Lawton private prison staff members lose jobs in wake of inmate’s death

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Oklahoma prisoner advocate Emily Shelton awoke to her phone buzzing about 7 a.m. on Oct. 26.

Using state-issued tablets, prisoners told Shelton that a man on their unit had been beaten to death overnight with no staff intervention. Word spread on social media that morning and concerned family members began calling the facility urging them to investigate.

At approximately 10:20 a.m., several hours after inmates started messaging Shelton, prison personnel found Raymond Bailey dead at the bottom of a trash can, covered with empty milk cartons. A state medical examiner’s report indicates that a group of prisoners hogtied and gagged Bailey and proceeded to stab and beat him to death. The medical examiner, who found no evidence of intervention to save Bailey’s life, ruled the death a homicide.

Bailey, who was 44, was serving a 40-year sentence for second-degree murder out of Oklahoma County. He would have been eligible for parole in 2039.

Shelton, who runs the prisoner advocacy group Hooked on Justice, said a routine overnight cell check would have revealed that Bailey was missing from his cell and prompted an investigation. Improved oversight and surveillance could have prompted officials to respond and intervene in the assault, she said.

“During the nighttime, when the warden isn’t there, things aren’t being done properly,” Shelton said. “There’s no excuse why they did not find that body until 10:30 in the morning.”

The Department of Corrections requires facilities to conduct a minimum of five inmate counts throughout the day, including at least one overnight count, spokesperson Kay Thompson said. She said prisoners are required to raise their hand or otherwise indicate that they’re conscious during the count.

A spokesman for the GEO Group, the Florida-based private corrections company that the state pays to operate the facility, referred questions about the incident to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Thompson confirmed three prison staff members were terminated as part of an ongoing internal investigation into the murder, but said the agency cannot release more information about the firings until the investigation is complete. She said the Comanche County District Attorney’s Office has taken over a criminal investigation into Bailey’s death from the Department of Corrections with formal charges expected by March.

Bobby Cleveland, a former state lawmaker and executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professional, a group that advocates for state prison employees, said persistent understaffing raises the likelihood of violence behind bars. He said employees are sometimes expected to monitor more than 200 prisoners at a time.

Department of Corrections budget documents show the agency employed 1,301 state correctional officers as of Dec. 31, down from 1,501 in March 2021. Lawton prison staff are not included in this count, which reflects broader correctional staffing trends in the state.

“When you don’t have enough people, bad things are going to happen,” Cleveland said. “These inmates are dying because they can’t get around quick enough to save them.”

Violent incidents and allegations of staff misconduct have plagued the Lawton prison, which houses more than 2,500 medium and maximum security prisoners.

In early December, three staff members were hospitalized after a prisoner stabbed them with a homemade weapon. The injuries were non-life threatening, KSWO-TV reported at the time.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the GEO Group in November, Linda Gray claims staff willfully neglected her son Justin Barrientos’ medical emergency and caused his death in January 2023. While a Department of Corrections investigator recommended manslaughter charges, the Comanche County District Attorney’s office has yet to file formal charges in the case.

Oklahoma’s contract with the GEO Group to house state prisoners at the Lawton prison runs through July 31. The agreement gives the state the authority to purchase the facility and take over operations with at least 180 days’ notice.

Declines in Oklahoma’s prison population over the past five years have prompted state officials to vacate or take over multiple private prisons. The Department of Corrections took control of the 1,600-bed Allen Gamble Correctional Center, previously known as the Davis Correctional Facility, from CoreCivic on Oct. 1.

Similar to Lawton, complaints of excessive violence and mismanagement plagued the prison when it was privately controlled. Announcing the transition last August, Department of Corrections Director Stephen Harpe said the state could more efficiently and effectively care for the men under state control.

Shelton said she’s pleased the state is investigating the death and fired involved staff but fears similar incidents will continue as long as prisons remain understaffed.

“If something like this was able to happen, how much more is going on that they don’t even know about?” said Shelton, whose husband and son are incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons. “Or they just turn their head and don’t care. It’s one or the other.”

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

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