(Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include comments from a Department of Corrections official.)
An upset prison guard walked into Stephanie Avery’s housing unit.
Avery, a former Mabel Bassett Correctional Center inmate, says the officer pulled her mask below the chin, approached a group of women and shouted “I don’t care if you get sick.”
Weeks later, Avery and 112 other women housed at the prison tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-August. Though her symptoms were mild, Avery says a few women on her pod had trouble breathing and were hospitalized.
The outbreak meant limited commissary access and weeks locked down. Inmates ate small portions of beans and bologna for most meals during the lockdown.
“Some guards would sit there and talk down on us, and tell us if we hadn’t gotten caught and weren’t in prison we wouldn’t have to deal with this,” Avery said. “They said this is our fault and we deserve this.”
Jessica Brown, chief of strategic engagement for the corrections department, said there is no grievance record of Mabel Bassett guard approaching a group of women without a mask. She said the department aggressively seeks disciplinary action against staff who don’t follow the agency’s mask protocol.
Now seven weeks removed from prison, Avery has settled into a transitional home and found work at a Northeast Oklahoma City hair salon. She’s also connected with a community of former inmates and family members of prisoners who are fighting against poor conditions and staff misconduct inside state prisons.
In closed Facebook groups, some exceeding 1,000 members, family members of inmates discuss commissary access to gang tensions and staff failing to follow COVID-19 protocols. When group members started sharing reports of poor conditions at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft in early September, dozens decided to rally outside of the prison.
Three months later, one in four Oklahoma prisoners has tested positive for COVID-19 and 36 inmates have died. An outbreak of 216 active cases is ongoing at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena.
Though it’s difficult to contain the coronavirus in congregate living areas, Jonathon Smith says the actions of some corrections officers are contributing to the spread and putting inmates in danger. Smith, a retired Moore resident whose uncle and nephew are incarcerated, founded the advocacy group Oklahoma Prisons Accountability Committee earlier this year.
In one Oklahoma prison, 82% of inmates tested positive for COVID-19. One of them was Robert Lavern.
“If their shift supervisor isn’t there, they’re going to do what they want to do and not wear the mask,” he said. “We’ve actually heard of cases where the guards want the inmates to have the COVID, because then they get an extra $2 an hour.”
Last month, Smith and Emily Barnes, co-founder of the group Ignite Justice, came up with an idea they felt could spark change: Organize a protest outside of the Department of Corrections headquarters. The duo settled on a Dec. 11 date and began advertising the rally on Facebook.
Though groups like OK Cure, a nonprofit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, used to organize protests outside of state prisons, Smith said the grassroots movement of inmate family members fighting for better prison conditions is something unprecedented and capable of causing change.
“You can’t tell me that if each inmate doesn’t have five family members at the protest, we don’t have the numbers,” he said.
Advocates say the main obstacle to getting those numbers is convincing family members of inmates that it’s safe to speak out and protest.
“They’re afraid if they say something bad or their husbands say anything bad, they’re going to get in trouble for it,” said Beverly Funkhouser, a 61-year-old Purcell resident whose husband Dennis is incarcerated. “It used to work that way. If you said something bad your retaliation wouldn’t be good.”
Inmate family members who spoke with Oklahoma Watch say guards can retaliate against prisoners by pursuing arbitrary disciplinary action. Such punishment may result in lost privileges, delayed release dates or solitary confinement. Inmates can file a grievance, but the process often takes several weeks and isn’t always effective.
Before speaking with the media, Barnes said she always informs her son, an inmate at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville, so he can prepare for possible retaliation. Nothing has happened to him over the past three years, but Barnes says she’s prepared to fight any disciplinary action tied back to her advocacy work.
“When they see you’re not scared of them and you’re not going to back down, they’re not going to do anything,” Barnes said.
Michael Washington, an Oklahoma City paralegal and justice reform advocate, was incarcerated for a nonviolent crime in the 1970s. He now assists state prisoners in filing legal paperwork.
The best defense to staff retaliation, Washington says, is increased accountability. He said he plans to organize a committee of inmate family members who discuss conditions at state prisons and pursue legal action on behalf of prisoners treated unfairly.
“They’ll be less likely to bother or harass a person inside because they know that person has some people outside who can investigate,” Washington said.
About 25 protesters arrived at Friday’s rally with a list of immediate and long-term demands.
