Beckham County Blues: Sayre Prison Riot Shines Light on Private Prison Industry


[This is Part 1 of an ongoing investigation into the private prison industry in Oklahoma.]

On October 11 of last year, the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre erupted in violence. Scenes of inmates scrambling out of the mess hall as tear gas poured through the door were broadcast on the evening news.

500 miles away in Southern California, families of inmates waited by the computer for information.

“I heard about the riot on the news.  We were all panicked because we received no news at all from North Fork.  We saw the injured men on the news and were all afraid it was our man.  We had no idea who was injured.  California Department of Corrections is notorious for not notifying families of injuries and we were so worried.” Mary P. said. (No family members of inmates agreed to allow me to use their names, for fear of retribution against their loved ones).

“We knew our man was okay only when we actually heard from him by letter.  Until their letters arrived, about ten days later, none of us knew anything at all.  The prison staff was not helpful in any way at all.  We posted on Prison Talk desperately trying to get news.”

The North Fork prison houses 2,400 inmates, all from California. California started moving their inmates into for-profit facilities located out of state in 2007, following an executive order from then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conditions in California prisons had become so overcrowded that the State Supreme Court ruled that they constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As a result of the relocation, inmates are isolated from family and friends hundreds of miles away, and the facility is often beyond the reach of instate oversight by the California Department of Corrections, who are still technically responsible and liable for inmates.

Sayre Main Street and Beckham County Courthouse. Public domain photo, no credit available.

Sayre is in some ways the quintessential Western Oklahoma town, complete with a pin neat main street and stately domed courthouse. Located along Route 66, Sayre is the county seat of Beckham County. The prison houses almost the same number of people as the entire town. Like many towns in Western Oklahoma, the town has struggled with population loss and dim employment prospects, so the arrival of a large new employer was hailed as a promising development for the area.  The North Fork prison is the largest employer in the city of Sayre, and a major contributor to the economy of far Western Oklahoma. Records show that the City of Sayre gave Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) over $300,000 as an incentive to draw the prison to the area.

The cause of the riot at the medium security private prison has still not been disclosed to the public, and charges have not been filed against any inmate. Sayre police complained to the Associate Press in December about the lack of cooperation from CCA, the Nashville based firm who owns and operates the prison.

“It’s coming close to the point where we would expect for them to turn it (the CCA investigation) over to us,” Sayre Police Chief Ronnie Harrold said. “At some point, if they want charges filed, they’ll have to turn it over to us.”

Initial reports suggested that the riot was over the quality of food in the mess hall, but sources close to the prison have said otherwise.

“It was a race riot.” said a source who wishes to remain anonymous. “These men are enemies, and without actual law enforcement, CCA cannot control them. They fight each other to the death…the food incident was a shoving match in the kitchen, which CCA did not contain.”

The riot resulted in the hospitalization of several inmates and the total lockdown of the facility. More than 20 inmates were injured and at least five were flown to area hospitals. Several sources said that one inmate was beaten with a microwave for over 80 minutes and is now brain dead, although upon further inquiry this could not be confirmed independently.

The facility has been on total lockdown on and off for the last 4 months.

“Lockdown is actually all they can do.  The guards carry only mace and are not law enforcement.  Many of them are elderly, female, and not physically fit.  They all carry little cans of mace around and are actually terrified of these dangerous men with blood feuds.  Who can blame them?” Mary P. said. “They just lock people in cages, because that is all they can do.”

*   *   *

Oklahoma has the third largest number of inmates in private prisons, and the most per capita. Texas and Florida are numbers one and two, respectively. These facilities are in Watonga, Sayre, Lawton and Cushing. All are operated by CCA with the exception of the Lawton facility, which is operated by the GEO Group.

Private prisons have been pointed to as a way for cash strapped states to save money, although the math does not always add up.

Dennis Cunningham, private prison administrator for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, presented comparative cost data for public and for-profit prisons in Oklahoma at the 4th Annual Privatizing Correctional Facilities Conference. The analysis showed that, in 1999, the average cost of housing an inmate in a publicly run prison in the state ($41.57 per day) was less than the cost of housing an inmate at any of the for-profit prisons in the state. Texas, on the other hand, has reported 10% savings in private facilities over publicly run prisons.

Also problematic is the issue of liability and compliance. A state can contract out its services, but it cannot contract out its liability. The state Department of Corrections is still ultimately responsible for inmates in private prisons.In marketing its services, a for-profit firm may claim that it will fully indemnify a government from liability, but that claim can be difficult to enforce. The District of Columbia had to sue CCA to force the company to purchase insurance that would fully protect the district.

The primary argument against prison privatization, however, is a moral one. Critics note that the introduction of market forces into the criminal justice system could have the effect of driving up incarceration rates, rather than driving them down. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Federation of Municipal, State, and County Employees have pointed to the lobbying efforts engaged in by the for-profit prison industry in favor of “tough on crime” legislation as an example.The question, (summarized by Randy Benson of the Libertarian think-tank The Cato Institute) is “Do we really want the production of prison services to be more “efficient”?

A widely reported story last year points to the profit motive inherent in privatization efforts. According to the CCA’s 2011 annual SEC filing report: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws…For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

Despite these concerns, the movement toward further privatization continues, with CCA leading the charge.

“Don’t forget, everything about NFCF is about the bottom line,” my anonymous source said, “everything.”

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  1. Pingback: In The Know: Overcrowding could lead to forced closure of DHS children’s shelter | OK Policy Blog

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