Riot reveals Dangers of California’s relationship with CCA

A private-prison disaster in Oklahoma reveals the dangers of California’s reliance on Corrections Corporation of America

By Dave Maass | SD City Beat | March 14, 2012

At 11:37 a.m. on a Tuesday in October, a fight between two inmates started in the dining hall in a prison in western Oklahoma. Guards broke it up using pepper spray, and the situation returned to normal.

Or so they thought.

Minutes later, the dining hall erupted in all-out war with fists, kicks and food trays flying. Within 15 minutes, the entire facility was thrust into chaos as 600 inmates, mostly African-Americans and Hispanics associated with the Surenos prison gang, bloodied each other. Suddenly, one of the largest prison riots in California’s recent history was going down in a corrections facility a thousand miles outside the state.

Oklahoma news stations have struggled for months to obtain information about the riot at North Fork Correctional Facility. Meanwhile, California media have largely been unaware of the unrest at the facility operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which holds a $1.18-billion contract to house approximately 9,600 California inmates at four of its out-of-state prisons. After four months of negotiations with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) over public records, CityBeat obtained the first narrative report summarizing the incident. That narrative, combined with testimony from inmates, family members and experts, raises grave questions about the future of private contracting in the state’s efforts to reduce prison overcrowding.

The CDCR summary describes how corrections officers played a dangerous game of Whac-a-Mole as chemical agents and pepperball rounds proved ineffective. Just as they quelled one pocket of violence, another large skirmish would break out in another part of the complex. Small groups of inmates were left to fend for themselves against 100-member-strong mobs, barricading themselves in the kitchen and gated portions of the gym and recreation yard.

“We’re investigating every aspect of this incident and the response to it,” CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton says.

Bob Walsh, a retired CDCR lieutenant who writes about prison issues for several corrections blogs, identified many security failures in the report.

“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,” he writes in an email. “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.”

After seven hours, 57 inmates were injured. Eight inmates had to be flown out by helicopter. Four were hospitalized for several weeks. One was in a coma. As of February, 39 inmates were accused of attempted murder, 67 with battery or assault and 136 for participation in a riot. Not a single inmate has been formally charged in court yet.

Dennis Smith, the district attorney for Beckham County, Okla., whose jurisdiction includes the facility, says the rioters won’t be brought to justice anytime soon. His office has 10 employees, and he can spare only one assistant D.A. to prosecute the cases, and even that attorney can’t work on it full time. Smith, who describes the facility as a “warehouse for people,” says he received the 2,300-page report from CCA a month ago, and his staff is only a third of the way through analyzing it.

“I’m hesitant to say how long it will take,” he says. “They plop 2,300 pages on your desk and, let me say, it’s not pleasurable reading.”

As for CCA, they chalk up their response to the riot as a success.

“Safety and security is our top priority—for the public, our employees and the inmates entrusted to our care,” CCA spokesperson Steve Owen wrote via a two-paragraph email in lieu of an interview. “CCA resolved the incident with no threat to public safety and no injuries to staff…. We are proud to provide useful correctional solutions to California and look forward to meeting the State’s future needs.”

Amid massive overcrowding, CDCR began transferring inmates en masse to private prisons outside the state in 2008. CCA’s contract was extended in March 2011 by $499 million, bringing the total five-year contract to a maximum $1.18 billion. In addition to North Fork, CDCR sends inmates to two facilities in Arizona and one in Mississippi. Each receives a different per-diem fee per inmate; North Fork is the lowest, charging $61 per inmate per day. While general medical costs are included in CCA’s costs, any medical bill over $2,500—such as injuries sustained during riots—is billed to California taxpayers.

For CCA, it’s a lucrative business. The corporation reported $1.73 billion in revenues in 2011, a 3.7-percent increase over 2010, almost evenly split between federal and state contracts. Earlier this year, as the Huffington Post first reported, CCA embarked on a campaign to grow its state-based contracts by offering to buy prisons from corrections departments in 48 states in exchange for 20-year prison-management contracts. California turned down the offer.

However, June 2013 marks two important deadlines for CDCR. It’s the end of CCA’s current contract, but, also, CDCR must show that it reduced the population of its 33 prisons to within 137.5 percent of the facilities’ capacity to comply with a court order. Much of this has been accomplished through the so-called prison realignment, which has diverted many state inmates to local supervision. Recently, CDCR indicated it would like to bring some of its out-of-state inmates home.

CDCR “was never attempting this to be the solution to overcrowding,” Thornton says. “It was just basically to give us some breathing room while longer-term strategies could take effect.”