They want higher quality food in larger portions, every guard to follow COVID-19 protocols and deep cleaning of facilities where black mold is rampant. With in-person visitation indefinitely suspended due to the pandemic, they want the corrections department to authorize video calls at all facilities.
“They need to stop feeding our people slop,” said protester Rhyssa Riley, whose son is incarcerated at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy. “They’re supposed to get 2,000 calories per day, and they’re getting like 700. If their family isn’t sending in money, then they’re just stuck.”
Brown disputes the claim that food quality and portions have declined during the pandemic, saying all meals are approved by a dietician and inmates receive a minimum of 3,000 calories per day.
The corrections department has the ability to improve food quality, cleanliness and visitation options. Other actions, like a mass release of inmates to relieve overcrowding and allow for better social distancing, would have to come through the legislature or governor’s office.
Advocates and officials say a 25% reduction in the jail’s population would alleviate staffing concerns and improve conditions. Here’s a look at how that could happen.
After dropping considerably from March through July, Oklahoma’s prison population has trended up since August as the corrections department has accepted more county jail transfers. Corrections department data shows the state’s 28 private and public prisons are at 85% occupancy.
“Oklahoma criminal law is written very aggressively and strictly to prevent the Department of Corrections from releasing inmates before their sentences are over,” spokesman Justin Wolf told The Frontier in September.
Inmates seeking early release must apply for commutation or medical parole through the Pardon and Parole Board.
During commutation hearings, the board may only consider if an inmate received a harsh or unjust sentence, not if they face a high risk of complications from COVID-19. Medical parole eligibility is limited to inmates with serious medical conditions or those “dying or near death”. Since March, the board has granted medical parole to just 12 inmates.
In a Sept. 22 press conference, Gov. Kevin Stitt said the Pardon and Parole Board would consider releasing inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses with less than six months remaining on their sentence. Nearly three months later, the board has not authorized a special commutation or release of these inmates.
Washington, the Oklahoma City paralegal, said inmate family members have to start putting pressure on state lawmakers to immediately take action to reduce the prison population.
“I want to put up policies before our legislators,” he said. “Let’s march to the Capitol and not just march, but let’s sit down in their offices and talk about things.”
State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, chairs the House Public Safety Committee tasked with overseeing the corrections department. Prior to seeking public office, Humphrey worked for the corrections departments in various roles for 20 years.
Though understaffed prisons have faced operational challenges throughout the pandemic, Humphrey says he hasn’t heard of widespread problems in the state’s corrections system. When protesters gathered outside of Eddie Warrior in early September, he said he met with inmate family members and ensured that the women were receiving adequate food, water and medical care.
With the start of the 2021 legislative session just seven weeks away, Humphrey said he’s again willing to engage with inmate family members and consider legislation that would help reduce the state’s prison population.
“If there is an issue, I can’t promise that I can do anything, but I can promise I’ll look into it,” he said. “And I can promise I have a great line to the Department of Corrections.”
In addition to reducing the prison population, protesters said they would like to see the legislature take action to reduce instances of staff misconduct. Avery, the former Mabel Bassett inmate, said the implementation of body cameras would immediately change how some officers behave.
“Unless things are seen from that point of view, nothing’s going to change,” she said.
While 10,500 police departments nationwide require their officers to wear body cameras, the technology has not caught on in most of the nation’s jails and prisons. Corrections officials in other states have raised concerns that the cameras could invade the privacy of inmates.
Humphrey believes guards would be open to wearing a body camera, as it could deter inmates from conducting illicit activity or physically harming an officer. But it would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide every corrections officer with the devices.
“Anything extra like body cameras is probably not going to be a conversation we’re having this year,” he said.
Dressed in orange and black, protesters at Friday’s rally moved from the Department of Corrections parking lot to a grassy area along Martin Luther King Avenue.
Washington, who was interrupted at times by honking cars, urged protesters to start putting pressure on state lawmakers and the corrections department to release more inmates and improve conditions.
“We have the numbers, we have the intellect, and we have the opportunity,” he said. “So what’s stopping us?”
Kalyn Doctorman, a 22-year-old from Mustang whose uncle is incarcerated, held an “inmates can’t distance” sign above her head.
Doctorman said the greatest challenge to improving Oklahoma’s prison conditions is getting enough people to pay attention and care about what’s going on. Friday’s rally was a step towards that goal, Doctorman said.
“I do believe that there can be change,” she said.
(Correction: Stephanie Avery lived in dormitory-style housing in August, not a cell.)
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
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