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Oklahoma prisoners confined to shower stalls sue corrections department

The GEO Great Plains Correctional Facility is considered a minimum-security prison with a total of 1,900 beds. The prison has housed prisoners from states like Oklahoma, California and Arizona.
Lionel Ramos
Oklahoma Watch
The GEO Great Plains Correctional Facility is considered a minimum-security prison with a total of 1,900 beds. The prison has housed prisoners from states like Oklahoma, California and Arizona.

Seven state prisoners who were locked in three-by-three foot shower stalls at the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton last August are suing the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, alleging their prolonged confinement in cramped and unsanitary conditions amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Attorneys Richard Labarthe and Alexey Tarasov filed the lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court on April 9. A hearing date on the matter is pending.

Great Plains administrative staff and Corrections Department Director Steven Harpe are named as defendants in the litigation that seeks a declaratory judgment that the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights were violated and an injunction to prevent future violations. The prisoners are also asking for a monetary judgment against Harpe and the Great Plains officials in their personal capacity.

The prisoners allege staff were willfully negligent of their well-being as they forced them into shower stalls covered with human feces. Daniel Salazar claims he was confined to one of the shower stalls for four days and removed only after attempting to hang himself with a t-shirt. Robert D. Johnson stated he was denied access to restrooms and relied on other inmates for necessities like drinking cups.

The conditions caused prisoners severe emotional distress, mental anguish and physical discomfort, the lawsuit states.

“The comprehensive documentation and investigation into these practices at GPCC reveal a pattern of neglect and abuse, indicative of a broader institutional failure to uphold basic human rights standards in inmate treatment,” the lawsuit reads.

Labarthe did not return a phone message left Wednesday seeking comment. Corrections department spokesperson Kay Thompson declined to comment, saying the agency would not discuss pending litigation. She said the attorney general’s office will represent corrections department personnel in the matter.

In September and early October, several prisoners told Oklahoma Watch they were locked inside the shower stalls after refusing housing assignments in eight-man cells. The inmates did not want to be housed in the eight-man cells because they feared gang violence would erupt in the cramped quarters, the prisoners said during brief phone interviews.

Inmate James Shelton said prisoners thought they would be in the shower stalls for 30 minutes to an hour as staff worked to find a solitary cell placement, but in some instances were left in the small space with limited access to basic necessities for more than 24 hours.

Two state correctional officers assigned to alleviate staffing shortages at the facility claim Great Plains officials intentionally placed prisoners in the shower stalls as a punitive measure and publicly chastised staff members who attempted to improve conditions. An internal agency investigation confirmed that prisoners were held in the shower stalls for several hours but was unable to confirm some of the officers’ claims conclusively.

“We were informed that the inmates in the shower cells get nothing,” one of the officers wrote in an incident report obtained by Oklahoma Watch. “No cups, no blankets, no extra clothes and no bathroom breaks. He stated that they are in the shower stalls for disciplinary reasons and can be there for weeks and it is to make them not want to be there anymore.”

Thompson told Oklahoma Watch in November that staff were disciplined following the agency’s investigation but declined to elaborate. She said the facility no longer confines prisoners to the shower stalls in any circumstance.

Emily Barnes, founder of the Oklahoma prisoner advocacy group Hooked on Justice, said she’s optimistic the lawsuit will spur better conditions in state prisons.

“I’m glad something is finally being done for these men and women whose rights are being violated,” Barnes said. “DOC needs to be held accountable for letting this stuff go on inside their prisons.”

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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