have been denied necessary medical care, such as dentures, tuberculosis monitoring and treatment, and direct-acting antiviral medications for hepatitis C infections. Presumably that was because so much money is paid to private prison firms that little is left for medical services. The plaintiffs requested class-action status, and the All In One Project asked the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.

The upshot of the complaint is that it accused Governor Fallin of allowing private prison companies to exercise undue influence over the state’s criminal justice policy. “She, along with other top legislators, have been incentivized by private prisons through campaign contributions and other gifts and, for that reason, she continues to lock up black and brown people and poor people. Then they close the doors and obstruct justice,” said Gwendolyn Fields, lead organizer for the All In One Project and one of the plaintiffs.

Despite the serious allegations raised in the suit, the district court dismissed the case without prejudice on December 27, 2017. The court held that joinder was not feasible, as at least seven of the named plaintiffs were incarcerated; that the All In One Project, as a non-profit, had to be represented by counsel, which it was not; and that Fields, a non-attorney, lacked standing to “represent another person or entity” and did not have standing to bring individual claims.

Therefore, due to the failure to follow procedural rules and standing requirements, the case was dismissed – though the individual prisoner plaintiffs could refile their claims in separate lawsuits. See: Simmons v. Fallin, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:17-cv-00908-SLP. 

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Related legal case

Simmons v. Fallin