Human Rights Lawsuit Against Oklahoma Department of Corrections Moved to Federal Court

KOKH - May 23, 2024 6:07 am

There are new developments in the lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) and its leader alleging human rights violations.

The case has now been moved from Oklahoma district court to federal court.

We’re also hearing from a former prison guard who said some of the allegations are nothing new.

Inmates at the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton were locked in shower stalls for days and nights on end.

The inhumane and deplorable conditions are described in detail in a lawsuit filed by seven inmates.

Attorneys said it became routine for any inmate who spoke up about overcrowded and dangerous 8-man cells.

“They didn’t like people complaining,” said co-counsel Richard Labarthe. “So the solution was to lock them in this makeshift solitary confinement, 3 by 3 foot shower stalls.”

Labarthe and his co-counsel, Alexey Tarasov, will now make their case in federal court.

They call it a ‘very good development,’ considering this case involves civil rights violations.

“Specifically the confinement, the proximity to human waste, the absence of food and water,” said Tarasov. “These are just gross violations of human dignity.”

Former Oklahoma Department of Corrections employee Kenneth Buck reached out to FOX 25 after our first report on the lawsuit.

“I’m surprised this behavior still goes on,” said Buck.

He said he saw shower cells being used due to a lack of prison beds as far back as 1998, but it was another practice he took part in at Joseph Harp Correctional Center, called ‘dry holding,’ that still haunts him.

It started with stripping inmates down and doing a cavity search as punishment.

“No mattress, steal bunk, no pillow, no linen, no blanket, no toilet paper, no water,” said Buck “If you need a drink of water, tough,” Buck said he left ODOC in 2000 after rising to the rank of sergeant.

We asked Buck, “Was there anyone saying, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t be doing this’?”

“If you wanted to stay in good graces with management, you kept your mouth shut and went with the flow,” Buck said.

“We believe there are very deep and very concerning endemic problems with the DOC and how they’re doing business and how dangerous it’s becoming,” said Labarthe. “Not just for inmates but for corrections officers.”

Attorneys point to several recent violent incidents inside Oklahoma prisons, including what they describe as a ‘mini-riot’ in Lawton on May 10, that ended with 2 inmates dead and several others injured, including a corrections officer.

ODOC called it in a ‘group disturbance,’ not a riot, caused by human error.

“We are confident they are… not sure if they are cooking the books, but they are understating the ratios to make it appear it’s not as dangerous as it is,” said Labarthe.

Now that their lawsuit is in federal court, attorneys say the case could grow much much broader and reveal much bigger issues, all stemming from overcrowded and understaffed facilities made worse by institutional incompetence.

But their focus, now, remains on getting justice for the seven inmates who they said suffered significantly from inhumane conditions and making sure it can never happen again.

“The best possible outcome for our clients in this case is that they be compensated for the injuries they sustained,” said Tarasov.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s office is defending ODOC in this case.

They’ve filed a motion to dismiss, but attorneys for the plaintiffs tell FOX 25 they are confident this case will move forward.

Last October we asked ODOC Executive Director Steve Harpe about the allegations.

He called it a ‘challenge’ that they’ve since corrected and denied any human rights violations.


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