Conditions are improving at a state prison where staff locked inmates in three-by-two and a half-foot shower stalls for days in mid-August, but one lawmaker who specializes in criminal justice issues said the incident warrants further accountability efforts.
State Rep. Justin Humphrey, a Republican from Lane who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said he plans to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would allow state elected officials to visit any state prison unannounced. Pennsylvania has a similar law that allows official visitors to enter any correctional institution during normal business hours. The deadline for lawmakers to introduce legislation ahead of the 2024 legislative session is Jan. 18 at 4 p.m.
Humphrey said he is also pushing state officials to launch an independent investigation into working and living conditions at the Great Plains Correctional Center, a former federal private prison in Hinton that the state opened in mid-May.
In late September, the Department of Corrections’ Office of the Inspector General finalized a report on allegations that prisoners were being confined in small shower stalls for up to nine days at a time with limited access to water, bedding and restroom breaks. The internal investigators confirmed that one prisoner was held for three days in a small shower stall while ruling other claims, including that prison supervisors reprimanded staff for working to improve conditions in the shower stall area, as inconclusive. Investigators noted in their report that cameras in the shower stall area were inoperable and record-keeping was spotty, making it difficult to determine how long some prisoners were held there.
“A real, indepedent investigation would show how these showers have been used and if it’s still going on,” Humphrey said.
Department of Corrections spokesperson Kay Thompson confirmed some Great Plains staff have been reprimanded but said the agency could not comment on the terms of the disciplinary action.
Great Plains staff told corrections department investigators in September they had stopped confining prisoners in shower stalls. They said they intended to hold prisoners in the shower stalls for no more than 30 minutes as they worked to find a more permanent cell placement, but widespread refusal among inmates to live in eight-man cells caused a logjam in the restricted housing unit.
Emily Shelton, founder of the Oklahoma prisoner advocacy group Hooked on Justice, said conditions at the prison have improved since the state began transitioning the facility to house more sex offenders several weeks ago. She said she supports the move because sex offenders are often targeted in general population units.
“The guys aren’t coming to me complaining nearly as much as they were,” said Shelton, whose husband and son are incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons.
U.S. prisoners face several hurdles to protesting their conditions in court, prison conditions expert Michela Bowman told Oklahoma Watch last month. To file a claim in federal court that their Eighth Amendment rights have been violated, incarcerated people must first exhaust all available administrative appeals.
“Forms of abuse are not so uncommon in a system that incarcerates so many people and where there is so little protection for the people inside who have lost all their rights,” said Bowman, who works as senior project advisor and vice president at Impact Justice, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. “There’s such a huge gap in the civil rights of the people who work in the facility and those who are incarcerated there.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 17 to clarify the exact size of the Hinton prison shower stalls.