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Oklahoma prison held inmates in shower stalls for days

The Great Plains Correctional Center.
Lionel Ramos
Oklahoma Watch
The Great Plains Correctional Center.

James Shelton thought he’d be placed in a solitary cell when he was sent to the restricted housing unit at the Great Plains Correctional Center in Hinton.

Instead, prison staff locked him in a two-by-two-foot shower stall.

Shelton says he spent at least 24 hours confined in the shower stall, where there was little space to lie or sit down comfortably. The 41-year-old prisoner, serving a 30-year sentence for armed robbery, claims he was never let out to use the restroom.

“It’s disorganized,” Shelton said during a brief phone interview, referencing other issues such as meals arriving late. “Things are slowly getting better but they’ve got a lot of work to do.”

State personnel at Great Plains confined several prisoners in two-by-two-foot shower stalls for days with limited access to basic necessities, two correctional officers allege in an incident report obtained by Oklahoma Watch. An internal agency investigation confirmed that prisoners were in fact held in the shower stalls for several hours but ruled some of the officers’ claims as inclusive.

The officers, dispatched from the John Lilley Correctional Center in Boley to alleviate staffing shortages at Great Plains, worked the night shift in the restricted housing unit on Aug. 14 and 15. Oklahoma Watch is not naming the employees due to concerns of workplace retaliation.

The officers reported that inmates confined in the shower stalls complained of not receiving restroom breaks, water or mattress pads. One prisoner told the officers that he had not been let out of the shower stall for three consecutive days. Another said he was suicidal so he could be let out of the stall he had been in for four days. Inmates who had been in the showers for an extended period were defecating and urinating into cups and trash bags, the report said.

The officers said they worked to let prisoners out for restroom breaks and distribute water and bedding during the Aug. 14 night shift. One wrote that he was concerned he’d be held legally liable if he didn’t try to improve conditions.

During a pre-shift briefing on Aug. 15, the officers reported that a day shift lieutenant chastised them for taking prisoners out of the shower stalls.

“We were informed that the inmates in the shower cells get nothing,” one of the officers wrote. “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.”

About 10 p.m. on Aug. 15, the officers allege the facility’s chief of security dismissed their concerns over the conditions inside the restricted housing unit. They called a supervisor at John Lilley and stated they were no longer comfortable working at Great Plains due to a hostile work environment. Great Plains personnel relieved them of duty just after midnight on Aug. 16.

An employee misconduct investigation conducted by the Department of Corrections’ Office of the Inspector General found that prisoners were held in the shower stalls for up to three days as alleged. Prison staff told investigators that no inmate was held in a shower stall for more than 24 hours without being offered an alternative cell placement.

Investigators interviewed several prisoners who confirmed that they were kept in the stall for several hours without being offered a restroom break. Some of the prisoners interviewed said they received a styrofoam cup for water while others did not.

Investigators were unable to reach a conclusion on claims that prison officials ordered staff not to give prisoners restroom breaks and that inmates were being held in the shower stalls as punishment. A log of prisoners confined in the showers was not available and video footage inside the area was grainy and not reliable for determining who was held in a shower stall and for how long, investigators reported.

Several prison staff members, whose names are redacted in the report, told investigators that they were overwhelmed with prisoners refusing housing in general population units because they did not want to live in eight-man cells. They said the intent was to keep prisoners in the shower stalls for no more than 30 minutes as they worked to place them in a solitary cell, but backlogs and overcrowding in the restricted housing unit caused extended delays. Staff said some prisoners believed they would be transferred to another facility if they refused housing at Great Plains.

Investigators found that the number of prisoners housed in the shower stalls reached as high as 17. Prison staff said they restricted inmate personal items in the showers to prevent suicide and self-harm attempts.

The conditions inside the shower stalls appear to violate Oklahoma Department of Corrections policy, which states that inmates are entitled to a mattress, pillow, bedding and sleeping surface at least 12 inches above the ground. The policy also states prisoners should have access to bathroom facilities and water at all times.

Bobby Cleveland, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said he’s heard from several officers concerned about prisoners being confined in the shower stalls for an extended period. He said he appreciates the Inspector General’s investigation but would like to see an independent examination into conditions at the facility.

“We want to rehabilitate them,” Cleveland said. “It’s not the prison’s job to make that punishment overwhelming.”

Michela Bowman is the senior project advisor and vice president at Impact Justice, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform and better prison conditions in the United States. She said it’s very difficult but not impossible for prisoners to claim that their rights have been violated under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 requires inmates to exhaust administrative appeals before they may file a complaint in federal court.

While many U.S. prison systems voluntarily comply with American Correctional Association standards or fund inspector general units, Bowman said independent oversight of prison conditions is often lax compared to several European nations.

“We do not have the safeguards in place in this country that many other countries do to be able to report and ensure that abuse doesn’t happen,” Bowman said.

Great Plains personnel have stopped confining prisoners in shower stalls, according to the Inspector General’s report. Investigators determined the prison violated the agency’s record-keeping policy for inmates sent to restricted housing units but did not cite the facility for conditions inside the shower stalls.

Oklahoma began transferring prisoners to Great Plains on May 10, clearing the way for the state to vacate the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre. Corrections department director Steven Harpe said the transition would allow the state to better connect prisoners with resources and programming and attract more staff. Hinton is just south of Interstate 40 about 55 miles west of downtown Oklahoma City. Great Plains, which previously housed federal prisoners, temporarily closed in May 2021 after President Joe Biden issued an executive order barring the federal government from extending contracts with private prison companies. The prison housed state prisoners from 1991 through 2007, when cost concerns and a successful escape prompted the state to cut ties with the facility.