Ryan Sherman, director of research and analysis for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents public-prison guards, says he’s skeptical of CDCR’s plans, noting that CCA’s contract has been extended multiple times before. From the union’s perspective, CCA presents a major threat since it pays less—$14 per hour, according to its recruitment website—than California wages.

“We hire a much higher-quality individual that’s serious about it, that’s suited for working in corrections,” Sherman says. “It’s a career in California, but private companies don’t pay very well…. It’s ‘Welcome to Walmart’ one day, correctional officer the next.”

Sherman says the riot can be directly attributed to personnel who have little incentive to put themselves at risk. He also believes that poor training and understaffing, while perhaps profitable for CCA, may be the reason guards lost control of the facility.

This is one issue on which guards and wards agree. Inmates at North Fork have begun speaking out publicly about what they perceive as trading security for profit.

In a federal lawsuit filed in February, inmate Melvin Fisher alleged that he was seriously injured when guards failed to protect him and a small group of inmates who were in one of the gyms as the riot reached them.

“As I observed the Mexican inmates were coming back at us (African-American inmates) in attack mode, right then and there, I knew we were in trouble, so I told the brother that was beside me, ‘Come on, it’s time to go,’” Fisher writes. “We made our way—running to the door and me hitting the door with my face and breaking my nose. We noticed that Officer Johnson was holding the door with her foot, preventing us from getting out from under the attack. We started yelling through the door for her to let us out.”

After the riot, Fisher wrote multiple letters asking to be transferred back to California but was told by CDCR staff to direct his safety concerns to CCA.

Two other black inmates wrote letters to San Francisco Bay Viewa newspaper for African-Americans, particularly those behind bars, alleging that CCA was so under-staffed that nurses and trainees were given pepper spray to point at inmates.

“The odds were overwhelming, and the staff who are assigned to insure [sic] our safety and security were confused and lost,” inmate Marcus Dalton writes.

The three inmates also blame CCA for creating a volatile situation by concentrating violent Sureno gang members in the facility, a group that has long been at odds with African-American inmates. In court documents, Fisher estimates that blacks are outnumbered 5-to-1. Incident logs from the riot obtained by CityBeat support that claim; most of the inmates facing attempted murder chargers were affiliated with the Surenos.

“They both knew that by increasing the numbers of Sureno Mexicans would give [the Surenos] power over other inmates,” Fisher alleges of warden Fred Figueroa and his CDCR counterpart, Melissa Lea. “They both knew that it was an excessive risk of a riot happening. That information is known through the Department of Corrections in California and their contractors!”

A month after the riot, CityBeat was contacted by Charilyn Damigo, mother to Nathan Damigo, an Iraq War veteran we profiled in 2010 as he faced criminal charges for an armed robbery he committed while in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The North Fork facility, where Damigo is housed, was on lockdown and Charilyn was told that she and her husband would have to cancel a planned visit. To her, the visit was crucial to her son’s rehabilitation; it was set for the anniversary of the death of his best friend during combat.

Her son is among the lucky ones at CCA, since the Damigo family can afford the trip. Charilyn says that she budgets roughly $1,000 for two family members to visit for four days from California.

“The prison is in the middle of nowhere and is hard for anyone to get to, being almost two hours from either Oklahoma City or Amarillo,” she says. “Even once you get the flight, it’s really hard to get to. The town that it’s in [Sayre, Okla.] is a really small town. The main street has literally nothing of any significance there. A lot of the storefronts are closed or even boarded up.”

As nice as it is to see her son, even those sessions are grim. They eat Hot Pockets and frozen chimichangas purchased from a CCA snack machine while they attempt to play board games.

She’s thankful that she lost only $150 in airfare deposits when her November visit was cancelled. The emotional cost is more difficult to quantify.

“[We started] scouring all the video footage we could find online, trying to look at the faces,” she says. “It looked like there was more black and Hispanic involvement, so we kind of took comfort in that it probably wasn’t him. But, at the same time, we also knew that unless he had a serious injury, no one would contact us.”

After worrying for a week, she finally received a letter from her son that confirmed he wasn’t involved in the riot. But the ongoing lockdown at the facility raised major concerns for her child’s safety, she says. She understands there’s a tradeoff. If he was back in California, she could give him more support, but he does have certain privileges—such as access to a DVD player and X-box console—at the CCA that he wouldn’t have here.

“I have completely changed my attitude on a lot of things regarding prisons and our laws based on what we’ve been through,” Charilyn tells CityBeat. “I suppose that’s not unusual, but I was as conservative as you can be before this all came down.”

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